I was in the market with my mother when I saw the man with shifty eyes. He kept shooting shady glances at me before I realized he was masturbating. I have always prided myself on being tough but at that moment the protection and security of my parents and institutions gave away and I was shaken and scared.
Sexual harassment as a concept and words is approaching semantic satiation, and it is so easy to think that you understand. I had always heard stories from other women about how a creep flashed them or masturbated in front of them or groped them in a bus and so on and on. If the #metoo campaign has taught us anything it is how ubiquitous sexual abuse is. My normal responses would range from ‘eww, what a creep’, ‘omg that is so weird’ to anger and anxiety about my safety in similar situations.
If the #metoo campaign has taught us anything, it is how ubiquitous sexual abuse is.
Yet nothing prepares you for your own tailored personal experience. It is like one of those sudden shifts in scenes in movies – new atmosphere, new lights, echoing voices, and you are no longer just another person getting on in the world. You are a woman with breasts. You have been hailed. You can’t just get on with your business, girl. This sudden epistemological awakening is violent and very different from an intimate situation where you are voluntarily sexual. Violently, you are a woman, you are a sexual being, and you are being used for someone’s pleasure. There is such a violation of self that is incomparable because of lack of your agency.
Four days back I was shocked and saddened when news of Louis CK’s sexual misconduct broke. The premiere of his latest movie has been cancelled, and I couldn’t help but feel sad for him. Louis CK was so important for a particular set of people my age – for socially awkward introverted adults Louis cast himself as an outsider – flawed, biased, irrational and brutally honest against the sanitized hypocrisy of the world at large. Like other great comedians, Louis held up a mirror against our frivolous and vacuous preoccupations. The best thing about Louis was how honest he was with himself- he was not a great husband or a great father. He was so flawed and always talking about it. Here was an adult who had figured it all out…
I thought about it all day yesterday, and browsed Reddit to see what other people are saying. Being Indian, Louis CK can afford to lose my loyalty, but after Vulture pronounced that Louis CK is done, I wondered what the American public would do to him. After all, careers in the entertainment industry are built on reputation. Louis CK had issued an apology which sounded more sincere than Spacey’s and definitely less atrocious than Weinstein’s. Yet he had not addressed them earlier when Tig Notaro had asked Louis to ‘handle’ them and had called them mere rumours before that. Would we have been more forgiving if Weinstein had not happened?
Violently, you are a woman, you are a sexual being, and you are being used for someone’s pleasure.
What is a proportionate, reasonable way to react to these accusations? Louis CK had masturbated with and without consent in front of 5 women. Some people I talked to said that what Louis CK did could hardly be equated with what Weinstein did, i.e, sexual misconduct is not equal to non-consensual sex. They agreed that it was grossly inappropriate but that we must not embark on a witch hunt against men. Some comments on The New York Times pointed out that people often exhibit themselves and masturbate publicly in parties and if that were to be counted as sexual misconduct then that would make them a victim as well. I can completely comprehend this kind of liberal thinking – understand the logic of their arguments, and this reasonableness they demanded in face of anger and outrage.
I see myself as a very reasonable person. But two things stopped me from condoning Louis CK’s behaviour. First was my experience with the creepy man who hid behind another man in a busy market and masturbated when I was with my mother. If I told somebody I would probably resort to disgust to convey my experience. But in my head I can recapture the mixture of the horror and terror that I felt on the ground beneath my feet that led me to take my mother’s arm and flee from there. The immediate recognition, the violation by gaze, the abyss-like potential of sexual violence – they simultaneously occurred from this innocuous act but can never be conveyed in their full expression to another person.
Can I then see Louis CK’s behaviour as a sexual peccadillo? Some dirty linen in his closet? Some bad behaviour from a distant past? I guess not, because I don’t owe him anything. I don’t need to understand why he did such a creepy thing. I can imagine what the women must have felt and their victimhood is what I want to understand, not Louis CK’s motives or his explanations. Sexual violence of any kind and degree are disadvantaged ontologically as a thing of the past. It has happened. It happened. Narrative turns to the future, narrative asks the perpetrator, “Why did you do what you did?”, and the victim is forgotten and her experience becomes another experience in a multitude of experiences – becoming similar and common against the distinct/distinguished identity of the man.
Louis CK had masturbated with and without consent in front of 5 women.
The second thing that made me resist is traditional victim-blaming: why didn’t these women leave when they could have? Louis CK was not popular when many of these incidents happened; why didn’t they come forward then? The narrative paints women as a collective with some power to bring down a powerful man with their accusations but stops short of giving them true credibility. As with Weinstein, Spacey and now CK, the rumours had persisted for years and decades in some cases. Earlier when these accusations had surfaced they were dismissed as rumours – who can act on rumours? Only rumours. Now even with evidence and Louis’s apology, we still prevaricate and blame women some more.
Much of Louis CK’s inexcusable behaviour has been reported by comediennes – his female colleagues. If I were a young comedian and Louis CK invited me to his room and let me add with certainty that he’d be my idol and I’d be delighted for this opportunity for this personal interaction and when I was there if he whipped out his penis I would probably be too stunned and mortified to leave too. I would be incredibly sad that the man I adored would violate my trust like this, I would be scared and wonder if he will do anything more, I would be worried about my career, I may even think this is something I can ‘tolerate’, I may think maybe I should just act cool and deal with it later.
To be clear, in any such situation the balance of power is firmly tilted in favour of the man; but how much more when the man is widely liked and adored and respected? Use your personal scales and weigh, men and women.
I know it is dangerous to expect your favourite entertainer to be a ‘good man’ and a great person. Especially when they talked stuff that resonated so much with you and this entertainment had value and meaning, the lines are blurry and you feel cheated. This explains why the public is so saddened by the news: everybody rooted for Louis CK to be a good person. Let’s not explain it away as some errant kinky behaviour from a frustrated male. Let’s contextualise Louis CK – the respect and admiration his position entailed, the groundbreaking nature of most of his work and the accolades it gathered, the self-reflexive humour, and the disproportionately small number of female comics in the US and elsewhere. Judd Apatow expressed it best when he called CK a ‘dream killer‘; for having forced a younger female colleague to watch him masturbate. That’s the thing though; about sexual harassment – it is a fissure that cracks in all directions.
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