We are seeing in these stories of powerful men ostracized for their abuses a combination of power, culture, and biology at play. Our culture has been misogynist for thousands of years taking whatever innate sexual desires we have and giving them outlets by way of harassing those with less power in the workplace.
Like many others, I was saddened and disappointed by the news that Louis CK forced women to watch him masturbate. I had to struggle with my own celebrity worship and ask whether we can love the art but deplore the artist?
Ultimately, as Louie’s friend and comedian Sarah Silverman said, it’s the victims who matter most right now, and not the question of whether we can even for someone we respect and admire, love the sinner and hate the sin. Louie committed crimes that dehumanized and menaced women. More, he used his privileged position to shirk owning his crimes.
What is happening is “like cutting out tumors”, as Silverman put it, “it’s messy and it’s complicated and it is gonna hurt but it’s necessary” but “it sucks and some our heroes will be taken down.”
She wasn’t kidding. Even George Takei, wholesome paragon as he was, stammered his response to Howard Stern that sounded like he was realizing in real-time that he sexually coerced a young man.
We’re losing our heroes, and not from dying young, but from them failing us. The feeling I had is the same that happened after Philip Seymour Hoffman died from a heroin overdose. It’s a loss the fans feel, because it’s like these artists owed us more and they can’t give their labour any longer.
But ultimately even talented, powerful men are human. Their flaws are not absolved or reconciled because they are famous and talented. They do not owe us, their fans, people they will never know or meet, anything. These talented people owe it to themselves to fix their flaws, and when those flaws turn into crimes, they owe their victims a whole lot more.
But we should understand how these flaws turn into crimes due to that combination of culture and power and biology, and recognize how much more complicated fixing your flaws become when you wrestle with wealth, power and fame.
We have been mis-educating people on human sexuality for thousands of years. Agriculture changed human society by creating an ownership society that turned women’s role into property. Our religions have been informed by agricultural society and its emphasis on ownership for as long, which is why cattle and slaves appear in the same Commandment as “Do not covet thy neighbour’s wife”.
But further back, into prehistoric humans, we lived in small hunter-gatherer tribes with high levels of social cohesion, compassion, and strict punishment for crimes all due to a common struggle for survival. This matters.
Since most of our evolution occurred as prehistoric humans, we are still largely geared toward those mechanisms and triggers, like overeating on salt, sugar and fat. Historically, fasting periods were expected and frequent and the body adapted to suck up every calorie as beneficial to its survival.
The sex education were not getting is how humans like sex and need better ways to express it. Books like “Sex at Dawn” detail the various ways in which homo sapiens are distinct from the other apes in being fertile and willing year-round. Powerful men in office buildings are no exception. They’re still human, just in fancy clothes, and raised in a sexist ownership culture and given power.
Where is this in our sex education?
We have been teaching girls how to avoid being harassed resulting in blaming the victim when it happens. Boys have been raised in a culture that teaches blurred lines between what women say they want and what they really want.
This education included lessons like “women like to be pursued”, “asking permission is weak”, “boys will be boys” and “all sex outside of marriage is wrong” which implied it was hypocritical of Jennifer Lawrence to complain her nude photos were leaked while posing nearly-nude for magazines. That if they wanked to her being naked here why can’t they have her naked there?
We have taught boys that essentially if they can get away with it, then it’s okay. That if she doesn’t say no forcefully enough and early enough, that she wants it, that she was supposed to be reluctant.
Think how girls are raised to be timid and polite, and how guys think that for a girl to be horny she needs to drink. What sort of formula is that? When about 80% of college sexual assaults occur when both parties voluntarily drank alcohol there is something deeply wrong with how we’ve raised people to think of their sexual desires and how to realize them.
But science and anthropology are helping us reflect on that.
Consider only now we’re getting a handle on what is driving rapey behaviour in males and only now working toward fixing it. The feelings of being inadequate, stuffed into cities that drive depression and anxiety as high as their skyscrapers, raised to think men are like this and women are like that, we have basically set ourselves up for bad outcomes.
We have been tacking educational structures around core human impulses, and if our assumptions are biased as they have been for thousands of years then that has consequences for our culture.
According to experts, the best programs target not girls by teaching them self-defense, but target boys by teaching them self-control, in addition to teaching everyone how to spot harassing or threatening behaviour and intervening.
Our culture’s attitudes towards sex is vastly complicated by power. Power changes the person directly and it also changes how others behave around that person.
Power changes you. That’s the rule. It’s a rule that’s been known as long as humans have been around. All men can overcome adversity, Abraham Lincoln put it “but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”
It’s been well studied that power decreases your empathy and the emotional skills needed to read others. Power separates you from understanding others, and people with power make actions similar to those with brain injury: more impulsive, less risk-averse, less adept at seeing things from other people’s point of view.
So if power changes you for the better, that’s the exception to the rule. Power changed Louis CK, and not for the better. It insulated him from having to square with himself what he did.
Louie’ statement owning the accusations is telling:
The power I had over these women is that they admired me. And I wielded that power irresponsibly…
I also took advantage of the fact that I was widely admired in my and their community, which 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. I didn’t think that I was doing any of that because my position allowed me not to think about it.
Men like Harvey Weinstein or James Toback or Roger Ailes held power that put others at a disadvantage and forced them to go along to get along or suffer the consequences. Their power guaranteed others’ silence and they used it viciously. Teams of men and women delivered young actresses to Harvey. Teams of men and women covered up Bill O’Reilly’s and Roger Ailes’s harassment.
Can this explain how Cosby and others continued their predatory behaviour time after time, knowing they were insulated from the risk of losing it all from their behaviour?
Our culture has been ambivalent at best about what crimes by celebrities we look down on. Paul Walker dated teenagers and that went completely under the radar. Roman Polanski got standing ovations despite sodomizing a drugged 13-year old. Woody Allan would climb in bed with his daughter and get her to suck his thumb. Our culture has basically sacrificed children to Michael Jackson.
People were shocked and outraged by pictures of a bruised and cut Rihanna after being beaten by Chris Brown but there were still legions of fans willing to overlook the violence.
Our culture is used to making these little bargains too: Roman Polanski was so long ago. Michael Jackson was never found guilty. Chris and Rihanna got back together. Louie merely masturbated in front of five women. It’s the same sort of celebrity worship that late comedian Patrice O’Neal jokingly pleaded “can I still listen to ‘Thriller’? Maybe he wasn’t doing it then.”
People have been quite willing to sweep uncomfortable facts under the rug, especially when it meant confronting the powerful. It’s why Catholic priests sexually abused children for decades and why the institution covered it up and why people believed in the cover up so it could all go away. But this, thank God, is changing.
Our DNA is older than our belief systems and if we don’t reconcile what it means to be human, flaws and all, we will continue to see these stories either in the news or, worse, not at all because this calling out of sexual predators is just another passing media fad.
Humans on some level have within us a primitive, perverted ape aspect, but we should work towards learning about all our aspects and commit to the good ones.
And Louis CK, unlike others, did admit his mistakes though. Unlike others, Louie accepted full responsibility for his acts, and that should matter.
George Takei blamed Russia, Weinstein threw up the NRA in his statement, Spacey came out of the closet, Cosby claimed blindness, and for someone as thoughtful and seemingly decent as Louis CK was, it will be interesting to watch Louie reconcile his behaviour.
“It’s like cutting out tumors—it’s messy and it’s complicated and it is gonna hurt, but it’s necessary and we’ll all be healthier for it”, Sarah Silverman said in her heartfelt reckoning with Louie’s downfall.
“It’s vital that people are held accountable for their actions, no matter who they are. We need to be better. We will be better. I can’t fucking wait to be better.”