It is virtually impossible today to turn on the news without encountering a story of a man who has behaved badly sexually. Understandably, the initial response of many of us is to be offended, angry, repulsed, and/or demanding he be punished. However, it concerns me that our reactions can be so swift, punitive and judgmental.
Full disclosure: I️ am a practicing clinical and forensic psychologist. Every day I️ evaluate and treat men who have transgressed the line of mainstream sexual behavior. I️ have personally never evaluated, treated, or even met Louis C.K. I️ am a big fan of his work.
This week, the general public has become aware of multiple instances of Louis CK’s propensity to masturbate in the presence of non-consenting women. Even though Louis has admitted that these allegations are true, has expressed remorse, and expressed a desire to better understand and control his sexual behavior, the reaction to his offensive behavior has been fast and furious. The scheduled release of his new movie has been canceled, he has been dismissed from most all of his television projects, and he has been abandoned by his management company and his publicist. While these reactions may seem understandable, they represents our strong desire to punish those whose behavior crosses acceptable boundaries.
Often we look to punishments as a first course of action because the behaviors (especially when they are sexual behaviors) can be frightening to us. Problematic sexual behaviors create a sense of anxiety that we look to quash as soon as possible. Anxiety (and fear) may be the most distressing emotions we humans face. I️ have long believed that the desire to escape anxiety may represent the greatest of all human motivations. When we encounter a situation that makes us feel anxious, we naturally look to shut it down as soon as we are able. It gives us a sense of control, correctness, and stability. However, in the case of Louis C.K., our desire to feel more in control over the unacceptable sexual behavior of men often leads us to neglect a critically important question.
In the world of Trauma-Informed Therapy, there is an increasing recognition that the narrative must be changed from the pathology focused, “What’s wrong with you?” to the more compassionate focused, “What happened to you?” Our anxiety propels us to find answers that are overly simplistic, reductionistic, and allow us to close the door on the matter swiftly. We are quick to say that Louis C.K. is entitled, aggressive, narcissistic, insensitive, controlling, manipulative, and/or ill. While any, or all, of these descriptors may be true, we need to consider the possibility that none of them actually are. How do we know that Louis C.K. has not been exposed to some trauma in his past that significantly impacts the way he lives his life, or conducts his relationships? How do we know that the real trauma “victims” here are not the women whom Louis C.K. behaved badly towards, but Louis C.K. himself? Please be clear—I️ am not excusing, justifying, or condoning Louis CK’s behavior. Quite the contrary, I️ agree with those who may have found his actions offensive and intrusive. There is a difference between an attempt to explain or understand, and an attempt to excuse or pardon. However, what we know about Louis CK’s actions is quite different from what we are hearing about the actions of, say, Harvey Weinstein. To me, Louis C.K. appears much less “entitled” than he appears to have “injured”.
Louis C.K. is representative of the men I️ sit with every day. They are often confused, frustrated, humiliated, and contemptuous of their own behaviors. They do not know why they do what they do, but most all are relieved to be stopped. Such men are often in great pain, and desperately hide their true selves from others. I️ view Louis CK’s situation through a lens of compassionate curiosity and a desire to understand, “What happened to you, Louie?” “Have you experienced significant trauma that may be amenable to treatment and resolution?”
Perhaps we have judged Louis C.K. too quickly and too harshly. Perhaps we should re-think the strategy of punishment and abandonment, and learn to better tolerate our own sense of anxiety, discomfort, and vulnerability? Perhaps we can learn to consider the possibility that people who behave badly are not simply “bad people?” Perhaps someday we will learn the answer to the question, “What happened to you Louis C.K.?”
Dr. Daniel N. Watter is the immediate past-president of the Society for Sex Therapy and Research (SSTAR).