As men in power topple in the wake of allegations of sexual harassment and assault and the poignant personal accounts of #MeToo reverberate worldwide, the dam of silence has broken. In addition to grieving the story of each victim, our ‘reckoning’ must include an examination of the societal factors that allowed the Harvey Weinsteins of the world to get away with terrorizing women for decades; comedian Louis C.K. to think it was okay to masturbate in front of female comics; and an (electoral) majority of American voters to believe misogyny was acceptable in a President.
Sexual mores exist in the context of the language and social structures that shape them. Psychology may explain why an individual is compelled to degrade women; but it’s culture—thought to explain up to 90 percent of our behavior—that protected the perpetrators and rendered their victims voiceless.
Louis C.K. has gotten credit in certain circles for being the first to admit wrongdoing. But there are two types of gaslighting: the first is denying that something happened—claiming the accuser is lying; the second is minimizing the gravity of what happened. While Louis C.K.’s public statement acknowledges the events that occurred, its tone still whiffs of ‘so what?’ The release contains neither the word ‘sorry’ nor ‘apologize’, referring, instead, to ‘regret’ (mostly, it would seem, for having gotten caught). Rather than stating plainly that he abused a position of power, C.K. writes repeatedly how ‘admired’ he is in the field—a reflection of the peacocking rewarded from Hollywood to Silicon Valley to the Oval Office. “Sorry, women,” says his character in the pulled film I Love You Daddy—a word the actor can’t seem to articulate off-screen to the specific women he’s harmed.
Louis C.K. also makes the interesting choice of using the word ‘dick’ in his description of the acts in question: “At the time, I said to myself that what I did was okay because I never showed a woman my dick without asking first,” he writes. “But what I learned later in life, too late, is that when you have power over another person, asking them to look at your dick isn’t a question.” To get a sense of just how ludicrous that statement is, try replacing the word with your preferred term for female genitalia and imagining that formulation said by a woman, any woman. Any luck? Me neither. Our language contains an implicit model of sex, including conceptions of power, says Harvard University cognitive scientist and linguist Steven Pinker. “While it’s tempting to ridicule the backlash against sexual swearing as a throwback to Victorian daintiness,” he notes, “it remains true that an atmosphere of licentiousness may be less conducive to women’s interests than to men’s.” While ‘dick’ wouldn’t raise any eyebrows in a fan-base that’s accustomed to an American Pie-style portrayal of men as overgrown adolescents, does it really convey the gravitas of remorse required in this context? Would you use that turn of phrase to give life advice in a commencement speech? Is it really the word he wanted his daughters to come across about their father in a public mea culpa?
Louis C.K. writes that he has spent a “long and lucky career talking and saying anything [he wants].” Quite. By using what the OED deems ‘vulgar slang’, he gets a little ding of the same naughty-boy exhibitionist thrill he got when exposing himself in the first place. The second meaning of the noun ‘dick’—more tolerated by the FCC than its use in a sexual context, as it happens—is to refer to a person behaving contemptibly, which would have perhaps been more pertinent. And the third meaning is ‘anything’, as in “he doesn’t know dick…”