On Sunday night, Louis CK returned to the stage for the first time since allegations of his nonconsenual jerk off sessions came out last year, performing an unannounced 15-minute set at the Comedy Cellar in New York.
Club owner Noam Drowman (who didn't know CK would be dropping in) told the New York Times that the crowd was receptive and gave CK a standing ovation before he even started this set. Dworman called the act, “typical Louis C.K. stuff” and said, “It sounded just like he was trying to work out some new act." There were reportedly around 115 people in the audience, and while Dworman received one complaint from an audience member the following day, mostly, people there were apparently receptive to CK's set, which comes just ten months after CK was accused by five women of sexual misconduct. (After the allegations came forth, the FX Network ended their production agreement and canceled the release of his film, I Love You, Daddy.)
The response to CK's surprise performance last weekend was decidedly less positive online, where, judging from Twitter (where "Louis CK" is now trending), the comic should either be in jail or, at the very least, forced to sit in the corner and think about what he has done for the next decade or so. Still, he had some support: fellow comic and #MeToo supporter Michael Ian Black tweeted that "people have to be allowed to serve their time and move on with their lives." Soon, he was trending on Twitter too. And not in a good way.
According to much of the criticism leveled at first CK and then Black, it's just too soon. In the past ten months, CK has generally disappeared from public life, and if the social media response to his performance is any indication, he might want to keep it that way for a while longer. Still, CK isn't the only man of #MeToo stepping back into the public eye. Aziz Ansari, who was accused of both sexual misconduct and serving the wrong kind of wine on a first date in an infamous babe.net article published in January, has also tentatively returned to the stage as well. According to Vulture, Ansari performed at the Comedy Cellar in May and, more recently, on stages in Philadelphia and Madison, Wisconsin. Neither comic reportedly discussed the accusations against him.
Perhaps if they had, people would be more ready to forgive. Regardless, as effective as the #MeToo movement has been at outing abusers and pushing them out of public life, outside of Harvey Weinstein, who is facing six felony charges, the movement hasn't resulted in many significant criminal charges. Instead, the consequences have been of the professional and social variety: Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer, Jeffrey Tambor, and others have been fired or pushed out of work, becoming, in much of the public imagining, pariahs—and for good reason. They (allegedly) fucked up. But, at some point, many of the men of #MeToo are going to try to come back to the public stage. In addition to CK and Ansari, Matt Lauer apparently told fans that he will soon be returning to television. Over the past few months, John Ashbrook, Mario Batali, and Charlie Rose have all reportedly been shopping for comebacks. Before social media, these men may have been able to issue mea culpas and begin their comeback tours, but the public has the power to derail these comebacks, and it's almost predictable that any business or platform or comedy club that agrees to host the men of #MeToo will become the targets of boycotts themselves. Calls for boycotts of the Comedy Cellar have already begun to emerge online, although, from the owner's interview with the Times, he doesn't entirely seem like the type to listen. "There can’t be a permanent life sentence on someone who does something wrong," he told the paper.
Dworman's sentiment echoes that of Michael Ian Black. They both say that people should be punished and allowed to re-enter polite society after that punishment has come to an end. But, aside from the fact that the court of public opinion doesn't offer sentencing guidelines, that's not actually how justice works in the U.S., especially when it comes to crimes of sex. The sex offender registry, for instance, dictates where convicted sex offenders can live and work, and it doesn't make it easy to do either. Because of this, you have cases like that of Leah DuBuc, a Michigan woman who was accused by her (allegedly abusive) stepmother of having sex with her stepbrothers when she was 10. DuBuc denies that she had sex with anyone, but, still, when she was 12, she was sentenced to 18 to 22 months in a residential facility for juvenile sex offenders. After her release from the facility, which she told me in an interview was abusive, DuBuc was placed on the sex offender registry, where she would remain for the next 25 years. This impacted her in all sorts of ways: She wasn't allowed near public parks or other places children gather, she was denied housing, and she was fired from jobs when her employers found out about her status.
Of course, not all (or even many) sex offenders are like Leah DuBuc. But the case of Leah DuBuc demonstrates that in the U.S., we consider sex criminals (even those who are juvenile) irredeemable in a way we don't for, say, murder or robbery or tax fraud. There's no public registry for those crimes; only for sex. The irony here is that sex offenders are not, contrary to the public imagining, any more likely than any other criminals to recommit their crimes. In fact, according to the research, they are actually less likely to recidivate than other types of criminals. In reality, the crimes with the highest rates of recidivism are crimes of poverty, like property and drugs, but, thankfully, we don't banish thieves and drug users from society for life.
Now, I'm not saying it's time for Louis CK's big comeback. A baby born on the day the first allegations came out isn't even out of diapers yet. Less than a year in, the time has not yet come. But I'm also not sure why we in America are so convinced that sex crimes should be treated as unique. If you can re-enter society after committing murder or corporate malfeasance or stealing someone's retirement savings, why should sexual misconduct be any different than that? If #MeToo is going to be successful at changing predatory behavior and reforming parts of our deeply flawed society, we're going to have to talk about these men coming back. It might be too soon now, but the men of #MeToo are emerging. At some point, we're going to have to grapple with that.