(Note: this is a much shortened excerpt from my book "Notion Sickness", which is almost done, I swear to sweet Sassmouth Jesus.)
I used to run and host a comedic storytelling show at the VAC in Garden City. I booked an out of town comic one month, and in between sets, he kept smacking me on the ass as I walked by. Several times, I politely but firmly told him to please not touch me anymore, but he continued. I had a show to run, so I spent the evening avoiding him as best as I could. After the show, he hugged me and gave my ass a full on, deep tissue squeeze. I stepped back and told him, in no uncertain tones, to keep his fucking hands off of me. He laughed, and told me, sorry, it was just that I was so hot, ya know?
The next night, at an open mic that I also ran and hosted, the same comic called me over like he had a question. When I leaned in so he could whisper in my ear, he grabbed me around the waist and pulled me into a tight embrace. He stuck his other hand up my skirt from behind and fingered my genitals, like full puss contact, his fingers pushing against my underwear into my vagina. When I tried to pull away, he held me in place. “Come on,” he said in a low voice. “Can’t you take a joke?” I wrestled away and tried to yell at him, but unfortunately I was betrayed at that moment by Shaky Lady Voice, or SLV, which is where you want to be assertive and tough, but, instead, your stupid lady voice goes all high and quavering, and your stupid lady eyes go all watery, and you end up warbling “this is my body, you don’t have the right to touch me if I don’t want to be touched, I’m a person, I have boundaries” which has never stopped anyone from assaulting a person, ever.
I absolutely can take a joke. I once hosted a roast where the main theme seemed to be “Emma is fit and has sex a lot, she’s a witch! Get her!” I had a great time, even though my worst insult of the evening was saying I didn’t feel like it was fair to make fun of the other comedians when what they really needed was a little Good Will Hunting. (I hugged every comedian as they took the stage and told them it wasn’t their fault. I’m not good at shit-talking, it’s a problem, okay??) My good friend Brett made the best joke of the evening in which he implied that my husband left me because he finally decided personality was important. It was brutal, but so funny and personal, I loved it. I felt truly flattered that they cared about and knew me well enough to really hurt my feelings.
I just don’t find getting groped repeatedly all that funny. It’s not a joke, and I shouldn’t have to take it. The problem isn’t me, it isn’t my sensitivity or lack of humor. The out-of-town comic later called me to “apologize”, saying he was sorry that I “was so uptight” and didn’t know how to have fun. He explained that he only groped me so that I could feel like one of the guys. I told him that it was upsetting and dehumanizing, being touched like that, and, appealing to his empathy (hahahaha, Arnold, you so cute), asked how he would feel if something like that happened to him.
“I’d love it!” he responded. “You can grab my junk anytime.”
This is just one guy, and I’m just one female comedian. This happens over and over and over. I’m sorry to make generalizations, but you could FOR REALS be a bolo-tie-wearing youth pastor with sweaty meat hands, and still be less creepy than 75% of male comics. (This statistic fluctuates depending on the city, obviously. In Portland, it's much lower, maybe 15%. In Toronto or LA, maybe 50%. Also, I should add I got a "D" in statistics, so...) Here’s a partial list of bullshit I’ve put up with in the last few years, to further prove my point:
-There was the road comic who argued that it was safe for me to sleep in my car at a rest area because the whole rape culture thing was “way overblown”. “Women exaggerate, you know that” he told me. When I explained that most of the women I know had been raped or sexually assaulted, he said, “You must know a lot of bitches”.
-There was the male comedian who asked me for nudes after I gave him my number to get on a show. I sent him pictures of myself making this face with the caption “Let me help you masturbate” every ten minutes until he asked me to please stop. (Seriously. Don’t ask me for nudes. If you want to see me naked, just close your eyes, and picture Jennifer Lawrence. If she gave birth three times and also maybe never had tits.)
-There was the gropey Midwest male comedian EVERYONE KNOWS ABOUT who tried to kiss me, REPEATEDLY, even after I explained that I wasn’t interested or available. He invited me over, under the pretense that a group of comics were hanging out, but when I showed up, it was just him. When I tried to leave, he wouldn't let me, first pinning me against the couch with a "hug", then blocking the door with his six foot plus frame. "Come on," he said. "I just want you to hold me, don't be so mean." Multiple women have told me similar stories about him since.
-There was the male comedian who told me, “You realize it doesn't matter what you say up there, people only laugh because they want to fuck you”. Or the one who said all he could think about when I was performing was what noises I make during sex. (Note: I’m completely silent during sex. Like “Nosferatu”.) Or the guy who told me he thought that "Cosby only raped like 20% of those women" and that some of them were clearly lying. THAT'S STILL 12 WOMEN HOLY CHRIST! Do we have to be a baker's dozen to fucking matter??
That’s just comics, the guys I work with. I still have to deal with the audience, too. And they feel perfectly fine coming up and telling me they want to fuck me, or critiquing my appearance and weight, or scolding me for using dirty language. I had a guy come up to me after a show and tell me that he wanted to paddle me and wash my mouth out with soap for saying the f-word too much. (Note: under different circumstances, when not suggested by a comb-overed septuagenarian, that sounds like a fantastic way to spend one’s Saturday night.) I have to deal with guys following me out to my car, sending me unsolicited dick pics online, and heckling me during shows with catcalls, come ons, and even threats of rape.
After I was upskirt-groped, I walked out onto the patio of the comedy club, rattled and shaking. There was a group of male comedians sitting at a table, and I told them what had occurred. One of them, a man I count as a friend who has otherwise been extremely supportive and kind to me, laughed and said, “Yeah, well, can you blame him? Dressed like that, what did you expect?” This minimizing and normalizing of sexual harassment is also an unfortunate part of my job. When something gross happens to me, far too often, my male peers are all too eager to point out how I contributed to the harassment OR why I should be “flattered” by the attention. “I wish I got hit on as much as you.” No. No, you really don’t.
It just doesn’t fucking end.
I try really hard to focus on the good men I know. Comedy is a boys club--I sometimes feel like I’m playing Wendy to the Lost Boys, except instead of teaching me to fly, Peter Pan’s always trying to give me chlamydia. And I’m like, no thank you, Dan Soder! (Jk, I would totally let Dan Soder give me chlamydia, he’s lovely.)--but I also know some amazing, wonderful men who have always treated me like a person. They don’t stick their hands up my skirt, or minimize the bullshit I deal with on a daily basis, or tell me to get a thicker skin. They don’t treat my unwillingness to be harassed as the problem, they understand that I shouldn’t have to be a walking callous to do my job. They have welcomed me with closed arms, waiting for me to initiate physical contact when and if I feel comfortable. To them, I say thank you. And also, sorry about your premature ejaculation problem.
To my fellow funny ladies, keep fighting the good fight. It’s important and it is working. We’re almost there. In ten years, maybe we’ll just be “comedians”, and no one will ever bring us up to “our next comic is a guuuuurl”. Maybe the conversation will shift from “sexual harassment will never go away, just deal with it” to “how do we stop sexual harassment, it sucks”. And maybe, when a disgusting person sticks his/her hand up the gender-neutral skort of a professional joke-making person, the reaction will be swift and judicious, and no one will even think of saying, “Well, dressed like that, what did you expect?”
Update: I've had a lot of people ask about why I didn't name the comedian who sexually assaulted me here. It's a good question, and one I have struggled with. I won't name him here, but please know that I warn every booker, club, and touring female comedian I meet about him, and he already has a rep for being a creep and isn't allowed in many places even without my input.
It all started and ended with a dog. The wrong dog. A dog I didn’t want, but kept for over a decade out of stubborn loyalty. He was eighteen when we put him down. Eighteen! Standing in the small room at the vet’s office, waiting to put him to sleep, I couldn’t help but think, even as I sobbed over his wheezing, spent form, that it was so like him to not just die. To not let go gracefully and naturally, no, Jack needed to die like he lived: inconveniently. He had to put us through the heartbreak of hard decisions and committed goodbyes. That, I think, was his final gift to me, this purposeful death, this forced pause, a moment to reflect on what I was losing, and how free I would feel when it was done.
Jack was my honeymoon dog. I got him a month before I got married at the perfectly Idaho-reasonable age of 21, and I put him down the same week my divorce was finalized. Jack bookended my love story. I still think of it as a love story, even though it ended. Maybe it was. Maybe all the best love stories end not with “and they lived happily ever after”, but with a nod to entropic decay. Maybe they end with “it worked for awhile, but eventually, fell apart”. Much like the marriage itself, Jack wasn’t good dog or a bad dog, he was just a dog, and he worked for awhile, but eventually fell apart. It seemed appropriate that we put him down together, my ex and I, a final act of solidarity. The hole he left felt as large as and unfillable as the one where my love story used to live. More permanent and real than even the divorce.
We adopted Jack from a no-kill shelter in San Luis Obispo, California. He wasn’t my first pick. I walked past him twice and thought he seemed anti-social and obnoxious. I wanted to adopt a cheerful, little black lab mix named Ben. I had always wanted a lab, growing up, we had a border collie and she hated everything except shitting in the house and running away. Being from Idaho, the beach was still an exotic treat for me, and I wanted a dog that would share my enthusiasm for the ocean; a driftwood-fetching, tide pool exploring, wave-hopping companion. I was immediately drawn to Ben, and I can still picture his face, this pup that got away.
My ex didn’t like Ben, so the man who worked at the shelter talked me into taking another look at Jack. I remember standing in front of his kennel skeptically, trying to muster some feeling of attachment. He was not an attractive dog. He looked like someone took a bunch of leftover canine parts and smashed them together into a weird FrankenHound. He had the butt of a Rottweiler, the legs of a Heeler, the face of an Australian Shepard, and the ears of a bat. On the card with his name and breed, there was a section for why the previous owners had gotten rid of him. It read “Barks Too Much, Not a Good Dog”. The shelter volunteer informed us that Jack had been there on and off for three years, that people would adopt him and bring him back. So then, of course, I had to have him.
He was a neurotic, abused, unwanted mess with abandonment issues. I was a neurotic, abused, unwanted mess with abandonment issues. We understood one another perfectly. If one can be codependent with a dog, and honey, I’m here to assure you, one can, Jack and I would have given Melody Beatty an aneurism. When I was in the house, he wouldn’t leave my side, following me from room to room, trying to maintain constant physical contact, pressed against my leg so I was forever tripping over him. “God Damn it, Jack” was such a common phrase in our house, it was my son’s third sentence.
As it turned out, the card was right. Jack barked too much, and was not a good dog. He howled whenever I left, sometimes for hours. We were almost evicted from several apartments because of his barking. He shed incessantly, stank like fish food, and he was humper, pure embarrassment at the dog park. We called him “the scourge of BLT sandwiches”. I don’t know how many of my lunches he stole when I turned my back for just a second. He would steal food off of the counters and the stove, still hot. And it wasn’t just food, he ate everything. Bottle caps, garbage bags, string cheese still in the wrapper. Cleaning up his feces was always a scavenger hunt in disgust. He frequently ate and passed juice boxes.
He was such a prick.
But once, when my abusive father came to visit, Jack jumped up on the couch and humped him profusely. The whole world changed in that moment. Watching my shitty, shelter dog’s enthusiastic thrusts as he air-fucked the man who had terrorized my childhood, it felt as though a spell of twenty years had been broken. As a little girl, I watched my father beat our family dogs near to death, listening to their yelps of fear and pain with a sick, dead weight in my belly, knowing I was most likely next. I had endured such beatings and more from him, and now here he was, in my adult home, unable to do anything about the canine ecstasy happening on his lap except make polite shoo-ing motions with his hands. It seemed to me a transfer of power, a changing of the guard. I was a grown up now, and in my house, we didn’t beat children or dogs. I had broken the cycle, and there was nothing he could do. The world was mine now, I had won.
Except, I realized one night, while cleaning up blood and broken glass after my husband furiously punched a picture off of the wall, that I hadn’t. I had just traded monsters. I remember feeling a little proud of myself as I swept up the shards, thinking that I was good in a crisis, calm, quick, efficient. As I hurried to get everything cleaned up, I was grateful that our kids were outside so they didn’t witness any of the violence. Looking up, I caught Jack staring at me, his cataracted, solemn eyes near blind, but seemingly reproachful. He gave a deep sigh and laid his head on his front paws, as if exhausted by my stupidity. And it occurred to me, maybe I shouldn’t be proud of that, maybe being really good at being abused isn’t a life skill. I kicked my husband out that night, and we separated forever a month later.
It still took me over a year to finally get divorced, I kept waiting for some miracle to occur that could change reality. During that time, Jack’s health deteriorated, he became fully incontinent, and I cleaned up urine, vomit, or diarrhea every morning. This became so part of my routine, that I didn’t even notice it anymore, but I would catch Jack giving me these long looks like he was thinking, seriously, just pull the trigger already, let this die. Let go. But I couldn’t and so the dog and the marriage continued to live in stasis. Sick, comatose, grotesque, but alive.
In the end, I was surprised by how quick it went. The procedure was thirty five dollars, the receptionist explained, seventy if you wanted to be there. Doesn’t everybody want to be there, I asked. Do people really just drop off their family pet and come back in couple days for the ashes? She shrugged, and said it was easier that way, people didn’t want to experience loss firsthand. As we sat in the lobby, I contemplated this thirty five dollar grief charge, and decided it seemed low. Our vet was (and is) a warm, sweet, no-nonsense father of four who once pulled me aside when our guinea pig was sick and said, “It’s crazy to spend four hundred bucks on a rodent, I’ll just give her a shot of saline so the kids think you tried everything”.
He called us in, and we laid Jack on the table. He was so light at the end, I could carry him. Once, when we had to take a job in Alaska, we left him with a family friend for a few months. When we came back, he had gained almost fifty pounds, and was so fat he looked like a sheep. Our friend had left the dog food down, not realizing that Jack was a complete food whore and would eat until he popped. He was just bones now, I hadn’t been able to get him to eat anything but pepperoni slices for a few weeks. I had been warning people of his imminent death for several years, but I didn’t really believe it. He was just so impossibly old, he seemed invincible.
And then suddenly, but really not suddenly at all in the way of long endings, he was gone, and I was alone. He was the last thread of who I was, who I was going to be, before kids and debt and hardship, the last little piece of my young, optimistic love. And now he was gone. We buried him up in the woods near my parent’s cabin. It felt like burying all my twenty year old hopes and dreams, like burying the last vestiges of my childhood. All my naivete and wide-eyed faith, wrapped in a tatty pink blanket, laid to rest in a hole in the ground, covered, shovelful by shovelful, with cold dirt.
A couple days later, my divorce was finalized, and I was free. No more cleaning up shit in the morning, no more blood or broken glass. I pulled the trigger, and now I get to be on the other side, grateful for what I’ve been given, for the lessons I’ve learned. I get to be grateful for Jack, my most stubborn and loyal friend. Thank you, Jack, for keeping my feet warm. Thank you for barking and protecting us from all the boogeymen. Thank you for never once biting or growling at my children, who crawled all over you and tugged your ears and poked your eyes and stuck their heads in your mouth. Thank you, Jack, for being the right dog, at the right time, even though I didn’t know it, and for sticking with me until the very end, until I was finally ready to go it alone.
(This is an excerpt from Emma’s someday-to-be-published book, “Notion Sickness”.)
Yesterday I started to write a blog about facing sexual harassment in standup comedy, but was interrupted by a bunch of unsolicited dick pics from a dangerous sex offender who mistook me for a teenager. He threatened to spank me and worse, then sent me multiple pictures of his dick, including several of himself ejaculating. Usually I would make a joke about being flattered that he thought I looked so young or how I apparently wear my kink on my sleeve, but instead, I spent the morning on the phone with the Montana judicial department, because it turns out that this particular creep is currently awaiting trial for trying to have violent BDSM sex with a twelve year old girl. He’s not supposed to use the internet and my screenshots of his messages will be used to convince the judge to give him the maximum sentence in his case. Irony, thy name is Facebook.
It all started because I posted my high school yearbook picture, with the caption “This was my senior pic, there’s nothing you can do that will hurt me”. Turns out, I was wrong, that in fact, seventeen years after suffering through the initial indignity of the photo itself, I would have yet another incident to add to my ever-growing “Men: You Suck” file, and even more reason to write about misogyny and sexual harassment. Which I will do, tomorrow. Today I want to talk about m'face.
That picture used to mortify me. When people teased me about it, I wanted to DIE. It encapsulated everything I always hated about myself growing up--the poverty and neglect I lived with as a kid, my inability to stick up for myself, my age inappropriate hypersexuality, my continued bafflement about how to be cool--all of it, just glaring out beneath that blond bouffant, screaming my otherness.
That picture was taken in 1998. Look at my smirk. I’m seventeen in that picture and I look like a world-weary French prostitute who’s seen 10,000 dicks. Which, I’ll be frank, was not far off. I got my senior pics done at Headshots, a boudoir-style glamour portrait place in the mall, because they were having a special and my mom was cheap. Part of the deal was they did your hair and makeup, and you could use their costumes if you wanted. I have a F’REALS senior picture with a feather boa, people. It’s soft-lit and air brushed. The shame is near unlivable.
When we arrived, a woman with a perfect barfly-backcomb and two inch press-on nails sat me down in a swivel chair, applied thick layers of Wet n’ Wild foundation to my face, and ratted my hair into a blond halo. Big hair hadn’t been popular for over a decade, but she reminded me of Dolly Parton and smelled like Aquanet, so I felt I could trust her style decisions. She kept telling me how beautiful I was, that I looked like a young Jayne Mansfield. I had no idea who that was, but she was so nice I didn’t have the heart to voice my concern as my hair grew ever higher. After spraying my bangs into a claw-configuration, she applied the final touch to my look: hooker-red lipstick with a topcoat of cherry lipgloss. “Gorgeous,” she declared and turned me toward the mirror so I could see myself.
I remember being stunned. I looked forty years old, older even, because I’m thirty five now and doubt I’ll look that haggard even in five years. “Do you love it?” she asked, and tears pricked the corners of my eyes. I did not love it, but, like many women, I had been raised to be too polite to complain, so I just bit my lip and nodded. “Maybe,” I said as gently I could, pressing down on my gigantic hair helmet with my palms, “maybe we could just tone the hair down a smidge?”
My stylist, channeling the young, and most likely as-yet unwigged Minerva Jayne, snorted with derision and said, “Oh, honey. With hair, you never go smaller.” She grabbed her comb, teased back the places I had squashed down, and pushed me out of the chair into the dressing room. “Find something sexy to wear! It’s your day!” Again, I was seventeen.
The photoshoot that followed lives, to this day, as one of the most uncomfortable events in my life. The photographer was a man in his late thirties, nice enough, but clearly wrestling with equal levels of uncomfortability and arousal as he tried to act casual about the entire half-naked, Toddler in Tiara fiasco. He was probably accustomed snapping pictures of ladies in the prime of their life, wearing off-shoulder velvet robes, giving their best “lookin’ for love-squeezin’” eyes. I’m sure it was a bit of a shock when a sullen teen in a sarong and strappy school tank top slouched into his studio dragging a prerequisite feather boa. He sweated the entire time. I alternated between that perfect storm of adolescent tumescence--glaring sass and indignation at him while my body screamed with crippling, humiliating shyness.
When I saw the resulting photos, I wanted to kill myself. Not in a cute, “Clueless”, omg, these are so unflattering kind of way. In a real, self-loathing “who the fuck is that, what am I?” kind of way. As I stated in a previous blog, I was sexually abused as a kid. I never had an innocence, never got to own my sexuality, never had a virginity to lose when I was ready to lose it. Seeing myself in that picture was like seeing how old my soul already was, that I was worn out, used up before I even finished high school. I basically all but dropped out after that, I only graduated because my guidance counselor could see I was suffering and took pity on me. I remember walking in late and hungover to the senior class breakfast just as they flashed my senior picture up on the projection screen. My classmates laughed, confused, not sure who was in the picture, because it certainly didn’t look like me. My friend Justin saw me standing in the doorway and yelled, in fun and completely innocently, “Wilson! You look like a whore!” He was right, so I turned around and walked back out., filled with a certainty that I didn't belong there, or anywhere.
I’m older and more whole now, and that picture is finally funny to me. I can see the humor in my big hair and ridiculous hooker-hard eyes. I can see the sweetness of a young girl trying to act tough and mean, when in reality, she can’t even hurt a hairdresser’s feelings. I love that picture, and myself at that tender age. Which is why I am so relieved that that gross, awful sex offender contacted me yesterday and not an actual teenager. After all, I've seen 10,000 dicks, what's one more? And, sweet or no, I will fuck a pedo up. How’s that for a spanking, honey?