From apologies to denials, a guide to the complex world of post-Me Too comebacks

Comedian Louis CK in Feb 2015
Comedian Louis CK in Feb 2015
Image: Charles Sykes/Invision/AP
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Since the Me Too movement took off in October 2017, hundreds of men (and some women) have faced allegations of sexual misconduct. It’s been an unprecedented moment of reckoning—people in power, and the public, finally believe accusers, and many of the high-profile men charged with harassment and abuse, including Harvey Weinstein, Les Moonves, and Mario Batali have lost their jobs.

So now what?

This isn’t a rhetorical question. Some men, like Weinstein, have faced legal consequences. But others are already attempting to make career comebacks. It’s not yet clear, however, who will be permitted to return. Is it only the people who can prove they have truly changed? Those who were accused of the most minor offenses? The men who simply wait long enough?

The recipe for the perfect comeback

“I don’t think there is a real formula [to make a comeback],” says Risa Heller, the owner of a New York-based PR firm that does crisis communication. The Me Too movement meant accusations tumbled out at breakneck speed, but the details surrounding each accusation, which range from asking female coworkers to be surrogate mothers to multiple instances of sexual assault, vary so widely that it’s nearly impossible to make sweeping pronouncements about who’s likely to be dismissed for good.

In an attempt to explore the complexity of comebacks, Quartz looked at several hundred examples of men felled by the Me Too movement for a variety of alleged infractions, drawing primarily from lists compiled by the New York Times and Vox. We found a small number—fewer than 50—that managed to make comebacks—people who have returned to their previous industry or otherwise re-entering the public space with at least some acceptance from others in their field.

Using this admittedly small sample, we determined rough classifications of comebacks that illustrate the numerous paths some accused have taken back to the spotlight.

The apology. Psychologically, apologies are really important. They help victims begin to heal from a perceived wrong. “We know now from neurological research that we have a justice center in our brains. It’s triggered when we are treated unjustly,” says Alfred Allan, a psychology professor at Edith Cowan University in Australia. When we feel we’ve been wronged, he says, we experience psychological or even physical stress. That stress can lessen over time, but can also reignite when a person is reminded of the injustice. “We fix that when we hear an apology. It says, ‘You’re okay,’ it affirms we are right,” he says.

Public apologies can be a gesture of goodwill that shows the accused offender is willing to change. But an apology isn’t necessarily enough. We have a hard time judging whether an apology is sincere if we’re not the direct victim in the situation, Allan says. An apology that might be just fine for a victim, for example, might seem inadequate to a fan of a musician or movie star simply reading the words online. And many of the apologies made by those accused of sexual misconduct have been criticized for being terrible.

The denial. There can be good reasons to deny accusations. Maybe someone really didn’t do it, or is trying to avoid a lawsuit. But just as an apology can be a powerful way for an accused person to show they are open to change, a denial can be an equally powerful indicator in the opposite way. That is, it can take victims (and sometimes the public) longer to heal if an alleged abuser doesn’t take responsibility for their impact.

Time away. Step back and take a long time to listen.” “Avoid becoming a distraction.” “[Taking] a good, hard look at our own actions” “Examining my own behavior.” No matter how they phrase it, and even if they don’t announce it, staying out of the spotlight can take some of the heat off alleged abusers. Laying low for a while can ultimately help some people return to positions of power.

Before Me Too, Mel Gibson was the poster child for this type of comeback. In 2006, the award-winning actor became persona non grata when tapes emerged in which he made a series of racist, anti-semitic, and homophobic comments. In one, he reportedly hit his ex-wife, Russian songwriter Oksana Grigorieva (Gibson denied punching her but he did slap her, according to legal documents (pdf) published by TMZ). He stayed out of the spotlight for about a decade. By 2017, he was back on a “non-apology” tour and promoting the film Hacksaw Ridge, which he directed.

“Looking at how Mel Gibson has managed his comeback shows us how the men accused of sexual misconduct over the past year might plan to manage their own,” writes Constance Grady for Vox. “Gibson is a case study in how a man who by his own admission did monstrous things can convince people that disappearing from the public eye for a few years makes up for those monstrous things, and how he can find his way back into polite society.”

Silence. Sometimes taking time away also means keeping quiet. Some accused return to their careers without ever publicly addressing the accusations against them. This is a gamble. By not commenting, the accused can sometimes keep the specific details of the accusations quieter, perhaps quieting the bombardment of press more quickly. But by not adding their own perspective to the conversation, they leave the narrative in the hands of the accuser, which could potentially be more damaging.

For victims and the public, the effect is similar to a denial—it’s hard to move past the pain of accusations of sexual misconduct if the offender doesn’t even acknowledge it.

Never left. Ultimately, concerns that the Me Too movement would permanently ruin career prospects for all of the accused have largely proved unfounded. In fact, a closer look at some so-called comebacks reveal some accused never really left and ultimately didn’t face professional consequences. Often these accused have fame on their side. We are socialized to trust celebrities. This can make it easier for the most famous alleged abusers, like Morgan Freeman or Ben Affleck, to return to (or stay in) their field.

What do we make of all this?

For members of the public and would-be consumers of what the accused produce, it’s natural to feel conflicted about an accused Me Too offender’s attempts to return to the spotlight. You might have been a fan of a given public figure before allegations forced you to reassess your feelings. Should you welcome him back, or continue to avoid his work?

“Historically, outside of Me Too, the public has been willing to give folks second chances,” Heller, the PR specialist, says. “With second chances, people want to see that you’ve changed—that you’ve taken action to make yourself better, that you understand what you’ve done, that you’ve made changes in your life and done the work so that the change is real.” It remains to be seen, she says, whether the same thing is true for those accused in Me Too.

One way to sift through the complicated emotions you may feel while watching someone like CK try out some new jokes: Follow the lead of the accuser, says Mary Texeira, a sociology professor at California State University, San Bernardino. “In the criminal justice system, during reconciliation, offenders are face-to-face with victims, with the people they directly offended,” she says—that’s the apology that matters. “I think we could start with, do his victims want the public or the industry to forgive him? After all, they are the victims.” The victims should be the ones deciding if an offender can make a comeback, says Texeira. “I think [it’s okay] as long as the victims are satisfied.”

Speaking personally, Texeira says, she’ll only accept a comeback is if she feels that offender has truly spent time working to change, and if women and victims agree that his efforts have been in good faith. She says CK hasn’t passed this test.

“You forgive someone for stepping on your toe, you don’t forgive someone for exposing himself to women. Especially if he has not demonstrated that he is genuinely introspective for the harm he’s done to women,” Texeira says. “It’s easy to say you’re sorry. But it’s not so easy to do the work to repair the damage that you’ve done.”

This story is part of How We’ll Win in 2019, a year-long exploration of the fight for gender equality. Read more stories here.