I've been sexually harassed while working in comedy | - by stand-up David Longley

I've been sexually harassed while working in comedy

- by stand-up David Longley

In this piece, I would like to detail some of the occasions I have been a victim of sexism, sexual harassment and sexual assault whilst working in the comedy industry. Before I do so, I want to make it clear that the overwhelming majority of women and homosexuals I’ve come in to contact with over the last 12 years, have been wonderful, respectful people. Probably 99.5% of women and 83.7% of homosexuals (male, obviously) have not indulged in inappropriate and unwanted sexual behaviour with me in that time.

Also, I want to make clear that every instance of sexism, sexual harassment and sexual assault I’m about to detail, is 100% true. Indeed, I intend to write this dryly and seriously, without jokes or humour. If you read this as a light-hearted, comedic piece, then you have missed the point. As some of the instances of sexual harassment happened whilst on stage, I might have to include some of the material I was using. This will be purely for context.

I’d also like to include a trigger warning. There might be an assumption that this too, is a joke. Let me be very clear: IT IS NOT A JOKE. I do sometimes mock “trigger warnings” when I feel they are inappropriate, but I’m about to write about sexual assault, and that is not a joke. Before I was a stand-up comic, I delivered training in child protection as part of my role as the liaison between where I worked and Social Services. Many times I dealt with the police and parents, during quite upsetting incidents. Sometimes, in delivering training to staff on how to deal with possible abuse, I would have to use examples and I warned participants that some of the content might be upsetting.

I issue the same warning here: some of what you are about to read might upset you. I hope that it doesn’t, and I hope that you can read this with an open mind. Hopefully some light will be shed on a topic that is not very often talked about.

It’s hard to know where to start really, but I think the realisation that some women felt it was OK to remark on my genitalia came to me when I was just starting out. I walked on stage and got a few wolf whistles, which I’m kind of OK with. I’m not sure there was anything overtly sexual within the wolf whistles, as they may have just been having fun. I’d had a good set (for a new comedian) thanked the audience and got off. An interval was called, so I stood at the back of the room. I didn’t really know anybody, and I wasn’t allowed in the green room.

As I stood at the back, five women approached me. They were students at the local university, and seemed friendly enough. They all congratulated me on my set, saying that I’d made them laugh. This made me feel great, it was exactly what I wanted and what I thought being a comedian was all about. Then, the “ring leader” asked if she could ask a question that was on all of their minds. “Of course!” I responded, happily.

“We want to know if you’ve got a cock, or a sock?”

I was so shocked by the question, I thought I’d not heard it properly, so I asked her to repeat it. I still wasn’t clear on what they wanted to know, and asked them to clarify. They all found this hilarious, as my embarrassment deepened. “You’ve got a bulge in your trousers, and we want to know if it’s your cock, or if you’ve stuffed a sock down there,” the ring leader asked again. They all thought this was hilarious, but all of a sudden I felt very self-conscious.

I’d like to say that this is the only time it happened, but it’s happened a few times since. For a while it caused me to drastically rethink my wardrobe, as I donned extra baggy corduroy trousers to try and hide my penis and testicles. I couldn’t get out of my head that the audience were staring at my crotch, and that everyone was laughing at that, not my jokes. Unfortunately, the way I’m built means that I have a bulge in my crotch area. I can’t help it, and it is a little embarrassing.

But when I’m on stage, I want to be judged on my jokes and my performance, not the bulge in my crotch. Women (not all women) seem to think that they have a right to comment on my bulge, as if it’s funny to draw attention to it in front of 200 people. I’ve seen this happen to other comics too. I don’t mind people heckling me for having a small head, but when people shout out things about my penis and testicles, I think that it is a step too far, and not something that I should have to put up with.

Unfortunately, this is considered low level harassment. Just part of the job. But I was once seriously sexually assaulted on stage, in front of 300 people. The crowd were exceptionally rowdy, and I refused to talk until they’d settled down. This took much longer than I had anticipated, and it turned in to a battle of wills between me and the audience. I continued to refuse to speak, which carried on for around two minutes, which doesn’t sound long, but on stage it feels like an eternity. At this point, a woman stepped out from the crowd and joined me on stage. She grabbed my penis and testicles and, after initially stroking them, she then squeezed them really tightly. “You’ll fucking talk now, won’t you?” she yelled in my face, spitting on me in the process.

The crowd cheered. I looked to the side of the stage to see the promoter stood there, laughing. HE WAS LAUGHING. Dumbstruck, I just stood there. I didn’t know what to do. If the promoter wasn’t going to stop the gig, and if nobody seemed to think it was out of order, what else could I do? My defence mechanism in such situations is to resort to humour. “Jesus. I’ve just been molested by a voodoo doll for a planet,” I said, body shaming the woman for her short, overweight shape. I felt awful saying it, but she’d just assaulted me. I thought she was fair game.

When relaying this story to a couple of other comedians, they’ve either laughed it off as a funny tale, or they’ve gotten very serious. One asked me why I didn’t report it as an assault. I didn’t report it for one simple reason: who would take it seriously?

I’ve reported people for making threats to me, and I’ve reported men for assaulting me, but the idea of going to the police to explain that a short obese woman grabbed my genitals stroked them then and squeezed them very tightly in front of 300 people at a comedy gig, well, let’s just say I didn’t fancy my chances of being taken seriously. Even though I had physical evidence (my penis was bruised from the assault) and hundreds of witnesses, I just didn’t think it was worth it.

Thankfully, that situation was a one-off. What upset me the most is that the promoter thought it was funny. What if she’d punched me in the face? Would that still be funny? Why was it funny that a short obese woman grabbed my genitalia in a bid to make me perform? In this position, I think it’s the promoters job to maintain the safety of the performer.

Luckily, some clubs take this very seriously. Just two years ago, I was on stage at a high profile comedy club, having a great time. One guy had been shouting at me, but I put him down a couple of times and thought that was that. Then, the security staff removed him, which made me very happy. Unbeknown to me, the man who’d been shouting at me had also been masturbating whilst I was on stage. A member of the audience spotted it, and I’m ever grateful for the speedy actions of the security staff. I dread to think what would’ve happened if he’d continued to masturbate.

The thought of him masturbating whilst I engaged him makes me feel queasy, but it has nothing to do with any homophobia on my part. Such is my relaxed attitude towards people of all persuasions, I’ve given a lift to homosexuals on many occasions. Most of the time, these are pleasant journeys with great conversation, but on one journey, the man I was giving a lift to offered to pay me in sex rather than petrol money. The offer was made in a jokey fashion, but it was absolutely serious. I felt very uncomfortable because he was joking, but he wasn’t. He was offering me sex that I didn’t want, and that I didn’t feel was appropriate in that situation. Further, he said I could dictate the terms of the sex, as I’d done all the driving. At this point, I became increasingly uncomfortable, which only seemed to make him worse. He began stroking my arm and remarking on how “well nourished” I was. I was really unsure what to do, as I didn’t want to appear homophobic or without a sense of humour. I politely asked him to stop stroking me, but he made me tell him that it felt nice. Which it did, which made me even more uncomfortable. I told him firmly to stop stroking my arm, which had the desired result. But I still shouldn’t have been put in that situation.

That situation was uncomfortable, but it ended on good terms. The situations where women have propositioned me after a gig and been turned down are completely different. Many men have experienced the problem of turning down a woman, a woman who is heavily coming on to you. Traditionally men are the ones pursuing, but when the roles are reversed, the woman seems to think that it’s a “done deal” when it comes to getting what she wants. We’ve all seen that look in a woman’s eyes when she gets turned down, when she fully expects you to accept. On many occasions I’ve been subjected to verbal abuse, and one instance of physical abuse when a woman slapped me for, as she put it, “fanny teasing”. I thought I’d been having a pleasant conversation about comedy when she said, out of nowhere, “so, how do you wanna’ do this?”
“Do what?” I replied.
“Your hotel or my flat?”
“Sorry, I don’t know what you mean.”
“To fuck.”
“Oh, er, no. Sorry. I have a girlfriend.” at which point she slapped me across the face and called me a fanny teaser. If you think it’s ok or in any way funny that I got slapped, I invite you to be slapped across the face by someone who means it.

Alcohol is clearly a big factor in these situations, but I don’t think that excuses such behaviour. I should be able to turn down a woman’s offers of sex without worrying about being slapped. But for some reason, women (not all women) think they have a right to grope me once I’ve got off stage.

There’s no point telling you about all the times women have felt my arms, my chest and my buttocks as a “bit of fun” after a gig. I get asked to pose for photographic mementos of their night out, only for them to kiss me on the cheek and feel my backside in the process. They think it’s hilarious, meanwhile I have to deal with my allergic reaction to certain brands of lipstick.

Where does this sense of entitlement come from? On another occasion, I stood at the back of a gig and felt someone rubbing my arm. I turned around to see a woman casually rubbing her breasts up and down my arm. She just winked at me like it was totally OK. I moved away, not wanting to cause a fuss, only for her to follow me and keep rubbing her breasts against my arm. I asked her stop, she just told me that I was clearly loving it because of the bulge in my trousers. I explained to her that the bulge in my trousers is a genetic thing, and nothing to do with arousal. She wouldn’t leave me alone, so I had to leave the gig.

Some of this could be put down to bad luck, and I’d like to reiterate that for the vast majority of the time, I don’t get any problems at all. These people aren’t to know that I am tactile defensive. What this means is that I have to feel comfortable with physical contact, and in particular, the person with whom I am sharing the physical contact. So, I have to be fond of them or very familiar with them.

This brings me to a problem I’ve had at comedy clubs when it comes to greeting females who work in a professional capacity. I prefer a hand shake. If I get to know them, a hug is fine, perhaps a little kiss in the cheek. But this idea that hugging and kissing is the accepted greeting upon first meeting, well, I find that to be very uncomfortable. My insistence on shaking hands has, I believe, cost me work. On one particular night, I received very poor feedback on what had been a perfectly good gig. I believe this was because I didn’t adhere to her preferred method of greeting.

I genuinely find it uncomfortable. Why can’t we all just shake hands? A couple of months ago, I shook hands with a female promoter, and she PULLED me in and MADE me kiss her cheek. Now, don’t get me wrong, I could’ve refused to kiss her cheek, but how awkward would that have been? I don’t want to offend or cause a fuss, so I just kissed her on the cheek. To me, a kiss is something special. I kiss my kids, I kiss my wife, I kiss my best friends. I don’t kiss people I’ve just met. But for some reason, I’m just supposed to conform.

I also know for a fact, that I’m not alone in feeling this way. I’ve had many conversations with fellow comedians, both male and female, who feel trapped within this greeting dynamic. I’ve also been called a hypocrite for when I do adhere to this style of greeting. What am I supposed to do? I want to work, I don’t want to cause offence. I just suffer in silence.

I’d like to say things are getting better, but they aren’t. It’s pretty much the same as it was when I started. Last week, a woman walked up to me after a gig and said she liked me because I looked dirty. She said she thought I’d like to do the things she liked to do. She stroked my face, licked her lips, and then pinched my nipple. “You like that, don’t you?” she growled, her breath stinking of alcohol.

I’ve got to the point now where I just walk away. I didn’t even entertain the idea of talking to her. Maybe I should’ve told her that what she was doing was wrong. Maybe I should have reported her. Maybe I should have done lots of things. But I didn’t.

And so, it will probably continue.

• This article first appeared on David Longley's blog, and is reproduced with permission.

Published: 10 Dec 2015

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