Debra Soh holds a PhD in sexual neuroscience research from York University and writes about the science and politics of sex.
After admitting to several allegations of sexual misconduct last November, Louis C.K. took a nine-month hiatus from the limelight, marking his comeback with an unannounced stand-up performance on Aug. 26 at New York City’s Comedy Cellar. His surprise appearance sparked outrage, along with a widespread conversation about the rights of sexual harassers versus the abused, and a vital question – do men guilty of a #MeToo moment deserve forgiveness and a second chance?
But the fact that we're even talking about second chances – at least in the case of celebrities – raises important questions about whether we are encouraging preferential treatment for some over others. Despite the online backlash, it seems as though many are happy to have C.K. back. Case in point, on the night of his return at the comedy club, he received a standing ovation even before he started his set, presumably because he was once a beloved public figure.
In order to determine whether a sexual abuser has truly changed his ways, we need to understand the root cause of his behaviour. Contrary to what contemporary feminism would have us believe, sexual assault and abuse aren’t due to systemic issues related to power and masculinity, but an individual’s sexual preferences – which are, according to research, hard-wired and immutable – as well as negative beliefs about women and whether he is antisocial. This is evident in the fact that most men in positions of power do not sexually harass their subordinates or colleagues.
In the case of Louis C.K., who admitted to masturbating in the presence of three female colleagues, propositioning another, and doing so over the phone with yet one more, exhibitionism is a sexual preference for exposing one’s genitals to an unsuspecting person. Men who indulge in exhibitionistic behaviour, also known as "flashers,” gain sexual gratification from seeing the look of shock and fear on their victims’ faces.
Exhibitionism is considered a paraphilia, or an unusual sexual preference. And while the behaviours that this produces are sometimes treated by therapists, the fantasies may never go away. One key thing to note, however, is that not all men who enjoy exhibitionistic fantasies are necessarily abusers who take part in non-consensual sexual activity.
Exposing oneself to unwilling victims, as Louis C.K. did, should not place him in the same category as men who have been charged or convicted of serial rape, like Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby. Still, committing a sexual offence that is lesser in severity doesn't always translate to a more positive prognosis.
From my time working previously with incarcerated sex offenders in the context of rehabilitation, a major factor predicting whether someone can be reformed is his motivation to change – whether he takes responsibility for what he’s done, as opposed to only feeling regretful because he was caught. It can take years for a person to gain insight into his behaviour; in some cases, this never materializes. The savviest abusers also know that in order to regain trust, they must apologize to their victims and appear remorseful.
Although it is a common belief that sex offenders reoffend at high rates, large-scale studies have shown that only a minority do. For example, in one meta-analysis of 61 studies, roughly one in seven convicted sex offenders went on to commit another sexual offence within five years. Studies using follow-up periods of 15 and 20 years show the recidivism rate is less than 40 per cent.
Returning to the question of what should be considered an adequate amount of punishment, humiliation and self-flagellation, the powerful influence of idolatry and good publicity makes it next to impossible to know whether someone in the public eye is indeed sorry for what he’s done.
Meanwhile, comedians like Michael Ian Black and Michael Che have publicly defended Louis C.K.’s right to a comeback, and in the face of the #MeToo social media mob, were promptly shot down for doing so.
Many others have argued that celebrity men held accountable by this movement should be allowed to move forward. But would those people vocally welcome a male colleague who admitted to sexually abusing women at work back into their workplace with open arms?
For the vast majority of men found guilty of a sexual offence, even after serving a criminal sentence, they will never fully regain their lives, no matter how much they repent. Whether or not you believe these men should be forgiven, we should at least acknowledge the double standard that’s been created. We should be consistent in our narratives regarding whether sexual abusers – celebrity or otherwise – can be reformed, instead of willingly giving preferential treatment to a select lucky few.