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Grey Area

Grey Area

Recently the comedy community was hit with yet another trusted and successful man being accused of rape. I’m sure by the time this is published there will be at least three more instances, three more respected men accused of sexual assault or rape and countless more women being called liars, even more never heard from. Misogyny and sexual assault are not foreign concepts to the improv and stand up communities. This is, after all, a community which still debates regularly whether women are funny or not.

I get a pit in my stomach every time I read these stories. I listen to the women on the secret feminist comedy boards that say, “stay away from Joe Schmo, he assaulted me”. (Sincere apologies to anyone actually named, Joe Schmo. I’m sure you’re a great guy who would never harm a woman. Maybe consider changing your name to something not commonly used to identify the everyman.) Does the stomach pit come from empathy for these women? Anger over the lack of punishment these men will receive? (The latest one is banned from his comedy club. Devastating for a comedian I guess, but he’s a rapist who will never see prison so I think I’ll save my tears.) Alas, I think my stomach pit just may come from a more self-centered place.

When he took it off, I didn’t say no. Because I wanted to have sex? Or because he had subtly established that my “no” carried little weight?

Four years ago I found myself in a position with a fellow comedian and I don’t know what to call it. I was absolutely not raped. I know what rape is. I believe every woman who alleges rape. This wasn’t it.  Even sexual assault feels too strong. I was uncomfortable. He didn’t care. He has almost certainly forgotten the whole encounter.  After a class and the bar celebration afterwards, I brought a fellow classmate back to my apartment. We had been drinking. I, at least, was far from hammered. I don’t blackout. I remember everything. After some awkward conversation in which he told me I would definitely make an improv team because I was pretty (insert eye roll here) we started fooling around. I was enjoying it. I led him to my bedroom. I stated, in no uncertain terms (I thought), that my underwear was to remain on. It didn’t. When he took it off, I didn’t say no. Because I wanted to have sex? Or because he had subtly established that my “no” carried little weight? Again, I ultimately consented and I got a weak fingering and gave a lackluster blowjob. It was certainly nothing to write home about (my mother loves when I write her about my sexploits), but I felt gross the next day. I chalked it up to not liking one-night stands. I still don’t. But maybe what I don’t like is not being heard, my wants not being respected. This is the murky grey area of consent that we, as a community, have established no way of talking about.

I saw him on a commercial recently. It’s a bizarre feeling, watching someone who took advantage of you achieve success, even at the smallest level. I’m doing pretty well in life so I doubt the flip in my stomach was solely an indicator of jealousy. But there I was, watching TV, stomach flipping, and there he was, staring back at me. I had nothing but the knowledge of what this man was, what he had done to me. I could do nothing but watch him sell ice cream.

Of course not all men are rapists, sexual assailants or grey area lurkers, but all women have faced some form of misogyny small or large, and isn’t that the problem? 

This may be the most vanilla story of a bad sexual encounter ever, but I doubt the story is rare. In fact, I had a least one conversation with a female comedy acquaintance where she implied she had a similar experience with the same guy. This is how too many men in comedy view women. And as I hear the cries of men in the distance yelling “not all men!” “I would never!” I know. I agree. Not all men ignore the no’s of women. Of course not all men are rapists, sexual assailants or grey area lurkers, but all women have faced some form of misogyny small or large, and isn’t that the problem?

Improv has rules. Perhaps the most vital of which is to listen. This is a rule taught day 1 of level 1 of any theater class. It’s a rule you probably learned even earlier if you attended first grade. Listen to what your scene partner offers and respond honestly and respectfully. Why is this a rule so callously thrown away when the stage goes dark? Men who have mastered this rule onstage aren’t listening offstage. They aren’t listening when we say no. They aren’t listening when woman after woman after woman is telling them they have been violated. We still defend the rapists and their defenders. We are still failing victims, past, present and future. Because there will be more.

Men in comedy are failing their female counterparts. Until men in the industry start speaking up for women, there will be plenty more. Whether you are committing crimes yourself, standing up for those accused of doing so, or simply remaining silent, you are betraying the trust of the women you work with. On stage we put complete trust in each other knowing we will protect and look out for each other when the lights are on and the audience is there. Why is that not the case when the audience goes home?

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