When the manager of a fast food restaurant, or the office HR representative, or the school principal, unzips his pants and takes out his penis in front of a colleague, employee or student, and begins to masturbate in front of her without her consent behind closed doors, it’s clear as day, blatant sexual harassment. You don’t need to be schooled in the intricacies of gender theory to know that a man whipping out his dick in the workplace is wrong.
But many of Louis CK’s fans cannot conceive of his behavior as textbook sexual harassment, despite the fact that several of the allegations include him masturbating in front of two colleagues at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival. In one instance, CK asked a comedian if he could masturbate in front of her while they were working together on set, and a woman was subjected to CK masturbating on the phone during what was meant to be an extended invite to her comedy show. These women are comedy writers and comedians who were all doing their job, writing and networking, when CK jarringly propositioned them. And yet fans and friends hem and haw over everything CK supposedly lost rather than the fact that he was directly responsible for making women feel unsafe and uncomfortable at work.
There’s no difference between CK harassing a woman on set and Joe from accounting doing the same at the office, except the fact that one is more easily excused because CK has styled himself a professional provocateur. It’s easy to map out the contours of a workplace when it’s defined by cubicles or the formal, simple transaction of labor and money. Those spaces won’t stop men from sexually harassing women, but there are clear delineations in place for misconduct that occurs in a traditional workplace. It’s harder to define those lines in the entertainment industry, where work is supposed to be fun and free-wheeling, which most men seem to interpret as being an opportunity to harass women and pass it off either a punchline or a symptom of their boys’ club industry. And when many in the entertainment industry think of the writers’ room, or the comedy festival, or the backstage, as a non-stop party where harassment is just a casual joke, where does the expectation of professionalism actually begin?
R. Kelly has also benefited from this nebulous space. He takes advantage of the less defined workplace that’s standard for people who make art for a living. As highlighted in Lifetime’s docuseries Surviving R. Kelly, his accusers allege that there was no space in his working life that wasn’t also used to abuse women. Women who were underage at the time say that Kelly picked them up backstage, on music video shoots, or in the studio. The history of male artists constantly in contact with underaged fans and the work environment Kelly and so many famous musicians move in, in which recording time bleeds into partying or hanging out and vice versa, has excused the allegations in the eyes of his fans.
The veneer of casual “fun” that covers the entertainer’s workplace and normalizes abuse also extends to the work itself. Fans aren’t supposed to see the seams that hold a piece of performance together, whether it’s a comedy set or a song. When CK cracks a joke on stage, he delivers it so that it sounds like a casual conversation. And when Kelly croons to his women fans about how much he wants to bump n’ grind, they’re not thinking about the hours spent in the studio composing the song, they’re thinking of Kelly as an individually talented person expressing his authentic emotions.
It’s this casualness that seems to warp fans’ understanding of the behind-the-scenes labor of art; it makes it seem as if these men are not doing something far more important, and far more elevated, than a fairly routine job. Even if the nebulous spaces these men make are built to naturalize predatory behavior and carefree machoism, where women are just accessories backstage or fawning in the audience, they are still at work. And the comedians who reached out to speak with CK in professional spaces, and the young women who talked to Kelly about jumpstarting their music career, came to these men in the context of work.
Fans cry that CK is being censored when women protest his new appearances at clubs (which he continues to book with regularity) or that the campaigns to #MuteRKelly are the result of a greedy conspiracy. A man should have a right to make a living, detractors argue. But that myopic focus disregards women who want to make a living as well, for whom these nebulous workspaces are seemingly impossible to navigate without being harassed. To deny CK and Kelly the ability to perform in certain spaces or to move as easily as they once have in their industries is not censorship, just as firing a noted sexual predator from any office is not censorship; it’s a protection for the women who work there and who simply want to work in peace.