The XX Factor

Louis C.K.’s Public Statement Unnervingly Misunderstands the Concept of Consent

The Louis C.K. special: self-aggrandizement disguised as self-effacement.

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After a month of writing almost exclusively about sexual harassment, a week of listening to powerful men explain how they shrugged when confronted with a predator in their workforce, and 24 hours of watching right-wingers contort their moral codes to defend child molestation, Louis C.K.’s attempt to justify his sexual abuse hit me like a glob of saliva to the face.

In a statement released on Friday, the comedian tried to explain why he’d exposed his penis and masturbated in front of several nonconsenting women over a period of several years. “At the time, I said to myself that what I did was okay because I never showed a woman my dick without asking first,” he wrote, claiming he never learned until it was “too late” that power differentials could make those women feel overpowered or coerced. The statement got mixed reactions from observers on Twitter. Some called the statement “about as good an apology as one can give” or praised C.K. for “taking accountability” and being a “straight-up guy” who should be “a lesson for other men.”

To my mind, the only good thing the statement did was confirm that the allegations were true and refrain from smearing the accusers’ reputations. That is the lowest possible bar a society could set for a response to credible allegations of abuse. We have become so accustomed to powerful men calling accusers liars, money-grubbers, and too ugly to assault that a simple admission of truth strikes us as alarmingly mature.

Even so, nestled into C.K.’s admission of fact—“these stories are true”—are several deliberate lies. C.K.’s phrasing is cunning and specific: Perhaps he did ask each woman if he could take out his penis before he showed it to them, but he doesn’t say they said yes, because many didn’t. (The New York Times piece that broke the allegations included just one woman who said she “went along with his request” before realizing “he abused his power” and “it was wrong.”) And he omits his offense against Abby Schachner, who told the Times he suddenly started masturbating over the phone when she called to invite him to her comedy show. Here, C.K. is squeezing his history of harassment into a narrative of misunderstood consent. He is claiming that, as an adult man, he believed that repeatedly asking a woman in his workplace to watch him masturbate in his office was appropriate. The Times article says he proposed his favorite sex act to another pair of women he didn’t know (but who admired him) “as soon as they sat down in his room, still wrapped in their winter jackets and hats.” When they “laughed it off,” he did it anyway. C.K. would have his fans believe that he honestly thought this would be erotically pleasing for the two bundled-up women, and that he truly believed he had their consent.

This is an insult both to the women he harmed and to the concept of consent itself. The skewed power dynamic of which C.K. claims complete ignorance is just one contributing factor to his abuse. Asking someone if you can take out your penis—especially if that person is a co-worker, and especially if she has shown absolutely no sexual interest in you, like if she’s just walked into your room with her winter coat and a friend—will often be enough to make her feel threatened. (For C.K., that was probably part of the thrill.) It’s enough to make female industry peers question their worth, doubt their own talent, restrict their movements, and decline career opportunities. His words alone—the words he claims he believed established consent—were a major part of his harassment. Men who force women to watch them masturbate, or force them to field a request to do so, get off on causing women fear.

What makes this statement even worse is C.K.’s carefully crafted reputation as a self-aware, self-deprecating guy who’s given a lot of thought to gender dynamics and exploitation. He writes that he had no idea that “the fact that I was widely admired in [the victims’] community … disabled them from sharing their story and brought hardship to them when they tried because people who look up to me didn’t want to hear it.” This is another obvious falsehood. No abuser—especially not one who has written entire television episodes about sexual harassment and assault—is ignorant to the forces that silence survivors. Nearly all the women who have publicly shared stories of being harassed by C.K. have one thing in common: They admired C.K., and he knew it. He was further along in his career and highly successful; they were trying to protect their careers. There is a reason why Harvey Weinstein, C.K., and other men whose abuse has come to light in recent weeks always target people younger or less connected than they are. Those people are far less likely to talk.

C.K. never says he’s sorry in his statement. The closest he comes to apologizing is “I have been remorseful of my actions.” His decision to blanket over his history of abuse with explanations and justifications instead of offering a straightforward apology probably means he’s looking for a way back into the good graces of his audience. It was a letter about his own mindset and thought process, or what he would have us believe them to be, an attempt to help us see ourselves in him—a misguided dude who didn’t know that what he was doing was so wrong—as much as we may see our own histories of abuse in those of his victims. His argument is undermined by his recent actions. For years, he has denied rumors that he did the things he now says he did, letting the women he harassed sit in silence, reliving and possibly questioning their own experiences. But it wasn’t until Thursday, he writes, that he “learned” how wrong his actions were. Not when he aged into some kind of new understanding of gender and power. Not when he read any one of the zillions of first-person accounts of sexual harassment that exist on the internet. His revelation came Thursday. When the New York Times called him out by name. C.K. wants his fans to take him at his word when he says that he couldn’t have known the extent of the harm he caused until the women he harassed told their stories to an international newspaper.

In his statement, C.K. says he will “now step back and take a long time to listen.” How long is he taking? Surely not forever. By offering nice-sounding but demonstrably false rationalizations for his strategic exploitation of power, C.K. has already set the stage for his rehabilitation tour. If the fans who have already rushed to commend his statement are any indication, it will be a smashing success.