Because I’m always late to work, and I always like to wear lipstick, I often find myself applying makeup on the bus en route to my job. Usually I just get a few glares for primping in public, but last week, it got nasty. I was sitting on the bus (22 outbound) and two middle-aged men sat down near me – one across from me, one in the seat beside mine – and immediately began harassing me. “You look real good tonight, honey” said one. The other: “That’s some sexy red lipstick.” I turned to him and calmly said, “please don’t talk to me” while making eye contact.
Immediately their tone changed. “Ugly bitch!” “My sister told me pretty girls know how to take a compliment and only the ugly ones don’t!” I responded, “It’s funny how as soon as I speak up, I go from being beautiful to ugly.” One scoffed and said “Oh, you’re trying to be funny, bitch? Shut up.” I just kept glaring and eventually they moved but were still within earshot and continued complaining to each other and other passengers about how “rude” and “ungrateful” I was. It really rattled me and I had to call a friend to calm down, but once I got off the bus I felt really good that I had spoken up. Thanks Hollaback!
BY JULIE LALONDE, DIRECTOR OF HOLLABACK OTTAWA
excerpt from Being the Change since 2007
Ottawa had its own SlutWalk and you better believe I was there. In fact, in the interest of full disclosure, I was asked to speak at it, too. But that’s where it ends, for the record. I’ve never organized a SlutWalk, have no part in organizing future ones and quite frankly, spent 5 minutes at the Ottawa one talking about systemic violence against womyn.
I must admit that I was initially a little apprehensive about the whole thing. I’d heard about it in its planning stages and felt that it might have been a well-intentioned but misguided attempt to highlight an issue.
But I was wrong. I was so, so wrong.
It seems that people want to talk about sluts, sluttyness, slut-shaming, slut-positivity and all things slutty. People love sluts, other people love to hate sluts and some people hate that they love sluts.
And that’s the fucking point.
See, the organizers knew that if they organized another “Take Back the Night” or “Anti-Sexual Assault” or even a “Stop Victim Blaming” march, you’d get the same little handful of diehards, maybe a blip or two in the media but not much else. The unfortunate reality is that the average person and media outlet doesn’t give a flying fuck about violence against womyn and sexual assault. Because only sluts get raped, and womyn falsely accuse men all the time and feminists are whiny and don’t know how good they have it and on, and on and on.
A name like SlutWalk catches people’s attention, provokes a reaction and is just downright impossible to ignore. The sight of stiff journalists on the nightly news saying “And now, let’s go to Marcie who is over at SlutWalk” can’t help but solicit raised eyebrows.
And once again, that’s the fucking point.
Whether you want to reclaim the word ‘slut’ or not, you can’t help but perk up your ears when you hear the word being used in mainstream, every day conversation by your average folk. And the organizers knew that. They knew that the only way to ensure this cop’s comments didn’t go unnoticed was to shock people into reacting.
They hoped maybe a couple hundred people would show up, they’d find some solidarity and be able to sleep better at time. Instead, thousands of people showed up, an international media machine was started and there are Satellite SlutWalks around the world. Not bad for a handful of novice organizers in Toronto.
But what about this reclaiming business?
That part is tricky and complicated.
Many womyn of colour have commented that it’s not easy for them to do, considering how slut-shaming and labeling is so tied into racism, colonialism, etc. Makes sense.
Others (including myself) think it’s also classist and rather ‘in-crowd’ to assume that everyone can safely embrace the label. Tell that to poor, 16 year old rural girls who are just trying to survive gym class.
But that’s okay. See, SlutWalk isn’t really about everyone embracing the label Slut because like most things in life, if everyone is one, then nobody is.
But you can embrace the name on a political level while still recognizing how problematic it is at the individual level.
Example: We can embrace Ottawa’s annual “Dyke March” while recognizing that a 16 year old high school girl has no desire to embrace the ‘dyke’ label that is thrown on her daily.
Ideally, everyone who identifies as ‘dyke’ could choose to do so and others who don’t could escape the labeling. But we’re not there yet, although we’re working towards it.
SlutWalk is not an end, but a means to an end. It’s a way to rip open the universal covers on sexual assault and to expose the deeply entrenched stereotypes that enable it to continue at epidemic levels. It’s meant to prompt discussion, to test your knee-jerk reaction.
You don’t want to call yourself a slut? – Why?
You don’t think it can be reclaimed? – Why?
Regardless of what your answer is, it got you thinking and that’s the point.
As someone who has been doing anti-sexual violence work in Ottawa for close to 8 years, I’ve been to every conference, march, demonstration, letter-writing campaign kick-off, red tape cutting, award ceremony, you can imagine. I’ve been there, I’ve spoken at them, I’ve shaked my head at them and I’ve marched in them. And none of them had the turn-out that SlutWalk did.
Ottawa is an extremely conservative city with a small, (too) tight-knit feminist community and here I was, standing amongst a thousand other people, many of which I had never seen before. The crowd was diverse in age, background, gender identity, ethnicity, etc. And despite what you might have read or seen about the celebratory nature of SlutWalk, it was a rather sombre event. People were angry, not laughing. As they should be – sexual assault isn’t funny.
So you’ve got a conservative community out on a Sunday afternoon, talking about womyn’s sexuality and sexual assault in a constructive and meaningful way. Regardless of how you feel about reclaiming language, you have to be impressed by the power it had that day in Ottawa.
(Say it with me) and that’s the fucking point.
I have no desire to call myself a slut. None. My reasons for this are many but include the fact that I don’t want to define myself by my association with other people (ie: how many people I sleep with, who I sleep with, etc). It’s also difficult to call yourself something when a definition doesn’t exist. We know that a slut has something to do with sexuality but ask ten people and you’ll get ten different answers.
I was called a slut for holding a pro-choice sign at an anti-choice rally.
I was called a slut for attending a new school in grade 10 with no friends or history in that city. A rumour was started that I was chased out of another town for having slept with someone’s boyfriend. The truth? I was a virgin who’d had to move for her dad’s new job.
Hell, I was called a slut for defending SlutWalk. (The irony.. it hurts…)
But even though I do not long for the label doesn’t mean I fail to see its importance. As Jaclyn Friedman so amazingly said, we must all stand under the banner of ‘Slut’ and recognize that when it is used against one womyn, it is used against all womyn. Because we can all be called a slut by someone at some point and in many cases, the sting of that word not only offends us, but decides whether or not our rape is convicted properly, whether we get access to housing, a job, a promotion, a reference, or even someone’s Facebook friend request.
So even if you don’t want to call yourself a slut, learn to respect those who do.
“Female Jogger Attacked ~ Fights Back!”
I’m adding a Part Two to last week’s column, which was titled, “Female Jogger Attacked.” That was a discussion of the phenomenon of women not being safe in public spaces, while doing what they have to do to stay healthy. I know all of us have been there before ~ You know, it’s midnight, but the moon is out, the pavement is still hot from the 85 degree day, and you still have plenty of energy for a bike ride ~ but most of the time you stop yourself because you want to live to bike again another day. This is the cold, hard reality of being female in an urban setting. Although I know plenty of guys who wouldn’t want to risk getting jumped at that hour either, but come on, we all know that the risk is greater if you are of the female persuasion.
With that said, taking certain precautionary measures while exercising in public settings is not only wise, but essential to your well-being. The A-#1 thing I can advise any woman to keep herself safe in any setting, is to take a class in self-defense. And by this I mean a course of classes, not just a one-time workshop, because it takes repetition of the techniques to acquire what’s called muscle memory. That means that with consistent practice, the movements become ingrained, which prepares you to quickly react out of instinct in a dangerous situation. So the muscle memory that you work hard to acquire while practicing a kick for example, or an elbow to the face, might possibly save your life or being otherwise harmed. Practice these type of self-defense movements preferably with a partner, to feel the actual weight, timing, strength, and most importantly, presence of another human being. It’s so shocking to have someone attack you, especially when
you least suspect it. The least you can do is to adequately prepare yourself if that occurs.
And it’s not just knowing how to handle yourself physically when you’re feeling threatened, it’s most of all becoming more sensitive to and aware of your surroundings, both human and otherwise. It’s really about accessing your internal strength, which every person has, regardless of how they look on the outside. I know with absolute certainty, that it was my own years of martial training in Tai Chi, not just Tai Chi for health, which helped me to handle the situation with that creep on the subway. Luckily, he did not continue to force himself upon me, or I would have had to defend myself more than verbally, but I was certainly ready, willing, and able to do so if it had come to that. I want you to feel as ready and confident as well, and know that you are walking, jogging, or biking through the world with a hidden arsenal at your disposal ~ your ability to mentally and physically defend yourself.
You think studying in the middle of a common study area wouldn’t turn guys on.
I had my face buried in a book, studying for my finals in two weeks. (I had read your website some weeks before, so I was ready!) He walked in front of me and when he was just out of range, I heard, “Girl, you gorgeous.” I was sure it was for me because there was no one behind me, or on either side. I was so surprised and indignant at his remark I blurted out “Excuse me?!”. Then I realised I had just started something I might not be able to finish. He turned around and I got a good look at his face. He was 25-30 years old, 5’6″? We exchanged in somewhat-friendly conversation, and I told him that he didn’t know me and shouldn’t call me gorgeous. No heated argument, but what surprised me was that I was studying… With 5-10 people in the same room! Why was it his business to tell me I was good-looking? Or to interrupt my studying?
What was the thing that made him pick on me? Was it my shirt? my hair? my face? Not cool creeper!! I don’t think he’ll pull another stunt like this after our conversation.
I was walking home from work along N. Rampart. I was talking on my phone to my mother and munching on an apple. I noticed a younger guy walking slightly closer than normal to me along the same route. As we were the only people walking on the street I turned my head towards him, nodded and smiled in a greeting. He didn’t really respond. I continued walking and talking to my mother (from Canal St.). He was on my left side about 5ft away, slightly behind me. It was mid-afternoon with lots of traffic so I assumed it was just an uncomfortable coincidence that we happened to be walking down the same street at the same time. Then we reach my turn (St. Phillips) and I make my turn left and suddenly he was MUCH closer than I thought and I nearly bumped into him. I was startled and looked up quickly and said “sorry” and kept going. A few steps later I felt a hand grab my entire ass and dig into my anus and kind of hang on. I jumped and turned around there he was, smiling at me. He couldn’t have been more than 14. I yelled at him “what the fuck are you doing. What makes you think that is okay.” He got kind of pissed off and turned to leave but I was MAD! He couldn’t just get away with that! I rocketed my apple into the back of his head where the apple split open. -ooooh was he pissed. He turned around and I suddenly noticed how much bigger, stronger and faster he was than me. Shit. but I couldn’t give in and now he was pacing back and forth having picked up 1/2 of my apple and staring angrily at me so I just looked back. I knew if I looked away or tried to get away he would come after me for revenge and I would be done for. So I just looked back at him and asked him why he thought that type of behavior was acceptable. After a few more moments he turned and left. I called my 911 and reported it, then called my mom back and continued home. I saw him on the same street a few more times. He was always menacing.
It was a chilly St Louis Sunday evening in March and I had just finished up a meeting with some local LGBT activists at my favorite cafe, Coffee Cartel. One of the people I had met with offered me a lift home, but I said I was ok walking since my apartment was just a couple blocks away.
As I was crossing Lindell, a car full of high-school-age boys pulled up to the intersection and I heard them yell “Hey, whore! How much?” Since I’m unfortunately used to being holla’d at, I flipped them the bird and kept walking, but they just shouted “Yeah, whore! Stick that finger up my butt!”
I was too shocked to look back at them, so I never got their license plate number, but next time something like that happens, I’ll be sure to report them.
I was nine or ten. It was summer and a friend who lived behind my house had called to invite me to go to the pool with her family. I changed into my bathing suit (a one piece), put a towel and a few things in a backpack, and set off for their house. In order to get their I had to run down one hill, across a creek and some bike trails, and up another. There was a group of men on a bridge, luckily I didn’t have to go on it, but they saw me. They began yelling things like “Come on over here girl” among others. I ran to my friends house. I’d never run up that hill so hard. My friend’s mom (who saw it and made sure I was safe) reminded me that I needed to be careful, that because I looked older people didn’t realize how young I was. She called my mom that night and told her. When my asked me about it I cried half in anger, half in shame. I told my mom I wanted two really big dogs that would go with me everywhere, one on either side, so no one would ever mess with me again. I didn’t know I could HOLLABACK.
Jaclyn Friedman gave a great speach at the Boston Slut Walk this week! Here’s the video and the transcript:
Well hello you beautiful sluts!
Do you see what I did there? I called y’all sluts, and I don’t know the first thing about what any of you do with your private parts. (Well, maybe I know about a couple of you, but I’ll never tell.)
That’s how the word “slut” usually works. If you ask ten people, you get ten different definitions. Is a slut a girl who has sex too young? With too many partners? With too little committment? Who enjoys herself too much? Who ought to be more quiet about it, or more ashamed? Is a slut just a woman who dresses too blatantly to attract sexual attention? And what do any of these words even mean? What’s too young, too many partners, too little committment, too much enjoyment, too blatant an outfit? For that matter, what’s a woman, and does a slut have to be one?
For a word with so little meaning, it sure is a vicious weapon. And, while the people who use it to hurt may not agree on what they mean by it, they’ll all agree on one thing: a slut is NOT THEM. A slut is other. A slut is someone, usually a woman, who’s stepped outside of the very narrow lane that good girls are supposed to stay within. Sluts are loud. We’re messy. We don’t behave. In fact, the original definition of “slut” meant “untidy woman.” But since we live in a world that relies on women to be tidy in all ways, to be quiet and obedient and agreeable and available (but never aggressive), those of us who color outside of the lines get called sluts. And that word is meant to keep us in line. To separate us. To make us police each other, turn on each other, and turn each other in so that we can prove we’re not “like that.” That word comes with such consequences that many of us rightly work to avoid it at all costs.
But not today. Today we all march under the banner of sluthood. Today we come together to say: you can call us that name, but we will not shut up. You can call us that name but we will not cede our bodies or our lives. You can call us that name, but you can never again use it to excuse the violence that is done to us under that name every single fucking day.
Because make no mistake: the consequence of being a slut is violence. The people that yell that word at us in the hallways and on the street know that. The people that call us that on the internet when we dare raise our voices, and the ones who tell us they know what’s best for us, what we should or shouldn’t do with our bodies if we “value” them, they know that. They know that labeling us as sluts marks us as easy targets for sexual violence. Who would come to the defense of a slut? Why would anyone bother? If we don’t play by their rules, why should they care about our bodies or our lives?
This is not hyperbole. In Manitoba this year, a judge refused to sentence a convicted rapist to a single day of jailtime because his victim had worn a tank top and high heels and acted “inviting.” This after the rapist admitted in open court that he’d told his victim that his violation of her “would only hurt for a little while.” When two young Swedish women accused Wikileaks founder Julian Assange of sexual assault after they each voluntarily invited him home with them, blogger Robert Stacy McCain said, “you buy your ticket, you take the ride.” When an 11-year old was gang-raped in Texas by 18 grown men, the New York Times found it relevant to report on how much makeup she wore. Right now, there’s a serial killer loose on Long Island, and the police aren’t doing fuck all about it because he’s mostly killing sex workers.
The word “slut” is an act of violence. Not just metaphorically. It gives permission for people to rape us, and the person who wields it doesn’t have to lift a finger. It sends a signal: this one is fair game. Have at her. No one will blame you.
Which is why, when a Toronto cop told a group of law students at York University that the best way to avoid getting raped was to not dress like a slut, the people of Toronto took to the streets. And so have the people of Dallas, TX, and of London, England, and of Orlando, FL. So too are thousands and thousands of people planning to take to the streets in the months to come, from New Zealand to Amsterdam to Honolulu and beyond. All of us are coming together to say: enough. Enough. You cannot blame us for the crimes you commit against us anymore, no matter what we wear, what we say, or what we do.
And make no mistake about it: we can be called sluts for nearly any reason at all. If we’re dancing. If we’re drinking. If we have ever in our lives enjoyed sex. If our clothes aren’t made of burlap. If we’re women of color, we’re assumed to be sluts before we do a single thing because we’re “exotic.” If we’re fat or disabled or otherwise considered undesirable, we’re assumed to be sluts who’ll fuck anyone who’ll deign to want us. If we’re queer boys or trans women, we’re called sluts in order to punish us for not fearing the feminine. If we’re queer women, especially femme ones, we’re called sluts because we’re obviously “up for anything,” as opposed to actually attracted to actual women. If we’re poor, we’re gold diggers who’ll use sex to get ahead. And god forbid we accuse someone of raping us – that’s the fast track to sluthood for sure, because it’s much easier to tell us what we did wrong to make someone to commit a felony violent crime against us than it is to deal with the actual felon.
There’s a word for all of this. And that word is bullshit. But there’s also a phrase for it: social license to operate. What that means is this: we know that a huge majority of rapes are perpetrated by a small minority of guys who do it again and again. You know why they’re able to rape an average of 6 times each? Because they have social license to operate. In other words: because we let them. Because as a society, we say “oh well, what did she expect would happen if she went back to his room? What did she expect would happen walking around by herself in that neighborhood? What did she expect would happen dressed like a slut?”
You know what I expect will happen when I’m dressed like a slut? People will want to get with me. You know what I don’t mean when I dress like a slut? That anyone I encounter can literally do anything at all they want to me. I know. It’s shocking. Because clearly you thought me wearing my tits out like this gives every single one of you carte blanche to do anything whatsoever you might want to do with my body. I’m very sorry to disappoint.
I don’t mean to make light of any of this, I just want to point out how ridiculous it all sounds when you spell out the meaning of “she was asking for it.” Because the rapists are not confused. Those tiny percentage of guys doing most of the raping? They’ve told researchers that they know full well they don’t have consent. It’s the rest of us that seem confused. We’re the ones that let them off with a little “boys will be boys” shrug and focus our venom on “sluts” instead, leaving those boys free to rape again and again. That’s right: every time we blame a slut for her own violation, we’re not only hurting her, we’re creating a world with more rapists in it for all of us to live in.
No more. We’re here to testify that this ends TODAY. It ends because there is truly nothing – NOTHING – you can do to make someone raping you your fault. It ends because calling other people sluts may make you feel safer, but it doesn’t actually keep you safer. It ends because not one more of us will tolerate being violated and blamed for it. And it ends because all of this slut-shaming does more to us than just the violence of rape. As if that weren’t enough. The violent threat of slut-shaming also keeps us afraid of our bodies and our desires. It makes us feel like we’re wrong and dirty and bad – and yes, very very unsafe – when all we want is to enjoy the incredible pleasure that our bodies are capable of. And that theft of pleasure – that psychic mugging, that ongoing robbery of the gorgeous potential of our souls – that ends today too. Am I right, sluts?
Because the secret truth nobody wants you to know is that, using nearly any definition, there’s nothing wrong with being a slut. Not a thing. It’s OK to like sex. Sex can be awesome. It can be life-alteringly awesome, but even when it’s not, it can be a damn good time. Our sexual desire is part of our life force. And as long as you’re ensuring your partner’s enthusiastic consent, and acting on your own sexual desires, not just acting out what you think someone else expects of you? There’s not a damn thing wrong with it. Not if it’s a hookup, not if you’re queer, not if you like it kinky, not if your number’s too high. If you’re playing on your own terms and you’ve got an enthusiastic partner? Please, I beg of you, just have a fucking awesome time. Our lives are way too often full of struggle and pain. If you can do something with someone else that brings both of you pleasure and joy? You’re increasing the pleasure and joy in the world. No one should ever make you feel bad about that. They should really be sending you a thank you note.
Speaking of which, I want to send a thank you note of my own, to those of you standing here today under the banner of sluthood who don’t identify with that word at all, but understand why we must come together to reject its power. There has been a lot of misunderstanding about the meaning of the SlutWalk, and none more egregious than those who claim our agenda is to encourage all women to be sluts. Whatever that means, our mission could not be further from that. Our mission here today is to create a world in which all of us are free to make whatever sexual and sartorial choices we want to without shame, blame or fear. If you dress and experience your sexuality in decidedly unslutty ways, and you know that there’s nothing we can do to make someone rape us, the SlutWalk is your walk, too, and I thank you for ignoring the hype and standing with us today.
Last summer, when I wrote a manifesto of sorts against slut-shaming, I was told by a pearl-clutching blogger who happens to live in this fair city, that if more than a few people followed my lead, we would destroy the economy, and then society. I have never experienced a clearer affirmation that my words and actions have power. Those who support the status quo in which women live in fear and that fear makes us easy to control will do almost anything to shut us up. But every time they try, we must commit to getting louder.
So let’s practice. Instead of distancing ourselves from those among us who are targeted as sluts, lest we get caught in the crossfire, let’s stand together today and say, if you use the word slut as a weapon against one of us, you’re using it against all of us. If you shame one of us, you will receive shame from all of us. If you rape one of us, you will have to answer to all of us.
If you’ve ever been called a slut, stand up now and say together – I am a slut. If you love someone who’s been called a slut – stand up now and say, I am a slut. If you’ve ever been afraid of being called a slut, stand up now and say, I am a slut. If you’ve been blamed for violence that someone else did to you, stand up now and say, I am a slut. If you’re here to demand a world in which what we do with our bodies is nobody’s business, and we can all live our lives and pursue our pleasures free of shame, blame and free, stand up and say it with me: I am a slut. I am a slut. I am a slut.
BY LAURA RUOCCO
If New Jersey superindendent of school Charles T. Epps Jr.’s recent comments are any indication, school aged girls can’t always currently rely on their school officials to have their back. That’s why the work that Girls for Gender Equity is doing is so important. Girls for Gender Equity is a Brooklyn-based grassroots organization committed to improving the physical, psychological, social and economic development of girls and women. Organization members Joanne N. Smith, Mandy Van Deven, and Meghan Huppuch recently authored the book Hey, Shorty! A Guide to Combating Sexual Harassment and Violence in Schools and on the Streets, which chronicles the past 10 years of GGE’s existence.
Hey, Shorty! is a quick read, but packs in tons of inspiring stories and useful info for folks in the anti-street harassment movement, students, school faculty, parents, and people of any age who care about the safety and empowerment of young girls. The book details the early days of GGE, which Joanne founded as an after school program using sports and physical education as a means to empower young girls of color. Through her first afternoons with the girls, as well as in response to incidences of sexual assault in the neighborhood, Joanne quickly started the difficult task of working with the girls to open up conversations on gender stereotypes and unlearn some of the oppressive notions the girls had already learned at their young age about what it means to be a girl in a sexist society.
In response to community asserted need for education and support around sexual harassment in schools, GGE organized Sisters In Strength. Sisters in Strength is a group of youth organizers who work to educate their peers and the larger community on sexual harassment and advocate for the enforcement of sexual harassment policies in New York City schools. They have spent years doing extensive research throughout the NYC school system to get specific numbers on the who, what, where, and how of sexual harassment in schools. Their surveys showed that sexual harassment is rampant in schools, and that kids need (and want!) more education support from peers and teachers in order to recognize and report it.
I recently attended a book launch for Hey Shorty! at Bluestockings in New York City, where a full house gathered to celebrate the past 10 years of GGE’s hard work. Sisters In Strength interns past and present read quotes from the book, and answered questions from the audience. The girls were confident and articulate in a way that made me wish I had been involved in feminist organizing when I was in high school. What they are asking for is simple and clear, yet after years of doing research and raising awareness, the Department of Education has yet to meet SIS’ demand for a Title IX point person in every school, whose name and service they provide is clearly visible to students. Title IX states “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance…” Yet without clear implementation of this law, girls are denied the benefits of education and subjected to discrimination every day in schools rife with sexual harassment. SIS organizers talked about the disappointment they felt after a lackluster response from the DOE during their last visit, but is already scheduled to meet with officials again and vows to use their “anger as motivation” to continue working with the DOE towards safer schools, not just for themselves, but for the next generation of girls as well.
When an audience member asked how we could best support their work, Sisters in Strength emphasized the importance of raising awareness about sexual harassment. “You hear this phrase so many times, but live oblivious to it”, said one girl in describing how GGE helped her realize that the unwanted sexualized attention she and her peers received (i.e: booty tag, where boys chase girls to grab their butts during recess) was something they didn’t have to take.
So support their hard work by checking out Hey Shorty! and help Girls For Gender Equity create a world where gender equality is the norm!
By JEN LAVERY
If I wouldn’t put up with it in the street, why should I put up with it on stage?
For some female pedestrians, being publicly harassed by drunk or just-plain-sexist men is a relatively rare, if unwelcome occurrence; for female stand-up comedians, however, this is an eventuality that needs to be prepared for every time they walk on stage – and it’s not just the male audience members they have to worry about.
Comedians hate hecklers. Female comedians hate hecklers. Male comedians hate hecklers. People who work in comedy clubs hate hecklers. People who frequent comedy clubs hate hecklers. In fact, it’s quite likely that even hecklers hate other hecklers. For those of you out there thinking – but surely comedians love that sort of thing? Surely it helps their act along? No, it doesn’t. They have an act and it’s a solo one. Still not convinced? Okay, if heckling is so ‘helpful’ why do you never see comedians being heckled by other comedians? Why do you never see comedy club staff heckling? Because they know doing so would make the comedian on stage very justifiably pissed off.
Yes, comedians have to learn to handle hecklers because unfortunately people still heckle. But time spent dealing with a heckler is time taken away from their (usually limited) stage time, which would otherwise have been filled with jokes they have worked hard to write and perfect, and that every other person in the audience has parted with their hard-earned money to hear. Nobody pays to hear some drunk punter shouting out and interrupting constantly. If that was entertaining they would simply wait for the pubs to close, follow the drunkest looking person possible home and throw tenners at them as they attempted to fight parked cars.
Comedian Susan Calman puts it this way: “I hate hecklers more than life itself. If you come to comedy PLEASE don’t do it because it ruins it for absolutely everybody. I didn’t get into this to spend twenty-five minutes shouting at somebody so drunk they can’t understand English and a basic request to be quiet. My rule is – I shouldn’t have to perform in front of somebody who wouldn’t be picked up by a taxi outside.”
Unfortunately, the type of heckling that female comedians in particular experience can be a whole other beast. Comedians don’t get to choose who they perform to and Calman has her “fair” share of heckler horror-stories, the worst of which prompted the only walk-off of her career:
“I was at a club in Edinburgh doing a night which was almost entirely comprised of stags (bachelors), which isn’t a problem – stags tend to be okay. But they were all very, very drunk and the compere (host) hadn’t really done anything to settle them down. I was on first and it was a very aggressive atmosphere immediately. I said to one of the gentlemen in the stag party “What do you do for a living?” and he said, “I kill fat dykes.” It took me a couple of moments to actually realise what he had said because you don’t expect something like that. It’s the only time I’ve ever walked off. I actually said, “You can all go and fuck yourselves.” If I wouldn’t put up with it in the street, why should I put up with it on stage?”
However, as with when women get hassled in the streets, there are times when it’s best to walk away and times when it’s best to tackle the issue head on.
A guy offered to cure me of my lesbianism with his penis recently, which was interesting because he was offering essentially to rape me.
“I’ve had the usual – it’s terrible that you say “the usual,” but I’ve had the usual things shouted at me, about my appearance or my sexuality,” says Calman. “A guy offered to cure me of my lesbianism with his penis recently, which was interesting because he was offering essentially to rape me. Sometimes when people take you aback you have to stop the comedy and speak to the person directly. So I said “Do you really think that’s what I require? A middle-aged man to fuck me in order to change my orientation?” That’s why I think when you’re doing comedy it’s best not to be drunk. You have to have your wits about you. Situations like that can escalate – you have to stay calm and beat them on an intelligence level. Obviously all of these statements are very stupid, so you have to counteract them and get the rest of the audience on side by making it clear that’s not an acceptable thing to say.”
English stand-up Bethany Black reported that she has been threatened with rape by hecklers so often that she now has a standard response. She remembers one gig in particular where a man who’d been persistently disrupting her set shouted out, “Someone’s getting a raping once the show’s over.”
“I’ve heard that line enough times on stage to know that the correct response to that is “Yes, once the rohypnol kicks in and I get the dildo out my bag. And don’t worry, I’ll drop you near to the hospital so you won’t have to walk far to get your stitches.” It’s strange that in any other job, if a member of the public or a customer said something like that you’d call the police, but in the job I do you become blasé about it.”
However, when discussing the incident with other female stand-ups, Black did note that the response she got to this story was anything but blasé.
“It was a week later when I was talking about this with Tiff [Stevenson] and she was shocked. That’s when I realised that getting threatened with rape doesn’t happen to all female comics, but I’ve had it about five or six times.”
Of course, heckling is not only a problem for female comedians. Male comedians also get heckled, and it’s arguable that men are heckled more than women, either because they are perceived as being “more able to handle it” or simply because some people think it’s less socially acceptable to challenge a woman in this way. Some male comedians have also remarked that they find it much more difficult to put down a female heckler than a male one, as the audience may perceive a man who deals out a nasty put-down to a woman as being a bully. Obviously there is a lot to be said about why attitudes like this exist, but that’s for another article. One thing many acts I spoke to did agree on, was that the nature of “the usual” heckles given to women were generally quite different from those of their male counterparts.
Scottish comedian Jay Lafferty hypothesizes why this might be the case. “I think with men, heckles are usually more about what they’re saying in the material and less about them personally. Female heckles generally tend to be about how you look or simply the fact that you’re a woman. So it’s less ‘productive’ heckling, if a heckle can be productive. Sometimes you see guys getting heckled and they can actually play around with it, whereas a lot of the time when women get heckled it’s just ‘Get your tits out’ or something that you have a standard response to. It’s a kind of dead avenue, really.”
Welsh stand-up Sian Bevan agreed: “Anyone who is dying onstage will get heckled, male or female. But as a broad generalisation I think men tend to get banter-y heckles and the ones for women tend to seem more aggressive. There’s nothing you can do with them. It’s very much like a gang of little boys in a playground. It feels like there are some gigs where the woman couldn’t have done anything. She was up against a brick wall the minute she walked, with her tits, on to stage.”
As many comedians adopt a certain persona when on stage, responding to aggressive heckles can be doubly detrimental, as it can force acts to ‘break persona’ and become confrontational in return. This can sometimes leave acts feeling they’ve no option but to ‘grin and bear it.’
English stand-up Tiffany Stevenson discussed a recent gig she had done in a student union, where not only was she heckled with “Get your tits out!” but had the added difficulty of an extremely large rugby player stripping naked and climbing on to the stage with her, where he remained for a good few minutes before leaving of his own accord. Stevenson was given no help by the venue security, who had apparently been otherwise engaged.
“The head of the student union was in the front row but he didn’t do anything,” says Stevenson. “It’s not as if the guy on stage was a small man. I joked my way out of it but afterwards it took me about an hour to get over the fact it had really happened.”
While this article isn’t suggesting female comedians need to be “rescued” from “big bad hecklers,” comedians of both sexes have often expressed disappointment that friends of those who are determined to make a nuisance of themselves don’t do more to stop them when things start getting out of hand.
Irish comedian Carol Tobin recalls a particularly unsettling example. “There’s often the assumption that women comics are lesbians. I was doing a gig and a drunk guy shouted “Lesbian!” for at least ten minutes of my set. He didn’t stretch out the word “Lesbian” to last the whole ten minutes – that would be impressive. He kept roaring “Lesbian! Lesbian! Lesbian!” all through. I have nothing against lesbians—he could have been roaring “Raging hetero!” It was the fact that it was incessant, ruining my performance and the audience’s enjoyment. It made everyone in the room uncomfortable. When I got off stage after a pointless struggle, his friends, who were sitting with him, apologised for his behaviour. I asked why they didn’t shut him up and they just looked at me, baffled.”
Most of the acts I spoke to described “the usual” heckles they and other women got. For the most part they were pretty standard and probably not that different from the harassment many women face in the streets. “Get your tits out”; “I’d love to fuck/pump/shag/etc you”; “Fancy a fuck/shag/pump/etc”; “I would!”; “You’re fit”; etc., with a few less common ones thrown in.
Pretty good – for a girl
Lafferty says, “I’ve had guys say, “Aw, it’s a woman, she’ll be shite,” as soon as I’ve come on stage, before I’ve even opened my mouth. I’ve got a line I use: “Oh, a female comic, boys! It’s like finding out your lapdancer’s got a cock!” I’ve also had men approach me before gigs and say: “Are you on? Women aren’t funny.” So I’ve replied: “Well why do you think that?” They’ve never really got a reason, they just repeat: “Women aren’t funny, all female acts are rubbish.” So I’ll ask how many female acts they’ve seen and why they think that. And it’s always the same response: “They just are, they’re just fucking rubbish, they all talk about periods.” So I ask who’ve they’ve seen that talks about periods and they can never answer me. They’ll say things like: “Well, Jo Brand’s not very funny.” There are male comics that other people don’t find funny too, it doesn’t really matter what sex you are.”
This was a common experience for the acts I spoke to, many of whom often had audience members come up to them after a show and utter the immortal line: “I usually hate female comedians, but you were really good!”
Scottish comedian Kim MacAskill recalls an incident: “I’ve been told by audience members that I’m good – for a girl. I’ve had people tell me I’m really funny and it’s amazing because I’m not a lesbian or ugly.”
“I can’t believe people think it’s still okay to say comments like “I hate female comedians,” says Sian Bevan. “Replace “female” with “black”, “gay”, “Asian” – it’s just horrific. I think that’s the main thing that I really hate: “Oh you were good for a woman. I hate female comedians but you were quite good.” I think it’s shocking, absolutely shocking.”
And here we come to an interesting point. One thing that was again remarked on by many of the acts interviewed for this piece was that half the time “encouraging” comments like this came from other women. Jay Lafferty reported that in her worst ever experience with an aggressive heckler, the audience member was a woman, who then approached her after the show with a glass bottle. Lafferty, feeling justifiably threatened, was forced to “grin and bear it” and calmed the woman down by telling her her “contributions” had been great, and really helped the show along. And violence against comedians isn’t uncommon – in March this year, a 23-year-old male comedian had his face slashed open by a female heckler in a New York club. American comedian Hailey Boyle told me of an incident where she was physically assaulted by a female audience member.
“It was after a show and some people wanted to have pictures taken with me. Much to my surprise, as we are posing, a woman around 50 years old grabbed my crotch! And I mean GRABBED me – if I were wearing a skirt she would have been inside me! I was so shocked I fell back against the wall and froze up for a moment, then the staff escorted her out. It was so weird; she didn’t seem to think there was anything wrong with what she did. As they took her out I heard her say “Well, she was dirty on stage and I wanted to be dirty too.“
While all comedians have some sort of “uniform” for performing, female comedians generally feel the need to put a little bit more thought into what they wear. Broadly speaking, low-cut tops were considered not a good idea by the comedians I spoke with, with some acts also mentioning leggings being a no-no, unless you want the front row avidly staring at your crotch, rather than listening to your act. Irish comedian Eleanor Tiernan noted that once she stopped wearing high heels on stage, the number of sexual heckles she received dropped dramatically. Jay Lafferty commented that when she stopped dressing in tight or revealing clothing, the response she got from female audience members improved immensely.
And unfortunately, not all the sexism comes from audiences. Many of the acts I spoke to reported they had been discriminated against by other people in the comedy circuit because of their gender.
Welsh act Kiri Pritchard-McLean told me about an experience she had after making it to the final of a comedy competition.
“After I finished my set, the MC asked—as he had done with the other acts—for feedback. When asked what he thought of me, the professional comic judge said: “Nice tits.” He then mentioned some of my material and then the comedy reviewer judge, who was female, said: “Yeah, I agree with what ##### said and yeah – nice tits.” It was really humiliating. The comic came up to me afterwards and said: “You weren’t offended were you?” which then makes you feel like a bit of a dick if you turn around and say “Yes,” so I just smiled. I have vowed that when I see him next I will take him aside and just explain that it was pretty humiliating to have that given as feedback. I was very irritated at the time…but I’ve put it as a quote at the bottom of my CV now. Clever, old ironic me. I also recently received an email from the organisers of another competition I’d entered. I’ve not doctored this at all “Once everyone is there, we’ll do the draw for running order. That said – if two female/music/prop/gay/whatever acts are consecutive, I’ll split them up to make a better show for the audience.”
The rule of not booking more than one woman on the same bill is unfortunately still a very common one, and does nothing to remove the idea of female comedians being a “novelty.” Even worse, some female acts reported simply being told by promoters they had approached that they only booked men.
“I remember one incident in particular with a promoter who said to me: “Oh I would book you but I don’t book female acts,” Lafferty recalls. “I said: “Why not?” and he replied: “Cos they’re not funny.” So I said “But you’ve just seen me and you’ve just said I was funny.” To give him his dues he did then book me and he has booked me since. I try to not get annoyed about it. I challenge it by being funny on the stage and by getting on with the job at hand.”
Or, from the opposite side of the spectrum, English comedian Fern Brady recalled an incident where the problem wasn’t that there weren’t any other WOMEN performing, it was what they were performing.
“I did a charity gig that had two burlesque dancers on the bill. Instead of putting me on in the comedy section, they said they were putting me in between the two burlesque acts “so it’s all girls together.” I was really angry about that, and it was painfully inevitable that I got heckled with “Get your tits out.”
Hailey Boyle also had some shocking tales to tell about her dealings with US promoters.
“I have had one former club owner in particular regularly try to “bargain” with me – “Show me one tit and I’ll put you on the show!” This was after years of failed attempts to see both tits, which followed a year or two of trying to have sex with me. Once he even went so far as to try to push his way into my apartment.”
Kiri Pritchard-Mclean was not the only act interviewed who had experienced sexism at the hands of other performers. In fact, every single woman interviewed for this piece had been. From comperes making comments to the audience about their sexuality or appearance when introducing them on stage, to all but apologising for the fact that the next act was a woman, everyone I spoke to had their story to tell. Sian Bevan recalled the first time she attempted to join in ‘backstage banter’ with a group of male comedians who had been discussing the fact that that night’s audience looked difficult. The response?
“What’s wrong with you? Are you on your fucking period or something?”
All this being said – it’s not all doom and gloom. While clearly sexist attitudes do still exist and do need to be dealt with, the majority of those working on the comedy circuit are among the most pleasant and enlightened people you are likely to meet. Most people who come to watch comedy know the best thing to do is sit back and let the professionals do the entertaining. All the interviewees for this article are still performing, along with hundreds of other female comedians across the country and around the world, who are on stage almost every night, making people laugh, taking on hecklers of both sexes. Just about everyone interviewed agreed that it is getting easier to be female on the stand up circuit. With many more high profile acts such as Sarah Millican, Jo Caulfield, Zoe Lyons and Josie Long, plus writers like Julia Davis, Jessica Hynes and Tina Fey, audiences are getting more used to seeing women in comedy. We have the female acts – including Jo Brand – that’ve already gone out and battled to make their voices heard to thank for that. So treat them all with respect – be it on the street or in the club.
Jen Lavery is a freelance journalist who is also Head of Press at The Stand Comedy Clubs in Scotland, where she has worked for nearly nine years. Since its beginnings in 1995, The Stand has aimed to have at least one woman on every bill. Follow Jen on Twitter @JenniferLavery.