This Old Louis CK Joke About Masturbating Seems To Excuse Bad Sexual Behavior

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On Nov. 9, The New York Times published an article that detailed five women’s alleged experiences with the comedian Louis C.K., where he reportedly asked to masturbate in front of them or could be heard masturbating while on the phone with them. These allegations of sexual misconduct validated what had been rumored about in the comedy world for a number of years, as had been previously reported in Gawker. As a pre-emptive response to the news report, the premiere of the comedian’s forthcoming movie, I Love You, Daddy, was cancelled, as Deadline reported, as was upcoming C.K.’s appearance on Stephen Colbert's late night show. Many people are wondering how to retroactively process some of the comedian’s jokes, which had previously been lauded for their risqué commentary on sex. One old Louis C.K. joke about masturbation takes on a very different resonance in light of these allegations, as it seems to normalizes sexual misconduct.

The joke, which can be heard in this video of a performance from 2011, begins with C.K. describing how “Sexual perversion is a problem” in this country, and goes into how people “have to jack off to everything,” including news on TV. The full bit goes:

In the video of the performance, C.K. can also be seen pantomiming masturbation towards the audience.

Henry C. Smith on YouTube

The joke is, on its surface, that C.K. is sexualizing a news report about Libya — which, you know, is not sexy. But the more insidious side of the joke is that C.K. is bringing the image of woman delivering the news report about Libya into his sexual practice — without her consent. The idea that somehow it’s OK to sexualize or masturbate to a woman who’s just doing her job — reading the news on camera — which could be seen as a precursor to the notion that you can do the same to a woman in real life who, say, is meeting with a potential professional mentor, as some of the women who claimed that C.K. masturbated in front of them were doing. Jokes like these break down the barrier between what is and is not part of a consensual sexual practice. They legitimize the idea that women exist purely for male pleasure, in and out of professional settings, allowing men in power to take advantage of those blurred lines to sexually harass or assault women in real life, not on video.

Let’s make sure one thing is crystal clear: there is nothing wrong with masturbation in and of itself, or of masturbating to images of people. (That’s the premise of porn, right?) The problem here is that the joke normalizes sexualizing women in a professional setting — with or without their consent, doing so is an unequivocal abuse of power.

As The Cut detailed, Louis C.K. performed many jokes about masturbation throughout his career that can be read in very differently light now that the allegations about his sexual misconduct have been made public. Another time, where C.K. appeared on Fox News with the female leader of an organization called “Christians Against Masturbation,” he said, “[L]ater, I’m going to masturbate and think about you. And there’s nothing you can do about it.” This is another bit that, before these recent allegations came out, sounded like raunchy but ultimately harmless humor. That last part, through — the “there’s nothing you can do about it” — speaks to a scary seeming disregard for consent that plays into a normalization of this behavior that men in power have been getting away with for millennia. But now, as more and more women are empowered to name their harassers and assaulters, men can no longer take such an indifferent attitude towards consent — and, as we’ve seen over the past month, they won’t be getting away with this behavior much longer.