Louis CK is a reminder that enlightened jokes alone don’t make you Top Feminist

Men benefit from extremely low standards when it comes to feminism.

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Selfish, but the first thing I thought when the Louis CK story broke yesterday was “there goes the bear riff”. I love the bear riff. I’ve seen CK do it live – at the O2 in 2013 – and let me tell you, it was very funny. The bear riff is about dating, and I’m now going to murder it by writing it out. Think of it as a long way round to Margaret Atwood’s axiom, “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them”, only with more punchlines.

“It takes courage to go on a date, for both sides,” says CK. “The male courage, traditionally, is that he decided to ask… And the courage it takes for a woman to say yes is beyond anything I can imagine.” Here, he starts to ramp up: “Globally and historically, we’re the number one threat of injury and mayhem to women. We’re the worst thing that ever happens to them. That’s true!” At this point the audience discomfort breaks into laughter, but CK’s got further to go with the joke: “If you’re a guy, try to imagine that you could only date a half-bear, half-lion. ‘Oh, I hope this one’s nice. I hope he doesn’t do what he’s going to do.’”

As someone who’s spent a hefty chunk of her professional life trying to get people to take seriously the idea that men are a threat to women, hearing a crowd of 16,000 get on board with the theme was a pretty great moment. I didn’t enjoy the bear riff so much when I looked it up on YouTube for this piece. Somehow it’s lost its shine since the New York Times published five women’s corroborating accounts of CK’s “sexual misconduct” – which is a nice dry way of describing an alleged predilection for slapping out his penis and masturbating in front of women.

CK has responded to the allegations confirming them as true, and apologising for his conduct. But the contrast between his stage show rhetoric and the news reports is a reminder of an idea, curiously widely held, that men only commit sexual offences because they don’t know any better. Either they’re dinosaurs lumbered with 70s-sitcom attitudes after the meteor of feminism, and so deserve our pity. Or, if the men in question are too young for that defence, then they’ve been miseducated in the subtle ways of women, and what they need is a crash course of consent classes to help them grasp the perilous difference between yes and no.

For as long as there have been rumours about CK (and they’ve been circulating for a long time), there has also been disbelief, which came in part from the fact that he wrote material with such an incisive sense of patriarchy’s workings. One Slate article even labelled it “feminist comedy”.

It’s typical of the low standards men benefit from that simply describing how men are bad for women could be enough to get CK lauded as a hero of the women’s movement. In the same way that a male primary school teacher who simply shows up to work for long enough can find himself glass-elevatored to the headship, just dropping some chat about sex and power can be enough to see a man appointed Top Feminist. And if, like CK (who wove references to a pathetic masturbation habit throughout his comedy), he seems to be admitting to personal foibles as he goes? Then he can be praised all the more for his honesty.

There are men, for sure, who mouth feminism as a social nicety with no thought for how it ties up with their private actions. But I want to give the men who commit sexual harassment more credit than that. I’m sure that most of them “get it”. Actually, it’s kind of hard for a man to effectively harass and abuse women if he doesn’t “get it” – “it” being the relative standings of men and women in society. Knowing you’ve got the power doesn’t in any way imply a commitment to give it up. Right now, as we pick up the post-Weinstein pieces, the last thing I want is to hear men being coruscating about how bad they are. Fuck your bear riff, shut your mouth, and zip your dick up for a long, long time please.

This article was updated on 10 November 2017 to include Louis CK's response.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.