What are you supposed to do when a man exposes himself on the subway? Yell at him? Tell him to leave you alone? Because whatever it is, it is exactly what we need to do to Louis CK.
After finally admitting last November to multiple acts of exposing himself and masturbating in front of female comedians, Louis CK sidled onstage at the Comedy Cellar in New York last week for a 15 minute set.
Reading about his return to the stage was all the more shocking because Louis CK made no statement about his time out of the spotlight. Nothing about whether he had reached out to the women he exposed himself to and apologized. Or offered them professional support of any kind. Or donated to organizations like Times Up that offer support to women who have been sexually harassed. All of which would have indicated remorse and reflection.
Nor did he make a statement about his planned return to performing. He just walked onstage and did what he wanted. Many of the women in the audience that night say they were stunned. They froze in their seats.
In his statement from last fall, Louis CK wrote, “I never showed a woman my dick without asking first.” When he returned to the stage last week, he didn’t even ask.
It hasn’t even been a year since #MeToo brought new levels of awareness and accountability to the old problem of sexual abuse. We have truly just begun to reckon with the harm that serial sexual predators do to women’s lives. But now some of those same men want to wrest focus from a public conversation about sexism and abuse of power and put the attention back on themselves. Men like Louis CK, Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose are not only threatening, but staging “comebacks.” Unlike Harvey Weinstein who has been charged with rape and Larry Nassar who was convicted of sexually abusing women athletes at Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics, many of the men clamoring to regain the very power they abused have faced no legal consequences whatsoever.
When he returned to the stage last week, he didn’t even ask.
Lest we forget, television host Charlie Rose made unwanted sexual advances toward eight women who went on the record. More specifically, Rose made lewd phone calls, walked around naked in their presence, or groped their breasts, buttocks or genital areas. As the Washington Post reported, “The women were employees or aspired to work for Rose at the ‘Charlie Rose show from the late 1990s to as recently as 2011.”
Matt Lauer had a hidden button installed under his desk so that he could lock his office door. According to one NBC female employee, he invited her to this secluded office and showed her his penis. Lauer also made lewd sexual remarks about female colleagues and he gave another female colleague a sex toy with "an explicit note about how he wanted to use it on her."
Louis CK invited women comedians who respected him to hang out with him after comedy sets and then exposed himself and masturbated in front of them.
All of these acts occurred in the women’s workplaces. When confronted, all the men denied their behavior. In abusing their power over women and in denying the allegations, they stalled, derailed or wrecked women’s careers. Now they want to turn the page on their own accountability. They don’t really want to come back, they want to creep back.
A comeback suggests something honorable. Like preparing for a return to a competition after a sidelining injury. Or taking stock after a political defeat, retooling and trying again.
Mistaking a work break for actual jail, comedian Michael Ian Black regrettably tweeted that Louis CK had served his time. This is the sort of incoherent thinking that characterizes rape culture. In rape culture, any curbing of the predatory actions of men is seen as “too much” restriction of their freedom. Just as any attention to women’s dignity, safety and equality is seen as a threat to that freedom. Those seeking a creep back are lurking at the edges of public consciousness, waiting to see if this #MeToo business will last, metaphorically unzipping.
Matt Lauer boasts that we’ll see him on television again. Charlie Rose may he be developing a show about sexual harassers to force on us. But Louis CK just walked onstage. He did not allow audience members to decide if they wanted to see that again. The only lesson he seems to have learned is that it’s better not to ask.
Right now, many men abruptly relieved of vast power and popularity after years and sometimes decades of abusing women are wondering if we will let them have it all back. They’re rested, ready and … completely unrepentant. They are not accustomed to taking no for an answer. Our question as a culture is whether we have learned to value the women whose lives and careers those men harmed.