To many, the downfall of Louis C.K. has been one of the #MeToo movement’s most prominent success stories: the decisive defenestration of a known pervert whose comeuppance was long overdue. The comedian had been dogged by rumors of inappropriate behavior for more than a decade when his misconduct finally got a national airing in The New York Times last November, as several women revealed that he’d masturbated in front of them (or asked to do so) between 2002 and 2005. Condemnation came quickly, and with consequences: His new film, I Love You, Daddy, was scrapped by distributors on the eve of its release; a planned Netflix comedy special was canceled; FX and HBO scrubbed his work from their libraries. The man himself confessed and apologized before disappearing from public life, a move that some hoped might prove permanent.
Nearly a year later, making an unannounced appearance at the Comedy Cellar, Louis C.K. was met with a brief standing ovation followed by a mass wave of too-soons—with more than one prominent figure suggesting that total and permanent banishment was the only appropriate punishment for his crimes. The consensus seemed clear: Louis C.K. had committed the kind of egregious wrong from which there was no return, and the only safe world for women was a world without him in it (or at least, not on our stages and screens).
Then Sarah Silverman waded in.
When The New York Times exposé of Louis C.K.’s bad acts first dropped, Silverman, a longtime friend and colleague of the comedian, released a statement that expressed support for the victims without entirely condemning the perpetrator: “I hope it’s OK if I am at once very angry for the women he wronged and the culture that enabled it … and also sad, because he’s my friend,” she said. (A few people groused at her ambivalence, but mostly, her remarks passed unnoticed.) But this week, Silverman found herself back in the spotlight when she admitted on Howard Stern’s SiriusXM show that she hadn’t been clueless about Louis C.K.’s predilections. In fact, he’d done the same thing to her that he did to others—only with her, he had full consent.
“I’ve known Louis forever, I’m not making excuses for him, so please don’t take this that way,” she began, after Stern broached the topic. “We are peers. We are equals. When we were kids, and he asked if he could masturbate in front of me, sometimes I’d go, ‘Fuck yeah I want to see that!’”
Silverman was careful to couch her comments in movement-approved language—pointing out, as Louis C.K. did in his apology statement, that his influence within the comedy world put his victims “in a predicament” in a way that their own friendship did not. But it hardly mattered: Rebecca Corry, who was propositioned by Louis C.K. when they worked together on a TV pilot, said that the power dynamics were beside the point. “He took away a day I worked years for and still has no remorse. He’s a predator who victimized women for decades and lied about it,” she wrote on Twitter.
Silverman immediately apologized. And critics jumped in to argue that she had hurt the cause, and should have kept her mouth shut. “Of course, Silverman is going to be asked about her friend,” Matt Miller in Esquire noted, “but maybe it’s for the best to sit this one out.”
That a male writer—for Esquire—saw no issue with telling a woman to shut up and stop talking about her sex life because it complicates the feminist narrative is definitely among the more remarkable elements of the discourse in 2018. (Some of us are old enough to remember when shaming women for being too candid about sex was the purview of right-wing scolds.) Despite what these crusading male feminists of the world might prefer, Silverman’s comments speak to something vital—even if she stays silent from here on out.
What Silverman’s critics condemn as “muddying the waters” might better be described as a useful reintroduction into the public realm of a forgotten version of femininity: one in which a man asks a woman, who is also a colleague, if he can masturbate in front of her, and her response is not horrified silence or reluctant assent, but an enthusiastic yes (or “fuck yeah”). There may be a semidefense of Louis C.K. buried in there somewhere (or at least, a version of events in which his behavior might have been something other, and more complicated, than pure predation), but Silverman’s comments read largely as an assertion of her own agency. She made a choice, as was her right—and it should continue to be her right to do so, even if her choices are not ones that someone else might prefer, and even if they are inconvenient to certain facile narratives about How All Women Are.
That’s a powerful thing in a year where second-wave notions of resilient womanhood have been eclipsed by a more fearful, breakable brand of femininity. The new story, told in Twitter moments and viral videos, is that women are scared—and should be, considering how fragile they are. Teetering on the precipice of trauma, trapped at the wrong end of a power dynamic that puts them at a permanent disadvantage, unable to advocate for themselves, women are always on the verge of being victimized—not just by rape and assault, but by nonconsensual ghosting and fake male feminists and dates that just don’t go as they’d hoped. The fear is constant, and limiting in the extreme; even being in places where men are or might be present—a bus, a bar, a darkened street—is terrifying, and perhaps not worth the risk.
Sexual liberation has been replaced by a fierce focus on consent culture, which rather than empowering women in the pursuit of pleasure promotes a remarkably passive model of female sexuality. On college campuses, men are told that asking is imperative no matter the circumstances; a sexually forward woman, who acts as the aggressor, should be caught by the wrist and given a good verbal checking. Is she sure this is what she wants? Can she ever be sure? As a female interviewer mused in a recent Radiolab segment, “Can you ever really, as a woman … know what you want or don’t want?” Is that your internal monologue you’re hearing, or the disembodied voice of the patriarchy?
Coming as it is in the wake of the controversy over sexual assault allegations that failed to derail Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation, perhaps it’s understandable that Silverman’s comments are being seen as an unwelcome insult. But when the response from a feminist movement to a woman’s honest account of her own sexual experiences is to shush her, some soul-searching is in order. It’s not just that doubling down on the victim narrative poses real risks, opening the door to exclusion and unequal treatment in the name of “protection”; it’s that any movement that purports to speak for women ought to allow for a full spectrum of female desires and voices.
And certainly, it should leave room for the model of female existence that Silverman presents, which many women still find empowering and worth fighting for: one in which women take agency in all things including sex, in which female desire plays a starring role, and in which waiting around to be asked is an option but not a requirement. By speaking up, Silverman offers an answer to something bigger than the question of what to do with men like Louis C.K.: Does she know what she wants? Can any woman really know?
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Kat Rosenfield is a culture writer and novelist. Her next book, No One Will Miss Her, will be published by William Morrow in October 2021.