Stories of sexual abuse and misconduct are, of course, nothing new. The matter changes. So do the punishments and the means of restoration or reconciliation. When Oedipus, the legendary Greek king, was revealed to have engaged in an inappropriate sexual relationship, he put out his own eyes. Then, he insisted, “hide me somewhere outside your country, yes, or kill me, or throw me into the sea, to be forever out of your sight.” He turns out to have killed his father—unknowingly, and with some cause—and to have then married his mother, also unknowingly.
The offense contrasts significantly with the many stories of sexual harassment and abuse that have been revealed since the accounts of Harvey Weinstein’s pattern of predation went public. But the consequences contrast still more sharply. A leave of absence was not an option for Oedipus. Nothing short of exile from his political community would be sufficient.
As I have watched the flood stories of misconduct, I have tried to note the consequences that follow. The accusations have varied widely in their particulars. Weinstein himself seems to have operated an open and thorough system of coercion, outlandish harassment, and perhaps even prosecutable rape. Roy Moore is accused of molesting girls when he was in his thirties. Matt Lauer stands accused of flagrantly vicious workplace behavior. Al Franken took a lewd picture of a sleeping fellow entertainer, and stands accused by her and others of physical harassment. Louis C.K. took advantage of his power in his industry to masturbate in front of women. Kevin Spacey is accused of assaulting an underage boy.
The responses of the accused have varied widely as well. In a few cases—Moore’s most notably—unyielding denial has been the strategy. Those who admitted wrongdoing have done so with varying degrees of specificity and remorse. Garrison Keillor protested his innocence in a statement laden with passive-aggressive humor.
These misdeeds can be sorted by type and graded by severity by anyone who wishes. Such cataloguing may even be used as leverage or defense for whatever other issue seems to be at stake in accepting the accusations. This is especially useful in politics, where partisan loyalty and mutual interest can shield miscreants. Before his resignation, some online progressives (and Garrison Keillor) flocked to Franken’s defense, sometimes even borrowing the standard tactics of counter-attacking the victim. Donald Trump, accused by many women of groping, went after Franken on Twitter but stood by Moore, his fellow partisan in politics and denial. If Moore should win his election, he will be treated—much as Trump has been—as having been vindicated by the voters, without for a moment acknowledging that he did anything wrong.
Where electoral politics offer no protection, however, consequences have been more dully uniform. People have been fired from jobs or had projects cancelled. Spacey’s latest film role is being re-shot with another actor. Reputations have been damaged. Those are the currencies in which our society exacts its extra-legal penalties: money and prominence. There is a clear practical and moral logic to these particular levies. In most cases these were men whose professional and workplace actions are the cause, and whose prominence enabled their abuse. The companies that employ or collaborate with them are exposed to financial and reputational risks of their own if they don’t cut them loose.
Still, these financial and professional repercussions are too shallow and removed from either satisfaction or restitution to constitute anything like justice. Most of the actions are beyond the reach of law. And we do not share the kind of moral code that could exact penalties between those of the state and those of the employer or marketplace.
This is a strange thing about our moment in history. The story of Oedipus reminds us that banishment and ostracism were once standard practices for protecting a community from the danger and rupture implicit in certain kinds of crimes. Early Christians who lapsed from their moral code in particularly serious and public ways were subjected to canonical public penance. They sat outside the church doors, sometimes in literal sackcloth, begging for the prayers of those who could come to worship until they were restored to fellowship by receiving pardon. This ritual evolved into a method of addressing political quarrels and public disgrace in the Middle Ages. In North America, the Puritans famously had their stocks for the public display of wrongdoers.
We, on the other hand, seem bereft of methods to express and make real the fact that people do rend their communities in morally, if not always legally, consequential ways. The church practices live on almost as ghosts. Ritualized repentance and swift restoration, as recounted by some of the heartbreaking contributions to the #churchtoo discussion of sexual misconduct, were waived by many evangelical leaders in Trump’s case.
Pope Benedict XVI had the power to forcibly retire gangsterish abuser Marcial Maciel to a “life of reserved prayer and penance,” but he couldn’t stop Maciel from living it out in a gated community in Florida. There is no acknowledged need for the guilty to face his accusers, to fully account for his actions, to wander like Oedipus outside the city gate or sit in sackcloth like the penitent outside the door. It is accountability devoid of catharsis.
The flip side of this vacancy is that there’s no real way for a person to be restored or reconciled. They can, after the blows to income and standing have been sustained and the furor passes, just drift back. As Rebecca Traister cuttingly observed in an essential essay on the opening and possible closing of “the anger window”:
Women I’ve spoken to already predict, drily, that even the men suffering the harshest consequences will be rehabilitated soon enough: that 18 months from now, some ambitious New York Times editor will assign Leon Wieseltier an essay on identity politics, pitching it as counterintuitive, knowing it will get zillions of clicks; someone a decade from now will ask an 82-year-old James Toback to direct an artsy realist movie about sexual assault, and it will be admired by some prominent person as trenchant and gutsy.
The meaningless comeback will almost necessarily follow the empty comeuppance. Mere absence from the op-ed page or the Netflix queue will run its undefined term, to the point where the risk-reward ratio of associating with the today’s disgraced eminence is favorable again. Nothing need have been learned. No new duty to the community violated by misconduct need be embraced. No remorse beyond the emailed statement need be expressed.
If anything could spark some nostalgia for the stocks, or whatever other public indignity was once visited on the notable miscreant, it is that: a flood of creeps and monsters who can be neither ostracized nor restored, neither meaningfully damned nor properly forgiven. Even Oedipus, after all, had a second act. He had a service to render his former city and a place again in the human family. But the gods didn’t restore his eyes, and his final resting place was hidden. Some penalties can’t, and shouldn’t, be refunded.