The one thing I keep coming back to when thinking about Louis C.K. now isn’t the bizarre and abusive sexual habits revealed, in detail, last week by the New York Times—repeated forms of sexual misconduct that confirm the long-standing rumors about him and validate platforms such as Gawker, which first reported on this several years ago. It’s also not his statement after the Times story dropped, in which he admits that the women who came forward are telling the truth and covers almost every base but doesn’t quite read as an apology (mainly because he doesn’t actually apologize).
It’s not even how his work—which has frequently, delicately, painfully and hilariously delved into the politics of sex, sexual acts and sexual deviance, and his own sexual anxieties, proclivities and angsts—has to be seen as either him attempting to grapple with his own real-life demons or a performatively progressive cover allowing him a space to conceal his real-life misdeeds (or some combination of both).
No, it’s how these rumors have existed, apparently, for over a decade, during which time he either dismissed them as lies or refused to acknowledge them at all. Only when he was outed on an international platform did he decide to do something he could have done 10 years ago. So not only did he abuse these women—he also very publicly gaslighted them and everyone they shared this story with, denying them the small consolation of public vindication for (at least) a decade.
This—the outing of men like Louis C.K. and Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey happening what seems like every day now—is not going to end soon. Shit, it may not end at all. There will be more and more public figures who will be discovered to be private menaces. And more and more nonfamous women (and men) speaking out against their nonfamous abusers. This snowball is racing down the mountain, and it’s growing and accelerating and bulldozing everything in its path.
The scope and the pervasiveness of this culture of abuse and our roles in perpetuating it—and not “our” as in men collectively but ourselves specifically—has resulted recently in a reflexive and unwieldy and messy and self-conscious excavation of memories, relationships and interactions: a digging that has intersecting intents. It’s reconciling with what you might have done—and might currently be doing—to prevent yourself from doing it in the future. And, well, it’s asking yourself, “How fucked up am I?” Which, expressed another way, is “Wait ... should I be worried about this avalanche, too?”
The answer, of course, is hell fucking yes. We are all complicit. We are all agents of patriarchy, and we’ve all benefited from it. We are all active contributors to rape culture. All of us. No one is exempt. We all have investments in and take deposits out of the same bank. And we all need to accept and reconcile ourselves with the fact that, generally speaking, we are trash.
I know it stings. It should. It should sizzle. It should stun. It should burn a hole through your fucking back. But this sting is just an acknowledgment of reality, and the discomfort it’s causing is that reality punching you in the chest. These countless instances of abuse are the natural and unsurprising result of a culture—of a world—that devalues women. And considers them disposable. And treats them as if agency is nonexistent. And attempts to corral their sexuality and maintain a lordship over it while simultaneously rewarding men for conquering it.
It’s a culture where you could reasonably and justifiably believe that men like Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby achieved so much in their careers not because of a love of what they do but specifically because they knew that increased power and status would give them more access to people (women and men) they could dominate sexually. It’s a world where every physical, emotional, spiritual and metaphysical weapon known to man—including but not limited to shame, physical pain, slander, income and sexual assault—is employed to maintain this privilege.
You also should know that trash doesn’t have to mean irredeemable. But before that can even begin to happen, we have to accept how gotdamn cavernous this shit is and refuse any urge to absolve ourselves from it. That means believing women when they express their feelings and experiences with this. It means expanding our definitions of what constitutes abuse and realizing that abusive behavior exists on a spectrum and isn’t always aggressive and doesn’t always result in visible scars. It might not even be recognized as abusive until years after it happened. It’s possessing a sincere want for the world to just be safer, and a recognition of all the things we’ve done and currently do that contribute to a culture of relentless danger.
It’s sincerely wanting to divest in patriarchy and any other social construct that cultivates, maintains and protects hierarchy. It’s accepting that there are women you’ve wronged who may never forgive you, and that’s their right. (And their not forgiving you or even wanting to hear anything from you shouldn’t make you throw a tantrum. Because again, that’s their right.)
It’s not having your feelings fucking hurt and pouting when called trash. “Trash” is just a word to encapsulate a range of selfish, destructive and oblivious behaviors. Behaviors that we’ve come to accept as male birthrights—even going as far as (half) jokingly calling ourselves and allowing ourselves to be referred to as “dogs.” It’s recognizing that there’s no distinction between “men are dogs” and “men are trash.” One has a less negative connotation and is more likely to be embraced, but they describe the exact-same behavior. It’s accepting that those selfish, destructive and oblivious acts aren’t inherently male. They’re just inherently trash.
If it helps, think about everything we know about racism. And how the less visible forms of bias combine with both overt acts of hate and the structural racism embedded in our nation’s core on every level to maintain white supremacy. Think about all of the acts of abuse and hate and violence committed against black Americans (and other nonwhite people) and how the well of white supremacy is so deep that we don’t even know where it ends (or if it ends at all).
Now try to apply those same thoughts—particularly the vastness of its impact—to patriarchy. And sexism. And gender and/or sex-based abuse and violence. Also, while we’re talking about race, don’t allow the high-profile and mostly white men—and their mostly white female victims—in the news cycle to lead you to believe that this is an exclusively white problem and that the only perpetrators are white men and the only victims are white women.
It, as my friend Shamira Ibrahim stated during a conversation yesterday, is recognizing the significance of admission—sparing women the indignity of having their memories and recollections questioned and doubted. It’s not doing what Louis C.K. did, where he took so much from these women and then took even more after denying—for years—that he took anything.
It means knowing that this is just a start. Even the words I’m writing today are extraordinarily superficial compared with the work that needs to be done and the writing and research and study already done. It’s finding the space to engage with difficult work such as this from Rebecca Traister. And this from Danielle Young. And this from Natalie Degraffinried.
It’s seeking published works from bell hooks and Brittney Cooper and Kimberlé Crenshaw and following and listening to Eve Ewing and Deesha Philyaw and Jamilah Lemieux and Danielle Butler and Tarana Burke and so many other women I can name, and so many others you’ll find after them. It’s digging for and discovering your blind spots and finding and reading and listening to and reading the already existing work that might help you see.
It’s treating women like people and not “a person I want to fuck.” And if you don’t happen to want to fuck her, it’s still treating her like a person and not “a person I don’t want to fuck.” It’s asking the women in your life, “What do you need?” instead of “What should I do?” which seems like just a minute semantic distinction but really isn’t.
It’s realizing that it’s going to be hard as fuck. It’s being unconcerned with lauds and pats on the back and any other signs that women have recognized that you managed to clear a shin-level bar. They will be—shit, they are—furious and fed up. At us. At you. At me. At the culture that allowed this to happen. At the country that allowed this culture to breathe and breed. At the fact that it’s taking such an onslaught of terrible news for so many of us to begin to realize that the world treats them terribly. That we treat them terribly. And that’s fine. Because it’s necessary. Because we need to be fucking furious, too.
Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VSB, a columnist for GQ.com, and the author of What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Blacker (Ecco/HarperCollins)