Recently, Louis C.K., who took a brief hiatus from comedy to atone for his habit of pleasuring himself in front of unconsenting women, took to the stage for the first time since his scandal. He received a standing ovation.
His return unearths a lot of uncomfortable questions about what, exactly, we as a society do with accused and admitted harassers after their time in the bitter limelight of a #MeToo allegation is up.
Is it enough that they've apologized and committed to doing better in the future? Can they keep moving forward in their careers, since they've already faced the punishment of public humiliation and scorn? What if they're just too brilliant to be lost from the public eye because of a few slip-ups?
But this uncertainty has roots in the same attitudes that allowed systemic sexual harassment to flourish for so long. Powerful men's comfort and convenience is still being valued more than women's safety, even after the men have theoretically been dethroned. (It's worth noting that #MeToo has exposed some female harassers, too—but by and large, the perpetrators are male and the victims are female, so for the purpose of this article, I'm going to focus on that trend.)
When this movement first began, there was plenty of chatter about the damage being done to the accused's careers. People fretted that permanently banishing someone from society's good graces, torpedoing his lifelong artistic efforts along the way, was overly harsh.
But most women were savvy enough to know the inevitable truth: Men's careers were never in significant danger. It's a long-established fact that calling someone an abuser is riskier than being an abuser.
Thus, not even a full year after headlines criticizing his behavior, once such man feels comfortable steering the narrative for his benefit once more. More will follow his example. And we're letting them.
Why are we prioritizing the safe landing of men who fall from grace? Women—and frankly, men who are not white and straight and prominent—do not receive these kinds of second chances. Our innocence and good intentions are not assumed when we make mistakes. In fact, they're often questioned long before we make mistakes.
And to be clear, masturbating in front of anyone besides an explicitly, enthusiastically consenting partner is no mistake. It's deliberate. At best it's selfish ("My sexual pleasure is more important than your sexual boundaries"), and at worst it's malicious ("My sexual pleasure is more important than you"). But it's no accidental slip of decency.
Maybe Louis C.K. has been reformed. Maybe he has genuinely repented. Maybe he'll never do it again.
But the problem is, his redemption shouldn't be the happy ending of this story. He should have stopped being the hero of this story entirely once his misconduct came to light.
It doesn't matter if he's reckoned with all of this. He's not owed a second chance simply because time has passed since he botched his first one. Because of the way our society is set up, he'll get one. But that doesn't mean he's earned it. And we shouldn't conflate the two.
There are a lot of other comedians (and directors, and producers, and writers, and actors) out there. Maybe instead of clinging to the ones who need second chances, we should extend first chances to newcomers who won't misuse them.