These were my early, but certainly not only, #metoo experiences. Among the tsunami of revelations about inappropriate sexual behavior, they seem barely worth mentioning. I skated by relatively unharmed. Embarrassed, frightened, stunned, and, in one instance, even angry enough to threaten real harm to a man who took liberties with his hands. I learned to be smarter about being alone with men. I learned to trust my instincts more than my male colleagues. I learned that the consequences for a man’s bad behavior fall disproportionately on women. I learned the complex moves of the careful dance that protects and, worse, excuses men.
Shame and piety cast doubt on women. She must be loose. She must have been drunk. She must want the attention. He’s a good man. He’s a talented man. He’s a wealthy man. He’s a powerful man. Why would he risk so much for a little “action,” as the father of a rapist described his son’s crime. The answer to that one is easy: women are bullied into silence just as they are bullied into sex, and men are given a pass because men and women value men more than we value women. We excuse men more easily than we believe women. So what’s at risk?
That thought has been weighing on my conscious since the Sunday afternoon a few weeks ago when, while watching the Steelers play, a friend asked how I could possibly root for a team led by a rapist. At the height of his early career success, Ben Roethlisberger was accused of assaulting a woman in a North Carolina bar. He denied that the sex was rape, and the hometown fans believed him just enough to let him keep on winning football games.
When Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly lost their jobs at Fox News, I was on board that the sons of bitches should find themselves unemployed. Their politics were horrible, so it was very easy to believe they were horrible men, too. It was easy enough to believe that a doughy Harvey Weinstein had his way on the casting couch, and hard to understand why Bill Cosby thought he needed to. Kevin Spacey hurt. So much talent packaged in a creepy closeted pedophile. And then came Louis C.K. How could he possibly believe it was okay to masturbate to an audience, even if he did ask permission? “Mind if I smoke?” I get. “Mind if I jack off?” – never in a million years.
But here’s the thing: I like Louis C.K. I think his work is smart and funny and very entertaining. I hate that he’s a sexual creep, and I hate even more that his feckless apology makes clear that he just doesn’t get it. As I read his open apology in The New York Times, I began to hate even more that, after a bit of time, we’ll go to his now-postponed movie. We’ll say that since he seemingly only touched himself and then apologized, that he really can’t be that bad. Because, you know, his work is so good.
And if we can contort ourselves to forgive Louis C.K. the way Pittsburgh fans forgave Big Ben with the penance of winning football games, we won’t be far from letting all the other #MeToo predators off the hook, too.
That would be a cultural crisis wasted.
I spent last weekend with a couple hundred journalists, and not surprisingly, a group of us got to talking about the Shitty Media Men Google doc that circulated briefly in October. Anonymous women named their abusers and some powerful men – even some who had attended our confab in the past – were beginning to fall. These men would no longer be protected by an unspoken code and by women’s silence. Men, usually powerful men, could no longer take what they wanted and behave as they wished. There are consequences now. Jobs, families, reputations have been lost. Still, a few women asked, will things really be different?
What will stop a man from using his power to get what he wants, then using it again to silence his victim? In a society that treats sex as secret and even shameful, a long-standing and well-crafted social narrative has served sexual predators well: your social value outweighs your crime. If a braggadocio president can get away with sexual assault, you can too, so long as you’re rich enough, talented enough, famous enough, powerful enough.
That narrative has to change, and it is changing now. Finally, women – and some men, too – are realizing that power is given as much as it is taken, and that by staying silent, victims feed the power myth of their assailants. Finally, women are talking their power back, and using it to call out those who have hurt them. Allies are amplifying that power by believing them. Abusers can no longer hide behind a curtain of power. The real power is in telling the truth, in refusing to give one drop more power to someone who so easily abuses that gift.
And that’s why I’m so pissed at Louis C.K.
If this new narrative is to stick, it has to be told again and again and again. We can’t give Louis C.K. a pass because he’s super talented and really, really sorry. We can’t quickly rehabilitate his reputation because he’s “facing his demons,” and we desperately want to see his new movie.
We have to make an example of him, and that is going to suck. And then we’ll have to do it again with the next guy and the one after that.
We’ll have to admit that it was wrong to let a star quarterback off the hook because we wanted to win a Super Bowl. It was wrong to give a presidential candidate a pass because we wanted America to be great again. We’ll have to be okay with losing games and losing elections. We’ll have to be less shocked when a star salesman is perp-walked out of the office and more supportive of the woman who dared to turn him in. We’ll have to skip movies, give up our favorite restaurants, and fire our coaches. We’ll have to become the consequence. We’ll have to become the risk that is too big to take.
So, fuck you, Louis C.K. Fuck you for demeaning those women. Fuck you for being so goddamned stupid. Fuck you for turning your smart, funny work to shit. Fuck you for making me have to hate you now.