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SUBMITTED BY CARRIE DAVIDSON, reposted from Carried Away
There hasn’t been a single day when I’ve walked home this week and haven’t been catcalled at least once. For the first two days it was funny. By the third and fourth, it became expected.
Wait, expected? In what world is it okay to expect to be sexually harassed?
Yes, catcallers. Sexual harassment. You’re not being funny. You certainly aren’t being charming. There is nothing innocent about it.
What goes through the heads of these men? I don’t mean “I’m too good for them, so what are they thinking?” because, honestly, the guys in my age range are usually attractive. Until they open their mouths.
I’d like to give them the benefit of the doubt. I’d like to think that the thought process is something like, “My, that is a rather attractive young lady. I have taken an immediate fancy to her, and would like to get her attention. I’m going to approach her casually and strike up conversation.” But, because of some brain malfunction that’s attributed only to the Y chromosome, they accidentally say something like, “Yo, sexy! How you doin’?”
I figure it’s one of two options: A. They legitimately think that calling to a girl like she’s a dog will get them action or B. They like seeing young girls walking alone down the street look uncomfortable, because they think it’s funny.
There are so many things wrong with option B, so many ways that it contributes to the sexist attitudes of our current society, that I don’t even know where to start.
So don’t call me “Red.” Definitely don’t call me “white girl.” Let me walk the three minutes from the subway to my apartment in peace.
If, on the other hand, you’re actually an incredibly insecure boy who just doesn’t know how to handle a situation, here’s a tip. Walk up. Say “hello.” Ask my name. It’s not rocket science.
Check out this video from South Africa — bringing attention to street harassment, how it happens, and why it hurts. They creators also point out the links between street harassment and a culture of media and advertising that regularly objectifies women and treats them like objects. A culture that makes objectifying women OK is the gateway to a culture that makes violence against women OK.
“I’m not your sweetheart.”
The other day, I got into a livery cab, which I often do when I travel from Washington Heights to go downtown. I indulge in this guilty pleasure especially when I’m going toward the East Side, which takes a monstrous amount of time to get to from the Heights. Typically, I do a “street hail,” because it seems to save time, as well as money. This means that I take certain precautions when getting in a cab, so that I don’t have any problems, which I’ll detail in another post. Well, this cab seemed alright, as in, the driver seemed courteous, and not creepy. So I got in and everything seemed to be going OK, when he decided to go a different way than the way that I had requested him to go, which unfortunately resulted in us missing several lights, getting caught in traffic etc. So I politely said that I really preferred to take the other route to the Harlem River Drive. He responded by calling me “sweetheart,” which, considering the circumstances, was pretty condescending.
I immediately said, “Don’t call me sweetheart!” He seemed very surprised, and perhaps had never received that response before. As an older man, I suspect that he probably had called young women that throughout his life, and was never called to task for it. And honestly, I’ve been called that so many times before by men of a certain age, that I thought I had almost become insensitive to it ~ the operative word here being “almost.” It’s so common, that it’s easy to tell yourself that “they don’t mean anything by it,” which is exactly the response I received when I spoke up to this cab driver. But just because something offensive/patronizing has become normalized, doesn’t make it in the least bit acceptable. And I don’t think I’m alone in this view.
When I told him not to call me that, I elaborated the reason ~ not with the obvious one, of him being condescending to me given the specific circumstances, but of the real reason. I told him that it was considered a term that should only be used between a husband and wife, and a boyfriend and girlfriend, and that it indicated that the man had a sexual relationship with the woman. This statement of course stopped him dead in his tracks, so to speak. Now, I know that parents sometimes call their son or daughters this as well, as a term of endearment, but I wanted to drive home to him the fact that it was a term only used between people who had an intimate relationship with one another, and that it wasn’t acceptable to use in other settings. Well, he got the message, and at that moment professed undying love to his dear wife, saying that he never meant to come on to me. It totally worked ~ he understood what I was trying to say, and did actually apologize.
When will men learn that calling women whom they’ve just met, “sweetheart” is not acceptable? When we start calling them on it, each clueless person at a time. And that’s how change works.
I’m bisexual. What does this mean? I am physically, emotionally and mentally attracted to both sexes, male and female, as well as both genders, men and women (note: there is a difference between sex and gender, most people can’t differentiate between the two). Essentially, I’m queer-minded; I will not turn down any person because of genetics or orientation. That being said, I’ve been in several serious relationships with men, had casual flings with women and most recently, entered into a long-term relationship with a woman. At one point or another, both sexes have grabbed the attention of my heart, mind and body, not necessarily equally so, but why should that factor matter?
A few years ago, I took a Sexuality & Society course at Georgia State University. I wanted to learn more about human sexuality and its history, trends, expectations and media influence that affect people’s view. Naturally, this course was extremely controversial. Many students signed up simply because they thought we’d be watching soft-core porn all day. Wrong. It was definitely one of the most informative and eye opening classes of my entire undergraduate career.
And then came the discussion of sexual identity. Just as the professor was explaining how many people do not dichotomize their sexuality with ‘straight’ and ‘gay,’ one male student (who was extremely fond of his straightness) stood up and yelled, “You can label yourself! You are either straight or gay. If you like men and women, you are gay. Point blank period.”
This did not fly with me. Fuck raising my hand and waiting to be called on; this guy needed to LEARN and UNDERSTAND that you cannot just put people and their feelings and attractions into one of two boxes. Life is not that black and white. Life is not that square.
I tried to explain it to him. Yes, some people are 100% straight and some people are 100% homosexual, physically, emotionally and mentally. But not everyone, not me. Before I could even elaborate further, he was already yelling for the whole class to hear, but directing his dialogue toward me. “You’re just confused. You can’t be in the middle. Bisexuality doesn’t exist. Girls who say they are bisexual are just horny girls looking for attention anywhere they can find it. They want to have sex with men and entertain the men by having sex with women too…” – something along those lines. Imagine know-it-all college student in his very early 20s discriminating against an entire group of people without even allowing the discussion to set in. He didn’t want to hear anyone else’s opinions or even learn one single perspective on the variety of sexual identities that exist. The professor eventually kicked him out of class, and apparently he couldn’t handle it because he never came back.
It would’ve been to his benefit to not drop the class. By the end of the semester, he could have learned something new that may have changed his perspective. Yet another opportunity for growth and understanding down the drain. Unfortunately, many people do not make it through classes like these, or let alone through life encountering people of different sexual orientations and cultural backgrounds. Their only way of coping with something so opposite their own norm is to immediately bash it. They turn to hate and discrimination to make sense of something they just can’t wrap their head around. It’s selfish and disappointing that people are so quick and willing to immediately cast people off rather than take two minutes to learn about another lifestyle, another culture, another human being.
I’m grateful for HollaBack and other organizations that promote anti-discrimination towards all groups of people — not just gays, transgendered, lesbians, bisexuals, blacks, Muslims or anyone. It is absolutely uncalled for. Whatever life path we decide to take, it’s our own. No one should take that away from us. Share your story with the world – or even just one person. It will make a difference if they have the heart and consideration to listen before making judgments.
Cross-posted from HollabackATL!
I’ve had this body my whole life. I don’t remember the first time I got honked at or holla’d at, but it may have been as early as middle school. Because as soon as I hit puberty, wham! I had curves. Not that I can even say that is the full reason. It may lend to it, but the real reason is simply this: I’m a woman. If I’m walking down the street, then I’m fair game to any man who feels the need to holla.
I’m not a prude, I love my body, I’m comfortable in it. But I think about what I wear each morning in terms of what attention I’ll get as I walk down the street to the bus stop or work. Some days I just don’t feel like dealing with it, so I wear jeans and a t-shirt. I might not get honked at that day. But turns out, me feeling like I ain’t lookin’ cute–I still get honked at sometimes. I still have men pull up next to me trying to chat me up or offering me rides. But, if I wore a cute dress? It’s guaranteed to happen. In jeans and a t-shirt, it’s a question of whether I’ll have to deal with street harassment. In a dress, or anything slightly more “feminine”, it’s a question of when.
I live about a seven minute walk from the bus stop where I took the bus to school last semester, and about ten minute walk from my job. No, I wasn’t harassed every day. But a lot of days. It’s more annoying when I get honked at (from the front and from the back, but from the back most often), but at least that’s not coming into my bubble. It really creeps me out when men pull up next to me, try to offer me rides and crap. I mean, seriously? I’m not five anymore, but I pretty much still abide with the idea of not getting in cars with strangers.
I have very fortunately never had to deal with any actual assault. I am extremely grateful every time a man backs off and drives away. I hate that I feel fear every time a man pulls up next to me. What if all he wants is to ask directions? It’s never happened. I don’t even give them the benefit of the doubt anymore, and I hate that. I don’t want to be a feminist man-hater. But considering my work is primarily in the area of intimate partner violence, and my own experience with harassment–it’s hard sometimes. I know a lot of great men who treat women well. But I ask of them–do you call off your friends when they try to holla at the girls? If you don’t–then you’re just as bad–someone who stands idly by.
Anyone who thinks street harassment is harmless, ask yourself why the men are doing it. Do they really just want to tell me how beautiful I am? It’s a power play, showing me and and other women who walk down the street that men are still in control. In the society we live in, it’s accepted that you shouldn’t walk around at night, especially alone. But I don’t. This happens in the middle of the day. In broad daylight. In front of many other people in their cars. So don’t try to tell me it isn’t about putting on a show.
Race may be involved with street harassment for some, but you won’t find me saying that. My body apparently is equal opportunity trigger for men of all ages and races. I can’t even say one race does it more, because they don’t. Just depends what part of town I’m in.
I will not stop walking everywhere. I will not be intimidated by men trying to show me who is in control. And I am speaking up. You try to holla, and you better believe I will hollaback.
Hollaback is an organization speaking against street harassment by collecting people’s stories. My story was posted a couple of months ago. I invite you to take part in speaking up. You can also follow them on twitter.
It’s time to be the change.
Reposted from Dancing with Me
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.
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.
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!