The latest controversy of the #MeToo movement isn’t another accusation, but the words of a bystander trying to make sense of it all. In an interview with Howard Stern, Sarah Silverman reflected on her relationship with longtime friend Louis C.K., who was accused last November of exposing himself to and masturbating in front of several unconsenting women. The interview was quite candid, delving into Silverman’s feelings about her friend in the aftermath of his fall from grace. “It’s a real mindfuck,” she said, “because I love Louis, but Louis did these things.”
Silverman didn’t excuse or defend C.K.’s actions, but she did muddy the waters a little. She compared him to some other, more infamous celebrities exposed for sex crimes, like Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby, saying that C.K.’s actions weren’t “even close” to what those men did. She also implied that his actions were the result of benign ignorance, stating that “it took him a long time to realize that that was not okay.” However, the testimony of his victims says otherwise: Rebecca Corry said “his face got red” and he acted defensive when she pointed out he has a wife and children.
So why this minimization of what was clearly a wrong and deliberate act?
A common refrain in both public and private conversations around sexual assault is that if a man crosses a line while managing not to rape anybody, we say “at least it wasn’t rape. At least this isn’t another Weinstein.” This approach, while perhaps well-intended, comes off as tone-deaf.
Like Silverman said, sexual assault allegations are a mindfuck, especially when they concern someone you care about. Finding out that a person you once considered morally upright is capable of such perverse and predatory behaviour is never a fun experience. I’ve had to grapple with that realization more than once, and it never gets easier.
However, when we talk about sexual assault, we need to be mindful of who we place at the forefront of the conversation. For Silverman, comparing her friend to men who have committed more serious offences, like Harvey Weinstein or Bill Cosby, might make her feel slightly better about a heart-wrenching situation. This is understandable; if you were shocked and disappointed when the news broke about C.K.’s misdeeds, saying “well, it’s not like he raped anybody” might make you feel better too.
But this ignores the victims and their pain. Sexual assault, no matter what form it takes, is an attack on your dignity, your safety, and your very worth as a person. Workplace sexual harassment, like the kind C.K. inflicted on his victims, has been linked to higher blood pressure, anxiety, depression, and sleep disturbances. Victims often report feelings of guilt, anger, fear and self-loathing, and these persistent negative emotions can last for years after the traumatic event.
The ripples can spread further outward: targets of workplace harassment are more likely to change jobs, causing instability and a sporadic work history that can raise eyebrows with interviewers. They experience more financial stress, and have more problems reaching career goals. Some of the women C.K. assaulted have left comedy as a result, and even the ones who stayed have carried scars. Rebecca Corry pointed this out in a response tweet to Silverman. “He took away a day I worked years for, and still had no remorse,” she said.
I don’t think Silverman intended to make it seem like C.K.’s behaviour isn’t a big deal. She has since apologized to Corry, and is clearly taking his actions seriously. Even so, the narrative she’s presenting is flawed: it focuses far too much on C.K. and too little on the women he victimized. Such narratives keep us from fully confronting the reality that what predators like C.K. do is always harmful, even if it isn’t the worst case scenario. Not every predator is Weinstein, but that doesn’t make them better.