People make mistakes. They commit crimes. Sometimes they pull their erect dick out and start masturbating in front of female colleagues. Louis C.K. recently performed for the first time since confirming he did exactly that to a number of women over a period of years. Was his return to the stage, as they say in comedy, “too soon?” Outside of legal recourse, how do we deal with perpetrators of sexual misdeeds, abuse, harassment, and assault in the long haul?
As the news of his return broke, I could almost hear women across the country face-palming themselves over the fact that he appeared unannounced and unexpectedly in front of an unsuspecting audience who had not given their consent. Social media became a biopsy of the strange cultural crossroads the #MeToo stories have brought us to. But this time there was more of a split across gender lines. The backlash about Louis’ comeback were mostly female voices. The support for him, feeling he’d already paid a fair price, were mostly male voices.
Comedian Michael Ian Black tweeted a message addressing the friction to his almost two million followers:
"The #MeToo movement is incredibly powerful and important and vital. One next step, among many steps, has to be figuring out a way for the men who are caught up in it to find redemption.”
The #metoo movement is incredibly powerful and important and vital. One next step, among many steps, has to be figuring out a way for the men who are caught up in it to find redemption.
— Michael Ian Black (@michaelianblack) August 28, 2018
It’s significant that the “men who are caught up in it” are the perpetrators of abuse, assault, and harassment. Women do not need to roll up their sleeves and get to work creating a framework for offenders to return to society. It is not up to us to give them a way back in. There is no one stopping the creative powerhouse that is Louis C.K. from trailblazing a pathway to redemption. He is not owed a situation to be created for him.
#MeToo is called a movement for a reason. Like all social change, it is messy and hard. Movements are historically led by those the injustice or oppression impacts most. Like many women in America, I can raise my hand to qualify as a member of the #MeToo movement multiple times.
Maybe it doesn’t seem like that big of a deal, someone displaying their junk. Maybe it even seems funny – certainly not hurtful like real sexual abuse. No one’s touching you, after all. But when a man you know, trust, and respect pulls their erect dick out of their pants and starts masturbating in front of you out of nowhere, especially if that man is in a position of power, it can be life-changing. I didn’t realize someone pulling their dick out could be so impactful until it happened to me.
I’d just moved to New York and was staying with a loved and trusted relative in his Upper West Side apartment until I landed a job and a place of my own. One night he came in and stood over the air mattress I was staying on, and started masturbating. And talking about masturbating. I froze. It continued. I wondered what might happen next. Was it going to escalate? I got the impression that my discomfort was part of what he enjoyed. That’s not about sex. That’s about power.
I had nowhere to go and he knew it. Powerless. Vulnerable. Confused. I didn’t know what to say or do. I was shocked. The next day he acted like nothing happened. So I packed up and began couch surfing until I found a job and apartment of my own. But there weren’t always couches to crash on. It wasn’t easy to explain my predicament to friends and colleagues, and no one in my family believed me when I asked for help. I was homeless because someone pulled their dick out.
When I read the New York Times story that forced Louis C.K.’s confession, I recognized the name of one of the women who came forward: Abby Schachner. I had seen her one-woman show a few years back and met her afterwards. She was brilliant, wicked smart and hilarious. I immediately wrote a glowing review of her show and told everyone I could to see it. I friended her on Facebook. I remember thinking she should have her own TV show. She was that good.
As the Louis C.K. story unraveled in the news and through Abby’s Facebook posts, I learned that she chose to abandon her pursuit of a comedy career after her encounter with him, determining she wouldn’t be taken seriously as a female comedian. I was enraged. While others were bemoaning the loss of Louis C.K. in their living rooms, I thought what a complete and utter loss it was for all of us that Abby Schachner’s career path was altered. Because someone pulled their dick out.
Louis C.K. wielded great power in the comedy business, and that is why it matters if, how, and when he comes back, but most importantly it matters if he demonstrates that he comprehends his impact on these women, the damage that he caused, and has taken steps to change – not just slinked away for a few months. It’s #TimesUp not #TimeOut. Louis C.K. exposing himself is not just a live version of a dick pic (another thing nobody wants). It’s about control, and how it impacts the people he chooses to target. In his case, female colleagues.
Louis C.K.’s unannounced performance echoed his misdeeds; forcing something on an unprepared public. What’s glaringly lacking in both situations is consent. He controls what’s going on. His terms. No consideration of potential damage. Deal with it.
You can forgive someone for doing something without giving them to the opportunity to do it again. That’s what setting boundaries is. And in my opinion, Louis C.K. did not respect the boundary that existed in those moments with various women, and he blew right through the boundary society had imposed on him by barging into a comedy club and giving the audience no choice. But Michael Ian Black’s tweets were asking us to consider what that boundary really was.
“My empathy isn't for Louis. It's for the recognition that we're in a cultural moment in which some men who do terrible things have no pathway for redemption. That lack of a pathway creates a situation in which we are casting people out but not giving them a way back in.”
My empathy isn't for Louis. It's for the recognition that we're in a cultural moment in which some men who do terrible things have no pathway for redemption. That lack of a pathway creates a situation in which we are casting people out but not giving them a way back in. 1/2 https://t.co/9o4U8TfniW
— Michael Ian Black (@michaelianblack) August 28, 2018
Though finding a pathway for the redemption of “some men” is not our burden or responsibility, that doesn’t mean I don’t have some ideas. It’s complex and tangled.
The seemingly unforgivable are sometimes redeemed and rehabilitated. Sometimes. It depends. That’s why there are parole boards, for instance. Time itself does not guarantee change. As a former addict, I understand mistakes, misdeeds, hiding it, lying about it, getting caught, having consequences, and then seeking resolution through making amends.
In AA there is something called a “living amends.” The idea is that, though you can’t repair the specific damage you caused, you can demonstrate your understanding of the impact you had and do something related that makes a positive difference – volunteering at a domestic violence shelter for example, donating money to women’s advocacy groups, or changing the choices you made that got you into trouble in the first place. It doesn’t fix the original problem, but it is experiential and gives them empathetic perspective. It also demonstrates the person is actively seeking to change, and that’s something people need to witness before they give you the car keys back.
So what’s the litmus test? If this was about racist behavior instead of sexist behavior, would it be enough if they promised to stop being racist and not do it again? I think the pathway for redemption, or at least the template for it, already exists: former KKK members who put that life behind them and are committed to transforming others. Former gang members do it. Former drug addicts. The onus of demonstrating true reflection, empathy, change, and humility is on the perpetrator.
I know someone who killed someone in a drunk driving accident. She cannot resuscitate the victim or directly take away the pain she caused. But to this day, she is dedicated to helping other alcoholics get sober, not only through telling her story, but in time spent working with alcoholics one on one. My life is an example of one she changed.
There’s a reason that someone telling a roomful of people they killed someone drunk driving is more impactful than a PSA, your mom, or law enforcement telling you not to drink and drive. We could really use Louis C.K.’s voice right now. Given the destructive and dangerous impact of toxic masculinity and entitled sexual predation on our society, it would be really great, for example, to see Louis C.K. begin an awareness project where he shared openly about the problem from the perspective of someone who helped create the problem.
Like my friend who killed someone drunk driving, the people that might listen to him are the ones who might not otherwise be reached. Instead of preaching to the converted, he might actually be able to disarm men with that mindset enough that they would take a look at their own biases, behavior, history, and beliefs, and, like I did after hearing my friend’s story, they might be able to make lasting change. Real change. Change that could eventually reach enough men that it could turn the tide – like the flutter of a butterfly wing becomes a tornado.
Instead of appearing at an unannounced show telling jokes, meekly trying to garner support by “starting small,” what if he leveraged the same power, talent, and connections that he used to silence and discredit his accusers and applied it to the problem of toxic masculinity in America? I think you would be surprised how quickly allies, male and female, would be supportive of him.
Nobody wants to see the sexual predator version of a racist caught on video later decrying their behavior and begging for their job back. But I think people would be more willing to open the gate for Louis C.K. and other men who got called out if they demonstrated any kind of enlightenment about their behavior. It’s a generalization, but in the same way men tend look to their partners to fix relationships when they are the ones who screwed up, they shouldn’t depend on some lady on Twitter to learn the right way to return to society after pulling their dick out and masturbating in front of someone. They need to man up and come to the realization and solution themselves. They need to act on it.
Instead of just measuring redemption by time spent on the stool of shame, common ground can be found if men recognize their damaging behavior, admit it plainly and clearly without caveat, and take sincere steps to make amends – and not just so they can resume their careers. We will be here, I will be here if anyone wants to ask what they can do. But what would be even better, what would be really, really great, is if men figured out how to solve this for themselves. That is the only kind of surprise we’d really like to see.
Top image: CC0 Public Domain/pxhere
Other images: Maureen Herman