Let's Not Give Alleged Harassers A Comeback Narrative

A spate of recent stories wonder if men exposed by Me Too can return to the spotlight. Their accusers often can't.

We seem to have reached a new moment in the Me Too movement, judging by several recent stories pondering whether famous men accused of sexual misconduct are ready to re-enter the public eye. 

In a Hollywood Reporter article this week, comedians and comedy club owners discussed the prospects of a career comeback for Louis C.K., who allegedly masturbated in front of several female comedians. The article asserted that reviving his career was somehow a foregone conclusion.

But no quote has ever been proven false more often than F. Scott Fitzgerald’s declaration that there are no second acts [in] American lives, so the question is not really whether C.K. will eventually come back but when, where and how.

People close to chef and restaurateur Mario Batali — who attached a recipe for cinnamon rolls to an apology for his alleged sexual misconduct — told The New York Times earlier this month that he “is floating ideas, pondering timelines and examining whether there is a way for him to step back into his career, at least in some fashion.”

When Mr. Batali’s name comes up among groups of food professionals over drinks or between sessions at conferences, some say that if any of the men caught in the current wave of sexual harassment scandals can forge a path back, it might be Mr. Batali.

Vanity Fair noted this week a tidbit buried in a New York Post Page Six story on how former “Today” show anchor Matt Lauer ― who reportedly exposed himself in front of a colleague and installed a secret button to automatically lock his office door to provide privacy for harassment ― is “testing the waters for a public comeback by coming out of hiding from his Hamptons home.”

“With his marriage to Annette Roque now over, he’s ready to restart his life, pals say,” the tabloid reported.

The show “Entertainment Tonight” reported that Lauer “definitely regrets his behavior” and remains hopeful of a comeback.

A lot of the people who are saying, ‘when can these people come back?’... they really haven’t thought through the damage, the damage to women who can’t do that work, the women who have been excluded.” Elizabeth Velez, professor of women’s and gender studies at Georgetown University

These stories, which often feature unnamed friends and confidants describing the alleged sexual harassers in sympathetic terms, “are to be expected” as a product of male privilege, said Elizabeth Velez, professor of women’s and gender studies at Georgetown University.

“They’re typical of male entitlement, of men — particularly wealthy, powerful men — who say, ‘OK, I’ve suffered enough. That’s enough. I did what I did, and I’m really sorry, and I went for treatment, and now it’s time for me to do the work that I was doing,’” Velez told HuffPost. “It’s typical patriarchy at work.”

Noreen Farrell, the executive director of Equal Rights Advocates, a legal organization that focuses on gender equality, similarly attributed the speculation over potential career comebacks to the existing “psyche and bias that keep harassers in positions of power.”

A related genre of stories concerns the whereabouts of alleged sexual harassers, like a Hollywood Reporter profile of Charlie Rose last week, with sources describing the former TV host as “broken,” “brilliant” and “lonely.” (The story also details how he “decamped to his four-bedroom, 5,500-square-foot Long Island home,” which includes “panoramic views of the water and Fire Island in the distance.”)

Farrell characterized these anecdotes and “redemption stories” as “potentially dangerous to the progress of the Me Too movement” and “a distraction.” They deflect attention from accusers ― whose lives and careers their harassers have deeply harmed ― as well as from the larger institutional and systemic problems exposed by Me Too, she said.

“It’s about this narrative of second chances, at a moment when we should be thinking about how to help women have recovery and second chances after harassment, and I think it trivializes the harm perpetrated by these men,” Farrell said.

In so many of the harassment cases that have come to light, the victims’ experiences have forced them out of industries and denied them chances for career comebacks or advancement — the very opportunities that these men are now afforded.

“A lot of the people who are saying, ‘When can these people come back?’... they really haven’t thought through the damage, the damage to women who can’t do that work, the women who have been excluded,” Velez said. “For them, there are ways in which this stopped their careers, and we’re not talking about what do we do to get these women back in it.”

Farrell argued that these “redemption stories” are not worth considering.

“I’ve had people say, ‘Well, shouldn’t people get second chances?’ I don’t really care,” she said. “I guess everyone moves on, and hopefully you learn from what happened. But there are also consequences, and sometimes we should focus on consequences and not on how they’re going to bounce back from an accusation.”

Velez suggested that at some point, the men could contemplate returning to the public eye. But she was adamant that “it’s too soon,” and said it’s unclear when that time could be.

She also said the men should show that they will “support the women that they have harmed” and have taken responsibility for their actions beyond just apologies, such as some form of “reparations.”

In a story about “second chances,” several experts told The Associated Press this week that perpetrators should attempt to seek forgiveness and make amends.

Velez argued that this kind of reckoning should happen in a more public way. Noting news reports that have mentioned some of the alleged sexual harassers undergoing therapy or “self-reflection,” she said they could demonstrate their efforts to confront their behavior by publicly discussing what they’ve learned.

“If they want to come back publicly, sorry, you have to deal with this publicly. You can’t just say, ‘OK, I went to therapy for six months, and I get it,’” she said. “I want to know about their sense of entitlement, why they think [sexual harassment] was something they could do, and what they’ve come to now.”

Ultimately, the onus may be on women to “really control the conversation” and move it forward, Velez said. She also expressed concern that “some of the outrage” from the Me Too movement “has sort of subsided.”

Farrell said that the spate of “redemption stories” present a new challenge for the movement: making sure that the focus remains on helping survivors of sexual violence.

“Look, the harassers have gotten enough attention, and we need to be concerned more with survivors,” she said. “I do think that there are people in this country who identify with people who are harassers and are rooting for them to be able to have comebacks, and I think our job in the movement is to make sure people are identifying with people who are survivors.”