My first experience with sexual harassment happened in elementary school. A group of boys became fascinated with me and my sister: They pulled our hair, knocked over our crayons and enjoyed putting their index finger through the zipper of their jeans as if it were a penis. No matter how often I informed the counselors of the boys’ behavior, their punishment was always tepid: “Boys, stop it.”
One afternoon, I was throwing and catching balls against a wall with my sister.
You can see where this is going. The group of boys approached us, and started repeatedly chanting: “Whitney has hard, rubber balls.” Because I knew the counselors weren’t going to do anything, I decided to take matters into my own hands. Thankfully my father had taught me how to properly throw a baseball, so I started throwing the balls at the boys, screaming, “You have hard, rubber balls.” I was able to accurately pitch hard balls for a good amount of time before the boys started crying, and then I was punished. My parents were called. I had to go home for the day. I was the problem needing to be fixed. Not the boys.
This moment taught me how to deal with sexual harassment: You have to make some sort of scene—even if that means you look crazy. But that isn’t how people should have to handle any sort of harassment.
Now, two decades later, I’m in my mid-twenties and in a career that has the greatest amount of sexual harassment I’ve ever encountered, yet absolutely no recourse: Comedy.
In standup comedy, there is a general rule that “anything goes.” Jokes about race, genocide, rape, sexuality and so much more are not untouchable. And for the most part, comedians take to this challenge: writing jokes about the German pilot suicide tragedy, Robin William’s death, and the Bill Cosby rape allegations. “Hey, anything goes!” comics will shout on stage, after the audience gasps following a joke about Joan Rivers. People may leave the comedy club, drinks untouched.
But hey, anything goes.
I’ve worked as a waitress, a bartender and a professor, and in each case I experienced instances of sexual harassment. Usually, unlike comedians, I had an office I could walk into when I had an issue with a coworker or boss. Yet after walking to these safe places, like a mirage, I found they weren’t real. More often than not, I was not aided in dealing with workplace sexual harassment. I was told, “Well, you should say something to [insert co-worker’s name] if you don’t like the way you are being treated.” My concerns were met with a wink, as if I was inviting this treatment.
What fascinates me about sexual harassment is that the responsibility to stop the inappropriate behavior is put on the person who is being harassed. “You should say something” indicates that the harasser doesn’t know any better. It indicates that it’s the job of the harassed to fix the harasser.
This “anything goes” mentality has made its way offstage and into an every day setting. You can roam a comedy club and hear a comedian calling a group of black men the “n-word,” observe someone asking a gay man if he wants his dick sucked, and almost certainly, you will see women getting verbally and physically harassed. The inherent interpretation of a comedian is that they are “wild,” “fun,” and ultimately “don’t know any better.” So, when a woman doesn’t like her ass being grabbed mid-mediocre punchline on the patio of the Comedy Store or when a woman doesn’t like her vagina being called “fat” after getting off stage post-comedy set, the issue isn’t the male comedian’s behavior, it’s the woman. In this school of thought, the comedian is fun and wild, and the woman just can’t handle it. She doesn’t get the comedy. She isn’t fun and wild.
Comedy is a job. Comedy clubs are workplaces. Stages are offices. When a comedian touches, catcalls or verbally sexualizes a female comedian, her ability to work is threatened. And more so, she is challenged as to how to deal with the matter. We, girl comedians, want to be funny and clever. We want to fit in, which can be difficult in a male-dominated workplace.
Recently, I’ve had several female comics approach me for advice. The requested advice isn’t for such things as a list of good show recommendations or suggestions for productive open mics. It’s always the same question, just a slightly different set up: How do I deal with [creepy, semi-successful guy in comedy]? He said if I don’t come over to write, he will never book me on his show. [Gross, very successful dude comic] said if I don’t pick him up from this party, he will ban me from all Los Angeles comedy clubs. Last night, [disgusting, neck-bearded not successful but well-liked male comedian] introduced me onstage as a “superhot chick he’d like to f-ck.”
What does one do in this situation?
Here are my suggestions: call him out, tell him to stop, tell the manager.
What if said slimy comedian bans me? But I want to fit in. What if I am seen as sensitive?
Much like my childhood rubber-balls situation, “telling” on a comedian isn’t possible. We want to play it cool because we want to be taken seriously as a comic, because we want to be part of “The Boys Club.” The distorted logic is that in order to be let into the inner circle, comics have to accept the behavior thrown at them. So, you must fight fire with fire. You respond to rubber balls with rubber balls. He grabs your waist from behind and presses himself against you, you respond with statements like: “Your dick is so small, I can’t even feel it.” However, this method validates the sexual harassment. Which means the behavior will only continue.
We’re told to “Say something!” “Let me beat him up!” or (my personal favorite) “Kick him in the balls!” All of which seem to be potentially successful methods. But that isn’t the point.
People, no matter what the circumstance, should be able to enter their workplace and work without filtering through grabby hands and sexual comments. I shouldn’t have to tell you to stop. You should know not to start. I am not arguing that women shouldn’t say or do anything in instances of experiencing sexual harassment. Sure, speak up. Throw a fit. But the responsibility that a woman has to do something is irrational. This isn’t an issue of women not doing enough to stop sexual harassment. This is an issue of men’s behavior: Being given permission to act “fun” and “wild” until or if ever someone says to stop.
My demand to the dudes: Stop being gross and start being funny.
Whitney Rice is a comedic actress and standup comic from Virginia. After receiving her masters degree in rhetoric, she moved to Los Angeles to pursue comedy while teaching in colleges. Her comedic work and YouTube channel has been featured in Buzzfeed, Deadline, The Atlantic Wire, LA Weekly, LA Times, and Funny or Die. Recently, she partnered with Above Average, the digital arm of Lorne Michael’s Broadway Video. Lead photo: The author opening for Jeff Ross, via YouTube.