Yesterday, the predation-themed news cycle of the past month seemed to lurch into overdrive, with two seemingly juxtaposed revelations about the improper sexual behavior of two men positioned at nearly polar opposite ends of the culture wars. Roy Moore, a burr in Republicans’ backsides who’s running to fill Jeff Sessions’s Alabama senatorial seat, was hit squarely with a giant Washington Post story alleging that he preyed on teenage girls thirty-eight years ago. “Fake news,” Moore cried, even as Republican big men like John McCain and Mitch McConnell, happy for any reason, the ickier the better, to distance themselves from the Ten Commandments-thumping former judge, stated he should step down if the allegations are true.
And farther North, the mensch-y and self-effacing comedian, Louis CK, known for defending rape jokers and for a stage repertoire that includes a queasy abundance of masturbation jokes, was the subject of a scathing New York Times report. Allegedly, CK rather compulsively masturbated offstage as well—in front of unwilling, alarmed female colleagues. All this unwelcome attention to the comedian’s sexualized abuse of power resulted in the prompt cancellation of the New York premiere of his new movie, I Love You, Daddy—a work that, in CK’s self-referenced style, addressed the issue of sexual predation on the part of a revered movie director. The director—played in the film by John Malkovich—appears to be modeled on Woody Allen, preying as he does on the teenage daughter of the film’s protagonist, played by CK. Given the premier’s cancellation on the heels of the Moore bombshell, I Love You, Daddy may be remembered less as the work of a once-comedy auteur than the world’s most disastrous and ill-timed work of inadvertent punditry.
Moore’s a conservative nationalist Christian who’s made a career of crusading for “traditional family values”—the kind that discriminates against Muslims, everybody of color, non-heterosexuals, or women who, well, do anything more than marry one man, keep their mouths shut, and have babies. Pre-marital sex? It’s damning . . . but just for women. While many of Moore’s detractors are making much of the age of his targets, it’s worth noting that it was legal for fourteen year olds to marry in Alabama until 2003.
Moore, the former state Supreme Court Justice, has a hero-like status in Alabama’s conservative circles. They think that he’s a more pious version of Donald Trump: outspoken, righteous, willing to say what’s on his mind. He was removed from the bench twice: once for refusing to dismantle a statue outside the state judicial building in Montgomery that showed the ten commandments; the second time, in 2016, for continuing to enforce the state’s same-sex marriage ban after it had been lifted by the Supreme Court. Public policy, in Moore’s formulation, shouldn’t be separate from religion, it should be religion. And religion should be defined just the way that Roy Moore chooses to interpret it.
For all the invective that liberals and secularists heap on Moore for being fatally out of touch with the Zeitgeist, it’s important to recall that, in evangelical circles, Moore isn’t a throwback. Indeed, he’s an American archetype, standing on the shoulders of fundamentalist leaders like Billy Graham who warned that national greatness was dependent on a morally pure citizenry. Moral and racial purity, Graham preached, was the only thing that could protect the country from the threat of his era’s greatest enemy, communism. Moore and his fellow crusaders have updated the enemy, somewhat, but their ideological purposes remain the same: to vigilantly police sexual activity in order to make the nation safe.
“By linking sexual deviance, national vulnerability, and the expectation of immanent apocalypse, fundamentalists were able to reinterpret nineteenth century sexual-purity rhetoric for a nuclear age,” wrote Sara Moslener in Virgin Nation, her 2015 book on sexual purity and American faith. This rhetoric of morality and security has been a dominant feature of American politics ever since, from Francis Schaeffer’s New Christian Right in the 1970s to James Dobson’s influential Focus on the Family and Family Research Council, which helped to reassure Christians that Trump was a welcome means to at least realize their prophetic political ends.
The role of women in this evolving framework has always been one of subservience and duty. National strength was dependent on women who restrained their own sexual impulses. Sizing up the mid-twentieth century ethos of policing families to produce national security, Moslener writes that the Graham-age fundamentalists believed that women “can’t possibly control men’s sexuality if they are unable to contain their own.”
It’s important to recall that, in evangelical circles, Moore isn’t a throwback.
Contemporary iterations of purity ideology continue to shape public policy, from abstinence education that keeps young women vulnerable to the threat of pregnancy and disease, to laws that increasingly restrict access to legal abortion—rendering reproductive health care unthinkable or shameful. It’s this shaming of women for male sexual behavior that allows men to continue predatory sexual behavior without consequence. When women are responsible for male actions—as moral actors, as mothers, as victims—men get a pass and the nation remains sovereign. Instead, women bear the consequences, whether it’s single motherhood, unequal pay, or exclusion from decision-making roles in politics and the workplace.
The hypocrisy of Roy Moore’s story falls on many deaf ears because the responsibility for his actions is placed on the young women he pursued in malls or his place of work. Within this myopic patriarchal framework, the consequences they suffered are theirs alone. There’s no way to predict how the Washington Post’s revelations will affect Moore’s campaign—but many are betting that voters will shrug and carry on. Moore, according to Alabama law, can no longer be taken off the ballot.
However unsavory Moore’s behavior, he’s the man Republicans now have. After all, sexual assault can hardly be a disqualifying factor in Republicans’ eyes; Trump is the president. The qualms McCain, McConnell and others have with Moore are of a very different nature, having to do with unleashing a righteous demagogue in the Senate who’ll make Ted Cruz look like Daniel Webster. But leaders of the Republican establishment are happy to seize on information that helps their cause.
The hypocrisy of Louis CK’s story involves much more than his designation, in the reliably retrograde and sexist comedy world, as a male feminist even as he jerked off in front of women. There’s a deeper hypocrisy here indicting, much as the revelations about Harvey Weinstein did, the whole of our entertainment culture. Despite the gasps that now issue from the inner circles of the comedy and television world, nearly everyone around CK knew about his repellent behavior. We knew. (The now-defunct Gawker media group had published reports of CK’s conduct back in 2012.)
And in any event, it wasn’t hard to guess. Like Moore, Louis CK preyed on women because he could get away with it. And we—i.e., American culture at large—let him. This entails much the same glum realization that strikes us when we ponder the twisted world of evangelical patriarchy: women are still second-class citizens here; invisible and voiceless.
The brilliant Washington Post story on Moore’s past predation by Stephanie McCrummen, Beth Reinhard, and Alice Crites reads like a Nieman Storyboard of journalistic best practices. And that’s because it has to. Women’s reports of sexual assault have long been discredited: She should have gone to the police, she should have spoken out at the time, she should have said no. For all of our claims of progress, the first reaction to accusations of sexual misconduct by men in influential positions—and by this I mean all men, not just political or entertainment kings—is skepticism. Our particular political moment, as Trump sits in the Oval Office and Harvey Weinstein is chased from the helm of his Hollywood empire, confirms that women’s claims may have varying political impact. But let’s not forget that Weinstein got away with rampant sexual assault for decades.
Reactions to the Roy Moore and Louis CK allegations have infused the internet’s hot air like Alabama kudzu or Hollywood sunshine. It’s been a polarized affair. “No one on the left is high-fiving over Louis CK. We’re all appalled,” tweeted Jeff Tiedrich. “Meanwhile on the right, the deplorables are coming out of the woodwork to defend Roy Moore.”
It’s this shaming of women for male sexual behavior that allows men to continue predatory sexual behavior without consequence.
It’s true. Defenders of Moore are not hard to come by. “Take Joseph and Mary,” Jim Ziegler, Alabama’s state auditor said, in defending Moore’s taste for much younger women, “Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter. They became parents of Jesus.” Moore’s wife is fourteen years younger than he is.
Defenders of Louis CK are basically the manly men of Twitter obscurity—you know, of the “innocent until proven guilty,” or “women making themselves famous” variety. Defending or deploring, the sanctimony is unbearable. After all, no one is surprised. Find me a Republican male without alarming proclivities about sexual abstinence, women’s health, or even eating with women. But men of the entertainment world aren’t off the hook either.
Allegations have long surrounded Louis CK. “I don’t remember when I heard the rumors about him. But I’m sure it was before the last time he was on Parks and Rec. And that sucks. And I’m sorry,” wrote producer Michael Schur who tweets as @KenTremendous. (Schur also tweeted, tellingly yet confusingly, “Roy Moore is the exact point where the möbius strip of Evangelical Christianity and the GOP bends around and connects to itself.”)
Like women all across the country, I’m in a blinding rage that this putrid behavior continues. That women’s reports of offense and assault are still too often shrugged off. That I was even prone to think of my own experiences in this realm as either my fault or just part of the job. That access to women’s bodies is still in thought or act, the right of men. While the consequences that Roy Moore and Louis CK face may differ, their behavior continued for decades. And while the right may have embraced and justified its predation of women’s safety and health for the rhetorical progress of our country, the left has resoundingly ignored sexual assault, excusing it away as the price of being women in the world.
So if we’re to change any of this dismal patriarchal consensus, we have to start by recognizing the obvious: yesterday’s twin reports on Roy Moore and Louis CK remind us that sexual assault and women’s inequality are still everyone’s problem.