Commentary  How Long is Enough?

The comebacks of abusers in the age of #MeToo

Last week, less than a year after being accused of sexual misconduct, Louis C.K. quietly made a comeback at the Comedy Cellar in New York. He performed a fittingly unannounced 15-minute set that, according to a New York Times article on his performance, included “racism, waitresses’ tips, parades” and even, boldly, rape whistle jokes. Surprisingly, no mention of how he exposed himself to women without their consent for years.

Following decades of denial, Louis C.K. finally admitted to masturbating in front of women in November of 2017. In a carefully-crafted statement, he said, “I have spent my long and lucky career talking and saying anything I want, I will now step back and take a long time to listen.” And now, he’s decided that he’s heard everything he needed to hear. He took a break, living comfortably as a millionaire in the shadows for a “long time”, and now he’s come back. Is nine months outside the public eye comparable to years of masturbating in front of women and the destruction of their careers? Apparently so.

Is nine months outside the public eye comparable to years of masturbating in front of women and the destruction of their careers? Apparently so.

Other celebrities accused of sexual misconduct during the height of the #MeToo movement are also plotting their comebacks. After being accused of sexual harassment and groping multiple coworkers, television journalist Charlie Rose was profiled in a piece published by the Hollywood Reporter. Part of the headline read “Broken, Brilliant, and Lonely.” The article focused on Rose’s life following sexual harassment claims, as opposed to, say, his victims’ lives after sexual harassment. It raised the question of how Rose will “earn back his good name” – as though he was undeserving of its tarnishing in the first place. It also reported he is interested in hosting an “atonement” TV series in which he would interview other men accused of sexual misconduct. The New York Times reported that celebrity chef Mario Batali is looking into ways he can “step back into his career” after he was accused of sexual misconduct by several women. Aziz Ansari is quietly making his way back onto the stand-up circuit. The list goes on. With predators slowly creeping their way back into the limelight, the question of whether they deserve to be there has been risen and most people wonder: have they put their career on hold for long enough? That’s asking the wrong question.

“How long is enough?” is a question that places the abusers at its centre, one that privileges their narratives over the trauma of their victims. It is asking us to empathize with them for potentially losing their careers (which has yet to happen), instead of focusing on the people whose lives were damaged by those who abused them. It removes what survivors need to heal from the conversation. Instead of running profile pieces on “disgraced” celebrities, we should be raising the voices of the people who have been hurt by them. They are the ones who deserve a platform. The conversation in the wake of #MeToo should not be on how to shield abusers from facing consequences, but on how to protect victims and prevent further abuse. We should not be talking of “comebacks” as though perpetrators of sexual violence were underdogs unfairly being victimized. No one is owed celebrity status, especially when it is that very position of power that enabled them to commit abuse.

The conversation in the wake of #MeToo should not be on how to shield abusers from facing consequences, but on how to protect victims and prevent further abuse.

What we should be asking instead of, “have they been away long enough?” is, “have they done enough?” Enough to fight the culture that their actions perpetuated, enough to help their victims heal, enough to help mend the careers they have damaged through their actions. Have they donated money to organizations that help victims of abuse? Worked to change their behaviour and create safe spaces? Boosted the careers of women in their industry?

During Louis C.K’s nine months away from the spotlight, he did not do enough. Simply admitting you committed a crime is not absolution; especially when you have spent years silencing the women who accused you. By imposing his presence on an unsuspecting audience at the Comedy Cellar, with no concern for who might be affected, Louis C.K. only showed that he has learnt nothing. He made a joke about rape whistles, as if he wasn’t part of that very conversation. All he has done is wait for the negative attention surrounding him to fade. He is a sexual predator and an abuser and deserves nothing for it. By allowing perpetrators to return to the very spaces they committed crimes in, without having made any effort to change, we are putting people at risk. We are saying that these men’s careers are more valuable than the people they harm.

By allowing perpetrators to return to the very spaces they committed crimes in, without having made any effort to change, we are putting people at risk

When we allow men accused of sexual misconduct to come back on the scene after a few short months, what we are saying is that their actions aren’t “that bad.” The standard to which we hold these men is biased. One can spend decades harassing women, but if they didn’t rape them, they are considered worthy of a second chance by the public. If you’re Charlie Rose, you can even turn your harassment of others into a form of profit. This reality is reflected in the conversation surrounding these cases. When democratic Senator Al Franken was accused of groping and forcibly kissing women, many argued that his behaviour should not end his political career. It was believed that he mustn’t be lumped together with Roy Moore, who committed sexual acts with teenage girls. “At most, Franken, who announced Thursday he is resigning, is guilty of boorish behavior,” wrote Ginger Rutland. Groping and forcibly kissing women, she argued, is “not assault, not pedophilia, not even sexual harassment.” What we hear, over and over again, is that only certain acts deserve punishment. But we should not get to pick and choose who is worth condemning, and a timeout isn’t enough to exonerate anyone. Many of these celebrities have yet to be convicted of any crimes, and probably never will be. Thus, the “time” they serve is up to public opinion and allows for a looser sentencing. For most people , no punishment at all is punishment enough. Their victims will never receive any real legal justice. If there is a way in which redemption is possible for those who commited sexual misconduct, we have yet to see someone worthy of it.

Louis C.K. could have used his performance to speak about sexual violence and take a moment to apologize for and acknowledge his actions. He could have talked about how he has been challenged to work on himself in the last year. He could have made it harder for himself. Instead, he chose to pretend that nothing happened. By doing so, he also chose to erase the damage he has done to multiple women and to perpetuate the culture of silence that exists around abuse. And he received a standing ovation for it.