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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.
BY LAURA RUOCCO
Check out this awesome project! I think it brings up a lot about the way street harassment and the threat of violence influences the way we live our lives.
One of the subtle ways street harassment affects people is the way it becomes a part of our most personal decisions, like the way we present ourselves to the world in general. I think about this often as a person who’s sense of self is very connected to having a really personalized style. I wear patches and pins and bedazzles on my clothes, and I alter shirts and skirts to fit me just right. I like knowing that what I’m wearing is uniquely mine, and that no one could go out and buy exactly what I’m wearing. For me, the way I present myself is a tiny way of challenging capitalism, patriarchy, fatphobia, and heteronormativity. So there’s a lot going on there! Though I have a lot of intense feelings about self expression through physical appearance, I have still at times felt restricted in what I wear for fear of the potential to increase harassment. And not even just on more obvious questions like “Is this skirt too short?”, I’m also talking about things like “Should I bleach my hair/wear this bright color/these fishnets?”.
Clothing comes up a lot in the street harassment stories people post on Hollaback:
“I’m embarrassed to say that instead of instantly recognizing his statement for what it was ~ a dangerous manipulation ~ I immediately took stock of what I was wearing…”
“Some people read me as ‘guy wearing women’s clothing,’ and other people read me as ‘woman,’ or ‘girl,’ it is hard to tell.”
“I promise I’m not jogging so that you can creepily watch me, and these Target gym shorts I’m wearing are not for your benefit.”
“And if I’m wearing high heels and a skirt that goes up to Tahiti, it’s still creepy and misogynistic when you honk at me—I promise.”
“I mean, we should be allowed to wear summer clothes without feeling we’re asking for it!”
“This is the kind of thing that makes me feel unsafe if I’m not wearing a pair of baggy jeans and a man’s t-shirt.”
“I was wearing black tights and a dress with a baggy jumper over the top and I actually caught myself thinking ‘i’ll never wear this dress again without a long coat’.”
It made me think “I’m wearing vinyl pants, clearly anyone would think I’m asking for whatever happens next. “Never mind the corset they can’t see under my coat”. It made me think “Priority one is protecting my friend”, who is a few years younger and who had thigh-high fishnets and garters showing under a short skirt – probably an easier target than the pants.”
“I wasn’t wearing anything particularly revealing (jeans, t shirt and cardigan)…”
“It was a hot day and so to be practical I was wearing a pair of mid-length denim shorts.”
“I didn’t feel ‘sexy’ or ‘flattered’…I felt awkward, embarrassed, and mad at myself for what I was wearing.”
“I’ve known people who have been physically assaulted just because they were wearing a head scarf.”
“I hate that I have to think about what I’m going to wear every time I have to ride the bus. I’ll get honked at anyway but it’s worse/more often when I’m wearing a dress or shorts.”
“The funny part is that I was wearing my hair back, glasses, no makeup, and a big puffy winter coat”
“in a world without street harassment i wouldn’t be groped &expected to explain my tattoos, triggering panic attacks.”
Those are just a few of the many stories on Hollaback where street harassment affects not only what people decide to wear, but how they feel about what they’re wearing after hearing someone else’s unwanted opinion on it. A lot of the posts specifically mention wearing clothing that they deem non provocative, only to be harassed anyway. One of the most ridiculous harassment memories I have is walking home from the subway one day after a New York blizzard, waddling down the unshoveled sidewalk after a long day of work. I hate winter clothes and never feel particularly attractive when I’m all suited up for a blizzard. But apparently somebody thought differently, as I heard a man shout out “YOU LOOK REAL SEXY WALKIN THROUGH THAT SNOW!” Uhh….really? Taking baby steps to avoid slipping on the ice, covered head to toe in winter wear? Really?
To an extent, it doesn’t matter what you wear. Harassment seems to persist no matter what. But on the flip side of that, there is added risk of harassment that goes along with dressing in a way that deviates from the norm. When I have lived in places where there is usually less street harassment, I have felt noticeably more comfortable dressing as weird as I wanna. Because harassers will use anything as a conversation piece. Tattoos, piercings, writing on a tshirt, dyed hair, patterned tights, all of these things have become jumping off points for harassment in my experience. However, I can say the same for walking a dog, carrying a heavy item, riding a bike, or seemingly anything you do publicly that can be commented on. Though a lot of what I’m talking about here is clothing, the idea of being open to comment just by going outside relates heavily to physical attributes that aren’t so easily changed. People who are of color, physically or mentally disabled, fat, or gender non-conforming, bear the brunt of street harassment for sure. Because, as we’ve said before, street harassment is not about compliments or flirtation, its about people exerting power over one another, and often its about enforcing cultural norms. Which in my opinion begs the question, who does that shit serve anyway? Encouraging other people’s self expression lets us all be a little more free to be our true weirdo selves!
“Female Jogger Attacked”
This is an all-too familiar headline in the news, with reports coming in from all over the nation about women who are just trying to get some exercise in (mostly) the warmer weather. As we start to shift more and more of our activities to the outdoors in the coming months, unfortunately, we’ve also got to go on “Amber” alert, which I think is so sad. There’s something very freeing about not having to pile on all those layers because of the cold, just to go about one’s daily business, and something even more liberating about donning a pair of shorts and running shoes, waking up before most of the city does so you can stretch your legs and clear your head.
But this also means that we’ve got to be even more aware of those ill individuals out there who would take advantage of us as women moving around solo in the city. Some say that wearing headphones is not a great idea, because your awareness is severely diminished, and that jogging or exercising in the park is safer with a partner, and that avoiding the park at certain very early or late hours is wise. I agree with these “preventative” techniques, but also think that they are not always possible, desirable or practical. The other day, I was sitting on a bench with a male friend in Bronx Park, which if you haven’t been, is a beautiful place. We chatted and ate our lunch, watching a few solo male joggers go by. And we solemnly agreed that it was extremely unfortunate, but there would be few women joggers out, at any time, in that park, because of the high degree of risk.
Here it was a gorgeous, sunny day, not too hot, and literally half the population would not feel safe there. It made me realize with a start that I in fact would probably not be sitting there, had it not been for the companionship of my male friend. Talk about being in hidden bondage. My ardent wish for the near future would be to TAKE BACK OUR PARKS, in a similar way that we’ve taken back the night. Only with the vocal and persistent action of reclaiming public spaces can we really feel and actually BE safe. But until we can make it happen, be safe out there.
BY EMILY MAY, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
On Saturday morning, March 6th, 2011, an email went out over our listserve from Inti Maria, our site leader in Buenos Aires. It read, “”I’d like to see her to tell her I would break her asshole with my cock” This is what a JOURNALIST wrote about me today — on the printed page they changed it but he made a POINT of including his original version on his blog.” The changed version wasn’t much better. It read, “break her argument with my cock.”
Tears immediately welled into my eyes. Hollaback/Atrevete Buenos Aires launched only a month ago. I knew our work was controversial, but I never thought it would lead to a public rape threat from a prominent journalist and professor. This wasn’t just an asshole. This was an asshole with a mouthpiece.
I quickly g-chatted Inti Maria. She was shaken, but OK. She decided to leave the country for a few days to be safe.
Both Inti Maria and I knew we had to take action, but what do we do? Our model was premised on the power individual activists who were committed to bringing the movement to end street harassment home. None of our site leaders have funding or on-the-ground infrastructure. It is the beauty of our model, but now I could see it was also a tremendous risk.
I spent a day reaching asking a lot of super-smart people for advice. The advice was across the board, and it struck me that this decision was going to have to be made based on gut instinct. As we weighed our options, I just kept coming back to one of our core organizational values: “we’ve got your back.” We needed a response that showed Inti Maria that we had her back, and showed all our site leaders that if this happened to them, we would have their backs too. We also needed a response that would set a precedent: Hollaback takes violent threats and actions seriously. And if that wasn’t a tall enough order, we needed it to be based in Buenos Aires. Engaging our networks in the United States would quickly lead to a US v. Argentina dynamic that would be ineffective, and just quite simply wasn’t our style or our message.
We decided to launch a petition on change.org in Spanish, with the English translation under it. Our lead blogger Violet wrote it, Gaby who runs Hollaback/Atrevete Mexico City translated it, and all our site leaders united to blog it, facebook it, and tweet it. Ultimately, over 3,500 people signed it from 75 countries.
When the publication that Juan Terranova worked for – El Guardian – wouldn’t budge, Inti Maria, Violet, and Gaby worked with the incredible team at change.org to target the magazine’s two main advertisers. We organized another petition that put pressure on Fiat and Lacoste pull their advertising, and it was signed by over 1,700 people. In historic and precedent setting move for the Argentinean media, both companies pulled their advertising and publicly announced their disapproval of Terranova’s threat. Lacoste wrote, “our brand has suffered from being associated to comments we disapprove of.”
The rest is history. A public apology was issued by both Juan Terranova and El Guardian, and Terranova’s column was cancelled at the request of the magazine’s main stakeholder. And although we don’t take joy in another man losing his job, we are pleased that another journalist will have an opportunity to write a column absent of rape threats. And as for Terranova, hold your sympathy. Rumor has it he’s getting a reality show.
But this story isn’t just about some asshole with a mouthpiece. It is a story of what happens, when people ban together to do the right thing. It is a story of what it means to have the backs of people you’ve never met. It is a story of an incredible team. Inti Maria wrote,
“The other day I made a comparison to a friend between Hollaback and a bee hive. I said I felt like a bee because we are organized, strong, active and when we get mad — we act together. He said, “you are a strong bee,” haha. But the point is I feel strong because we are all strong together. Right now it feels like we’re taking down the bear of institutionalized misogynism in the media!”
Even Juan Terranova agrees with us on this one. In his apology, he wrote, “Hollaback is a powerful organization, influential and organized, and I am sure they will get what they want.”
In nonprofit terms, we are a tiny organization with only one full time and one part time staff member. But in real terms, we are a team of over 100 people in 10 countries and six languages. I know for many, it is hard to understand how Hollaback works without a traditional office space, or a traditional organizing model. It is hard to understand how people who have never met each other can work together to create impact, and why all these tremendous activists are working ten, sometimes twenty or thirty hours a week unpaid.
The only way I can explain it is this: have you ever been part of an incredible team? Was there ever a time in your life when you completely trusted the people you worked with, when you would have done anything for them, when everyone had everyone else’s back, and when those things made you work faster, smarter, and better than you ever thought possible? Chances are you have. It may have been fleeting, but you know what I’m talking about. And chances are you’d give anything to have that feeling back.
But that is what it feels like to be part of Hollaback: we are an incredible team. Independently, we are like bees. Weak, small, and always buzzing that street harassment is not OK. Collectively though, we’re working together seamlessly to make the impossible possible. To bring awareness to an issue that has been ignored for too long, and to lead this movement in our own communities.
I feel honored to be buzzing alongside the most badass bees on earth, and knowing that no matter what comes our way, we will always have each other’s backs.
Anita Roberts tells the story of the sexual violence she experienced in her youth, and how it helped her discover her child, her “bitch,” and ultimately, her wise woman.
Lara Logan’s Courage
Last night, I, as well as millions of other women sat on the edge of our seats as we listened to the Emmy award-winning CBS journalist tell the harrowing story of her sexual assault in Cairo. I clearly remember watching the footage of that celebration in Tahrir Square on February 11, thinking that this was a shining moment for humanity at large, not just Egyptians, never believing that that particular moment in history could be sullied by something like this. But when the news first came out about the assault, it was not widely talked about, having been overshadowed by the jubilance surrounding Egypt’s independence. Having visited Egypt three times in the past, I was very aware of the problems that Egyptian society has had with sexual violence, and was keenly disappointed that not more attention was brought to the attack on Lara Logan. When the announcement was made that she was ready to tell her story in her own voice, I felt extremely grateful for her candor and courage.
In the 60 Minutes interview, Lara shows great poise, not mincing words or using euphemisms for her experience. She talks about how the mob of more than 200 men tried to tear her limb from limb and in her own words “raped her with their hands,” for more than twenty-five minutes. She endured this assault after being separated from the protection of six men, including a local Egyptian fixer, her producer, the cameraman, two Egyptian drivers that acted as security, and a former Special Forces bodyguard, which shows the brutal force of the mob attacking her. Only when the mob dragged her into a fence, and she fell into a group of Egyptian woman, and then was finally carried out by Egyptian soldiers did she escape further assault.
Immediately upon news of the attack, there were those who asked what she was doing in that situation, somehow insinuating that she had no place there. But Lara Logan, named CBS Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent in 2008, has reported from some of the world’s most dangerous combat zones, including Zimbabwe, Kosovo, Angola, Mozambique, Gaza, the West Bank, and the front lines of Iraq and Afghanistan. She has been intrepid throughout her career, and has been committed to giving others a voice in the midst of conflict. The fact that she was able to speak so openly about her life-threatening experience should give other women hope in similar circumstances. While my own experience of assault on the subway does not even approach what Lara went through, I can speak from personal experience and say that being able to express what happened to you is not only cathartic, but is profoundly helpful to so many women who are told to keep their mouths shut and live in shame for what was done to them.
Around the same time as Lara’s assault, another woman, a Canadian tourist, was raped in the back of a taxi cab in Cairo, and upon her return home, she was told not to speak about it. This is unacceptable. How are we to heal, and own every part of our experience, without turning in on ourselves? How are we going to open society’s eyes and thereby bring about a change in the way women are viewed ~ not still as chattel, but as equals? Monkey see no evil… It’s time to lift up the rotting log in the forest of misogyny, and see what lies beneath.
It must have been an uncomfortable experience for the viewers of 60 Minutes last night to hear about such a terrifying experience, in graphic detail. But I for one appreciated this bare-bones honesty ~ Lara made no effort at covering up what happened to her, and because of this, she was able to literally bring into people’s homes the brutal reality of sexual assault. She mentions how her female colleagues thanked her for breaking her silence, because usually “women never complain about incidents of sexual violence, because you don’t want someone to say, “Well, women shouldn’t be out there.” In fact, there were those in the media and in academia who immediately jumped on the victim-blaming bandwagon, including right here in New York City.
Nir Rosen, a fellow at NYU’s Center on Law and Security, had to resign his fellowship because of wildly offensive comments he made on Twitter, belittling the seriousness of the attack on Logan. Even during his apology, he said that the comments were just meant to be a joke between friends, which is perhaps even more disturbing.
Simone Wilson of LA Weekly felt the need to point out her Lara Logan’s physical attractiveness and rumored sexual history, leading the “report” with one of Logan’s glamour shots. Besides being unforgivably tacky and insensitive, Wilson’s response shows the persistent misunderstanding by many that sexual assault is somehow motivated by sexual desire, merely akin to how a man would approach someone he found attractive for a date. This is simply not the case, as women and girls have been subjected to sexual assault at all ages, in all manner of dress, at all times of day and night, in isolated surroundings, and as in Logan’s case, in dense crowds.
Nir Rosen and Simone Wilson join the ranks of victim-blamers everywhere, but I can tell you with some relief, that their odious views have been roundly censured by everyone with a conscience. I send my warmest thanks and support out to Lara Logan, who has given a voice of empowerment to every woman who has survived sexual violence.
I was taking the train from my hometown to Sydney (a 2 hr ride), having a nice chat with a friend and enjoying having my feet up in the quite empty carriage. At the first stop after I boarded, a man came down into my carriage and stood in front of me, gesturing wordlessly that he wanted me to move my feet so he could flip the seat over, sit in front of me and put his feet up instead (in New South Wales we have seats on trains that flip so you can change the direction you’re facing or create a four-seater.)
I hesitated, not wanting to move my feet just for the benefit of his but yielded I guess more out of habit of giving in to men than anything else. As I did, I said “oh, so you want me to move my feet so you can put yours up?” and as he sat down he said to me “that’s how it goes.” I was infuriated and responded at a normal volume “f–king male privilege.”
This must really have pushed his buttons because he then rose out of his seat, turned around to face me with his hands on the back of the seat in front, leaned right in over me in a truly threatening stance and was about to express his misogynist mind but never had the chance. As soon as he towered over me I put my head back, made myself tall in my seat and at the top of my voice but controlled and firmly and with pointed finger I said “HOW DARE YOU STAND OVER ME LIKE THAT! SIT DOWN! DON’T YOU THREATEN ME! YOU HAVE NO RIGHT…” I continued until he shrunk away and sat down.
It was a victory for me and I’m thrilled that I instinctively got my hackles up and stood my ground with emotional control. I was very shaken and quite upset that no one else in the carriage wanted to assist me but ultimately the threat was gone. He remained in that seat for the duration of the trip and when it came time to alight in Sydney I was ready with a piercing stare but he avoided my gaze completely. I had properly shamed him out.
Easter Monday in the Czech Republic: Not All Women Are Celebrating
by Martina Čermáková
Not too rarely, you’ll find the Czech Easter whipping tradition in one of those stories on odd holiday traditions featured in the corky-news section. From my experience, anyone who’s just learnt about the spanking of girls and women with braided willow sticks (pomlázkas) that goes down on Easter Monday will see it as that: an awkward cultural mainstay that’s probably no fun for the female population.
Within the Czech Republic, though, the pagan tradition of boys and men whipping females in exchange for eggs and ribbons doesn’t seem nowhere near as disputable as foreigners might deem it… read more
As many of you may know, there is a new MTA plan in the works to change the SubTalk messages concerning sexual harassment, which will add a needed component of bystander involvement to the current message: “Sexual Harassment is a Crime in the subway, too – A crowded train is no excuse for an improper touch. Don’t stand for it or feel ashamed, or be afraid to speak up. Report it to an MTA employee or police officer.” As a frequent rider of New York City mass transit, I’ve been aware of these signs since they were put up in 2008, and my initial reaction was “Wow, how have I managed to dodge that bullet time and again? If the MTA feels the need to create a campaign like this, there must be a serious problem.” Irony, of all ironies.
The MTA’s new public service message will reportedly expand on the pithy “If you see something, say something” campaign, by asking bystanders to get involved and report cases of harassment that they witness. This new approach will be such a refreshing change from the burden always being on the victim or potential victim to protect herself.
In my own situation, I was extremely grateful and fortunate to have the support of my fellow passengers. At one point during the incident, I had to yell “Men, guard the doors!”, which I think made it very clear to everyone within earshot that we were dealing with a dangerous individual that needed to be contained until law enforcement could take over. Without the help of other passengers, the perpetrator would definitely have gotten away with it, just to do it again to someone else. Not only did bystanders help to detain him in that car, they also took my lead and photographed him, shaming him as they did so, which made me feel safer and not so alone in dealing with the situation.
But the unfortunate thing is that I had to make quite a scene, and demand the help I needed from others. It was not immediately forthcoming, and certainly not offered to me. My feeling is that someone else who would not feel as confident speaking up as I did would have had a serious problem seeing justice done on that day. And justice was indeed done, with conviction and deportation of the perpetrator. A definitive result like that shows the power of a compassionate and involved citizenry. However, this outcome was sadly not the norm. What if I hadn’t spoken up about it? Then it might have been business as usual that day, as in “let’s pretend that didn’t happen, and move on with our day.” I’m all for moving on with our day and our lives, but not for playing pretend, which doesn’t help anyone. In fact, this is how sex crimes become normalized.
Many times, an individual is being victimized on mass transit without their knowledge, and the MTA’s most recent initiative will, I believe, be a turning point in combating the problem. More eyes to see what is going on, and a greater sense of overall awareness of the immediate surroundings will no doubt help. If we are to put a stop to this egregious behavior once and for all, so that we may truly call ourselves a civilized society, bystanders must be willing to step up and take some measure of responsibility for the individuals surrounding them, whether they have a personal relationship to them or not.
If a person could just imagine themselves or their loved ones in a similarly terrible situation, they might think of their own need for support from others around them. Empathy is what is called for here. For too long, many have tried to turn the other way and ignore what has been going on right in front of their own eyes, and the MTA campaign now makes it clear, that this issue will not just go away if we continue to “play ostrich” with it. Bravo, MTA ~ you’ve made a step in the right direction.
To submit a question to Nicola for next Monday’s post, please email it to her here.
Check out this article for a history lesson on dirtbags of yore. The women at the time were clearly asking for it what with their ankle-length skirts and turtleneck shirts.