Sexploitations: America Has No Idea How to Punish Sex Offenders

Moral panic isn't the best solution.

UPDATE (Nov. 9, 12:30 p.m.): This story has been updated to reflect the allegations made against Louis C.K.

When the revelations that actor Kevin Spacey was a serial sexual predator came to light, they brought out a lot of things, among them finger-pointing, denial, obnoxious contrarianism, and total panic among Netflix executives. House of Cards may not — yet — be canceled outright, but it’s likely that, at the very least, Spacey’s character will be killed off or otherwise written out. His grotesque mea culpa-slash-coming-out letter passively conflated gayness with sexual predation, a falsehood LGBTQ activists have been combating for decades. If gay people sound a tad merciless in denouncing Spacey, it’s because he forced their hand.

Meanwhile, reports have surfaced that knowledge of his misconduct was “widespread” on set. It’s not quite Harvey Weinstein, but it’s no longer plausible to say that Spacey was simply caught up in a climate of hysteria. However many staffers knew what the star in their midst was up to, the fact is that up to 300 people may soon lose their jobs because of him. House of Cards depicts a devious, amoral president whose initials are F.U. Presumably, its audience gets a vicarious thrill out of watching Frank Underwood connive and cheat his way to the corridors of power. But while the real White House’s occupant got there in spite of the public knowing he was a serial sexual predator, a fake one will get ejected from the Oval Office for a similar offense.

Does anybody remember how, in American Beauty, Spacey’s character blackmails his employer by claiming a male colleague made a sexually inappropriate remark?

You can find any number of double standards at work in this bizarre situation. It’s unlikely Spacey’s publicist and agent — the fixers celebrities pay to help them weather scandal — would have dropped him if he’d had a serious drug problem or committed a burglary or two. And in spite of taboos against rape and cannibalism alike, Americans can watch infinite zombies eat human flesh on The Walking Dead without a twinge of moral compunction — but apparently, we’re unable to handle looking at a character when the actor playing him likes to grope his coworkers.

The whole thing feels almost like something Claire Underwood might concoct to do away with her rival. But what’s also true is that American society has no idea how to deal with the sexual abuse crisis — as it pertains to public figures, anyway. Whether Weinstein is convicted of anything or not, we have no idea where to focus our urge to shame. He was a prolific donor to Democrats and liberal causes, and Republicans attempts to smear them are rather brazen, considering Trump’s behavior.

It’s worse in the case of someone who positioned himself as a moralist. The New York Times today published a well-reported story on Louis C.K.’s habit of masturbating in front of women, which multiple people — including Courtney Cox and David Arquette — have confirmed. C.K.’s position as a famous comic was an abuse of trust and power. The premiere of his newest film and an appearance on Colbert have been canceled, and he’ll likely lose a ton of bookings. But after that, what?

It’s inevitable that more powerful men from the culture industries will be revealed as sexual predators, and we simply have no protocol ready for how to handle that. After 9/11, reruns of a certain Simpsons episode edited out a scene where Homer tries to pee in the Twin Towers, out of deference to people’s sensibilities. Do we similarly banish Kevin Spacey to limbo, along with all his work? If Netflix cancels House of Cards, should it quietly remove American Beauty and The Usual Suspects from its streaming library?

Dustin Hoffman allegedly groped Meryl Streep, and maybe many other women, too. Do we kill off his filmography, to make a stand on behalf of women everywhere that this behavior will not be tolerated? If we don’t, are we saying it will be tolerated? Do we revoke his Oscars, or bar Hoffman from the Academy like a cinematic Pete Rose? (Hoffman himself actually suggested as much, only he was referring to the movies that Weinstein pushed the Academy to reward.) But who makes these decisions, and whose input are they soliciting?

It’s not just Hollywood, either. Sacramento is in the middle of a #MeToo crisis of its own. The next chance we have to elect a lot more women to public office isn’t for another year. What do we do about it in the meantime?

This will be tricky. Certainly, powerful offenders would love to turn down the temperature on this, if only to save their own hides. We can’t let the Harvey Weinsteins of the world keep getting away with it, but we have to balance competing considerations, as we inhabit a culture in which anything that differs from procreative, heterosexual intercourse within the confines of marriage remains suspect. It’s not merely homophobia or slut-shaming; a sizeable percentage of the population is utterly unhinged on pretty much all sexual matters. A Christian conspiracy theorist and “firefighter prophet” named Mark Taylor has been claiming Donald Trump imprisoned 3,000 “elite pedophiles.”

Who even knows what that means — but the guy’s got an audience, and the last 12 months have taught us not to underestimate the internet’s paranoid, ill-informed trolls. Still, we shouldn’t underestimate our own inability to grapple with the current crisis.

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