WOMEN
08/28/2018 11:46 am ET Updated Aug 28, 2018

Just A Reminder: Let's Not Give Alleged Sexual Harassers A Comeback Narrative

From Matt Lauer to Louis C.K., it looks like the beginning of another round of Me Too comeback stories.

A version of this story was first published in April. It is being republished because these men are, once again, trying to stage career comebacks.

On Sunday night, disgraced actor and comedian Louis C.K., who allegedly masturbated in front of several female comedians, performed a surprise set at the Comedy Cellar, a storied New York comedy club. Not mentioned in his set, before which, according to The New York Times, the crowd “greeted him warmly, with an ovation”: the multiple sexual misconduct allegations against him.

The New York Post’s Page Six reported Monday that former “Today” show host Matt Lauer, who reportedly exposed himself in front of a colleague and installed a secret button to automatically lock his office door to provide privacy for harassment, recently told fans, “Don’t worry, I’ll be back on TV.” (The tabloid also noted that Lauer has “increasingly been spotted in public on the Hamptons social scene” but tries to keep his presence “low key.”)

It looks like the beginning of another round of stories about alleged sexual harassers trying to mount career comebacks, even as critics fear that the Me Too movement has gone too far and damaged these men’s careers.

Almost a year since the serial sexual misconduct allegations against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein first catalyzed the Me Too movement, those arguments could not be further from the truth.

Writing for Vulture in May, Rebecca Corry, one of the comedians who spoke out against Louis C.K., argued that comeback narratives are not the point.

“The guy exploited his position of power to abuse women. A ‘comeback’ implies he’s the underdog and victim, and he is neither,” she wrote. “C.K. is a rich, powerful man who was fully aware that his actions were wrong. Yet he chose to behave grotesquely simply because he could. The only issue that matters is whether he will choose to stop abusing women.” 

In addition to this late-summer edition of comeback stories, some prominent men who have faced new allegations have yet to face any career consequences. Take CBS Chairman Les Moonves, who still has a job as the head of a major television network, as HuffPost’s Emily Peck reported this month. On Monday a CBS shareholder filed a class action lawsuit against the company, claiming that it failed to disclose sexual misconduct allegations against him. 

The comeback stories, which often feature unnamed friends and confidants describing the alleged sexual harassers in sympathetic terms, “are to be expected” as a product of male privilege, said Elizabeth Velez, professor of women’s and gender studies at Georgetown University.

“They’re typical of male entitlement, of men — particularly wealthy, powerful men — who say, ‘OK, I’ve suffered enough. That’s enough. I did what I did, and I’m really sorry, and I went for treatment, and now it’s time for me to do the work that I was doing,’” Velez told HuffPost in April. “It’s typical patriarchy at work.”

Noreen Farrell, the executive director of Equal Rights Advocates, a legal organization that focuses on gender equality, similarly attributed the speculation over potential career comebacks to the existing “psyche and bias that keep harassers in positions of power.”

A related genre of stories concerns the whereabouts of alleged sexual harassers, like a Hollywood Reporter profile of Charlie Rose in April, with sources describing the former TV host as “broken,” “brilliant” and “lonely.” (The story also details how he “decamped to his four-bedroom, 5,500-square-foot Long Island home,” which includes “panoramic views of the water and Fire Island in the distance.”)

Farrell characterized these anecdotes and “redemption stories” as “potentially dangerous to the progress of the Me Too movement” and “a distraction.” They deflect attention from accusers ― whose lives and careers their harassers have deeply harmed ― as well as from the larger institutional and systemic problems exposed by Me Too, she said.

“It’s about this narrative of second chances, at a moment when we should be thinking about how to help women have recovery and second chances after harassment, and I think it trivializes the harm perpetrated by these men,” Farrell said.

In so many of the harassment cases that have come to light, the victims’ experiences have forced them out of industries and denied them chances for career comebacks or advancement — the very opportunities that these men are now afforded.

“A lot of the people who are saying, ‘When can these people come back?’... they really haven’t thought through the damage, the damage to women who can’t do that work, the women who have been excluded,” Velez said. “For them, there are ways in which this stopped their careers, and we’re not talking about what do we do to get these women back in it.”

Farrell argued that these “redemption stories” are not worth considering.

“I’ve had people say, ‘Well, shouldn’t people get second chances?’ I don’t really care,” she said. “I guess everyone moves on, and hopefully you learn from what happened. But there are also consequences, and sometimes we should focus on consequences and not on how they’re going to bounce back from an accusation.”

Velez suggested that at some point, the men could contemplate returning to the public eye. But she was adamant that “it’s too soon,” and said it’s unclear when that time could be.

She also said the men should show that they will “support the women that they have harmed” and have taken responsibility for their actions beyond just apologies, such as some form of “reparations.”

In a story about “second chances,” several experts told The Associated Press that perpetrators should attempt to seek forgiveness and make amends.

Velez argued that this kind of reckoning should happen in a more public way. Noting news reports that have mentioned some of the alleged sexual harassers undergoing therapy or “self-reflection,” she said they could demonstrate their efforts to confront their behavior by publicly discussing what they’ve learned.

“If they want to come back publicly, sorry, you have to deal with this publicly. You can’t just say, ‘OK, I went to therapy for six months, and I get it,’” she said. “I want to know about their sense of entitlement, why they think [sexual harassment] was something they could do, and what they’ve come to now.”

Ultimately, the onus may be on women to “really control the conversation” and move it forward, Velez said. She also expressed concern that “some of the outrage” from the Me Too movement “has sort of subsided.”

Farrell said that the spate of “redemption stories” present a new challenge for the movement: making sure that the focus remains on helping survivors of sexual violence.

“Look, the harassers have gotten enough attention, and we need to be concerned more with survivors,” she said. “I do think that there are people in this country who identify with people who are harassers and are rooting for them to be able to have comebacks, and I think our job in the movement is to make sure people are identifying with people who are survivors.”

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