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Keep 9 to 5 all about work

Louis C.K.'s 'predicament' line laudable even if his conduct isn't
Louis C.K. sexual harassment
Cast member Louis C.K. attends the "American Hustle" movie premiere in New York December 8, 2013. REUTERS/Eric Thayer

By Todd Humber

There are no bright spots in the avalanche of sexual harassment stories, but there are some areas with a little bit less darkness.

Earlier this year, I noted that the punishment was starting to fit the crime. Powerful men in powerful positions have been toppled from their perches, thanks to the courage of men and women who have come forward.

We’re not past the tipping point, but the culture is changing with the #metoo movement and victims feeling somewhat more comfortable about speaking up.

Another bright spot came courtesy of Louis C.K. Full disclosure: I was a big fan of the comedian — I’ve seen him live in concert, I’ve watched most of his specials and I’ve even quoted him in my editorials. When his name was added to the pile of abusers, I was sorely disappointed.

He didn’t come clean when the accusations were first levelled. He refused to talk to the New York Times when it called him for comment earlier this month. But when he did break his silence, he did something rare: He took responsibility. (Don’t get me wrong, he’s still a douchebag. And his “apology” fell short in one key area — he didn’t directly say sorry to the women he subjected to displays of masturbation.)

When nearly every other perpetrator maintains innocence, often to the bitter end despite overwhelming evidence and the additional pain denials cause victims, this can only be described as refreshing.

 “These stories are true,” he wrote in a statement. “At the time, I said to myself that what I did was okay because I never showed a woman my dick without asking first, which is also true. 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. It’s a predicament for them.”

Predicament. That word sums up the issue so perfectly — a power imbalance renders consent meaningless. On Nov. 11, Saturday Night Live tackled the issue of workplace sexual harassment head on with an appearance on Weekend Update by “Claire from human resources.”

The frazzled professional — played by Cecily Strong — came armed with a quiz on office relationships. In between drinking shots of Purell (“I find that it cleanses me,” she said), she quizzed host Colin Jost with questions like “What is the appropriate way to handle a workplace relationship?” She gave the following options:

A) Inform someone in HR.

B) Lock her in a room and make her look at it.

C) Bully her out of the industry.

“You’d be surprised how many people get that wrong,” she deadpanned. She went on to ask when it was appropriate for an adult to have a sexual relationship with a 14-year-old? Or “When talking to a co-worker in the office, where should you keep your penis?”

Strong ended the sketch by stating, seriously: “All of this isn’t just a scandal. It didn’t just start last week. It’s actual reality for half the population.”

When I’ve covered this topic in the past, I’ve received emails and Twitter messages and anonymous comments, ranging from “You’re not a man” to “Move on to another topic.” I am, and we won’t. A real man wouldn’t harass a woman, and a real adult wouldn’t go after a child. We will continue to cover this story, and put it on the cover — like we did for this issue — as long as it remains a problem.

A pessimist would say we’re going to devote a lot of ink to it. While discussing Uber’s pledge to donate $5 million to organizations that prevent sexual assault, Neil Malamuth — a psychologist at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) — served up a dose of reality.

Education and training might work for low-risk men, but “no study or data shows any effectiveness of high-risk males,” he told the Associated Press.

For these knuckle-draggers, we need a different deterrent — public shaming and the loss of their employment or position in society. We’ve got a mountain of stories that have already been told. From producer Harvey Weinstein to talk show host Bill O’Reilly. From celebrity chef John Besh to fashion photographer Terry Richardson. Actor Kevin Spacey, former head of NPR Michael Oreskes, journalist Mark Halperin, publisher Knight Landesman, producer Brett Ratner, politician Jeff Hoover… it’s an exhausting list and might make potential perpetrators think twice.

One area of confusion is where the line is drawn. I recently listened to a fascinating back and forth on what constitutes sexual harassment on a Toronto radio station — a host had been told by a male colleague that she looked beautiful, and that her husband was a “very lucky man.”

The woman found the comment slightly off-putting, but the opinions from others were mixed. Her male co-workers thought he’d crossed the line and was most definitely hitting on her. The women in the group, though, thought it was generally a harmless thing to say and she should take the compliment.

With such fuzzy lines, differing opinions and individual sensitivities, we can’t safely draw the line anywhere. Rather, let’s keep the 9 to 5 compliments solely about the task at hand and leave the flirtatious banter for the dating scene. 

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Todd Humber

Todd Humber is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. Follow him on Twitter @ToddHumber
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