Imagine the world as a big bedroom, and all the problems of the world as the kind of clutter that always accumulates in bedrooms. If someone is coming to visit, it’s easier to stuff the mess in a closet and pretend it isn’t there. But that doesn’t really make the mess go away. The mess is just in the closet. The best thing to do, hard as it might be, is get the whole mess out in the open, so you can truly look at it, talk about it, and figure out how to clean it up.
I lost my virginity when I was sixteen, and it did not happen by choice. Here are the facts that I remember. The night was cold. He said, unbelievably quietly, “You know what I want, and you are going to give it to me.” I could smell that he had been drinking—gin, I thought. I kept trying to hear sounds that weren’t breathing or zippers, but I couldn’t.
Here are the elements of this story I have always been ashamed to admit. I didn’t say, stop,” until he’d already started. I didn’t hit him; I didn’t struggle much. I wasn’t the strong, powerful woman I’d thought I would be. In the end, I remember just thinking, “I deserved it.”
Everywhere I went and everything I did after that reverberated with an undertone of, “I deserved it.”
I didn’t want to admit that I was raped. Even writing it feels wrong. Inaccurate. The logic my brain has for what happened is that it couldn’t have been rape if I deserved it so much. I was ashamed; I was emptied by the experience.
I worked hard in my relationships with men (and in my life in general) to pretend like everything was fine and normal for me. After college, I became a teacher in New Orleans and intentionally started working with kids who had endured sexual violence. I wanted to tell them that things ended up OK—even though, to be honest, I didn’t know for sure that that was true. I also started doing comedy, in part because an ex-boyfriend had once said that women can’t be funny, and I had always wanted to prove him wrong.
Two summers ago, this kind of perfect, amazing opportunity fell into my lap. I was asked to go on this Air Sex tour with one of my comedy heroes, Chris Trew. Air Sex is like air guitar, but instead of pretending you are playing a guitar, you pretend you are having sex. According to the Air Sex website, the routine ”can include all phases of an Air Sex encounter: meeting, seduction, foreplay and intercourse, or you can simply cut to the chase.” My job on the tour was to be a comedian panelist. I was supposed to watch people perform Air Sex routines, and then talk about them afterward, with a rousing critique.
I know this sounds weird. It was weird. I had initially agreed to go on the tour because I thought it would help me grow as a stand-up comedian (before every Air Sex competition, there was a stand-up comedy show appropriately dubbed “Foreplay”). But as I watched more routines, I grew increasingly impressed with people’s excitement about living out their sexual fantasies on stage—especially women. Very rarely did I feel like women objectified themselves; they were strong, funny, and proud. They enacted the lewdest scenes imaginable, all with invisible partners, and all with their clothes on.
There was something about the whole thing that I found deeply empowering. Until that point, sex had always been this disgusting, dark undertaking; worthy of ignominy and best kept behind closed doors. Since I was sixteen, I’d struggled to think about sex or talk about it in any kind of real or honest way. Now I was spending every night watching women (and men) get up on stage and show the world what they thought of sex, in front of hundreds of people. And they did it with this beautiful sense of humor—there was an idea that the very act of sex could be absurd or even funny—and that freed me from the notion that sex had to be inherently violent. Every night was a kind of reclaiming.
I started to feel powerful and good about the person I was. And then I started to feel angry.
I remember the first time I felt it: I was riding my bike home late at night, after an August gig at the comedy theater. This truck slowed down and pulled alongside me; there was a guy in the truck, grinning. He shouted out his window, “You look like a hot slut on that bike!” I was surprised at my reaction, because it was uncharacteristic: I put up my middle finger and turned onto a one-way street going the wrong way so he couldn’t follow me. I was mad.
Then I started getting mad a lot. I felt mad the next week at this comedy club, when the host of a show slapped my ass before I went on stage. I felt mad when men shouted at my good-looking friends while we walked down the street. I even felt mad reading Allure when it published an article about the beauty mistakes I was making to “turn him off.” The anger was fierce, and constant, and felt like a huge, black wave lurching in my chest.
The world is designed to keep powerless people powerless. We are encouraged to not talk about our anger; to not whine; to get over it. This is a great tool oppressors use to keep oppressed people oppressed (which, after all, is in the common interest of the party in power). It certainly, however, does not bring about equality.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been afraid to call myself a feminist. I mean, if my mother were to ask me, out of the blue, “Do you consider yourself a feminist?” I would say, “Of course!” and then quickly change the subject to whatever was on the front page of the paper that day. I was scared that if I talked about feminism people would think I was whiny and ignorant of my privilege. I still shirked at the F-word, like so many women before me. As a blogger, I have written about classism, racism, education reform, war, and animal rights, but never feminism.
These messes are difficult. No one wants to deal with them, because they’re enormous, and they’re going to take a long time to clean up. Comedy doesn’t clean them up, but it doesn’t shove them in a closet, either. It drags them out into the light—amidst all the madness, comedy says, “Life is absurd. Let’s laugh about it. And then, maybe, it will be easier to talk about it.”
One of my favorite comedians is the great corporate news-debunker Jamie Kilstein. Kilstein is fearless about bringing the ugliness of being human to the surface, and making fun of it. His most recent material features an extensive set about the outright absurdity of rape culture and outraged hundreds of avid Glenn Beck-watchers. But for all the hate mail Kilstein said he received, there were even more bloggers and commenters and Twitter users who were excited to come to his defense; and the conversation—an important one—was resurrected.
I had the unbelievable good fortune of opening for Kilstein when he came to New Orleans. (Read: I begged and begged to be allowed to open for him, until he finally had to say yes, because he’s a nice guy.) After that set, Kilstein invited me to open for him in Seattle, where he said I could do an even longer set.
“I want you to do the political stuff you’ve been wanting to do,” he told me.
That was terrifying. It was also tremendously igniting.
After hours of biting my nails and worrying that I would be heckled and booed, I decided I would talk about the scariest thing I could imagine talking about: feminism. I would use all the anger I’d been feeling around the subject, and just talk.
In all, I talked about feminism—just feminism—for thirteen minutes.
What happened next was like the last scene in a triumphant sports movie, but with blue-haired, pierced dissidents instead of soccer moms. I had expected to perform in front of a few dozen people at most; but the show was sold out (Seattle loves its political comedy), and instead I found myself in front of hundreds. I had never been so nervous to perform, and I grew convinced I would immediately alienate half my audience and get jeered off the stage. I started—meekly—with a line about how sometimes male hosts of comedy shows introduce female comedians the way I would introduce a decorative floor lamp (“This next comedian is the only girl on the show, so even if she isn’t funny, at least it’s something to look at.”) The room exploded. Throughout the set, there were lots of “You go, girl!”s and a couple of times when I had to stop talking for a while because the applause was so loud. Some of the women from the audience came up to me afterward and said they wanted to try stand-up after seeing my set. I was floored and dumbfounded, and didn’t know how to thank them. To one person I confessed, “I couldn’t believe that response.”
She said, “Well, you deserved it.”
The really big messes aren’t easily cleaned up. It’s not like I went on stage, ranted about feminism for thirteen minutes, and suddenly found myself engaged in functional, liberated, sexual relationships. I didn’t fly back from Seattle with the magic words that would endow my students in New Orleans with newfound independence and a commitment to self-care. In fact, I flew back from Seattle and took a long, hard, look at some of the sexual violence I knew my students had been subjected to, and I realized I couldn’t keep telling them that everything ends up OK. It doesn’t. The world continues to regard women as less than, and our bodies are still treated as property.
But standing on stage, immersed in other peoples’ laughter, I had gotten this rare opportunity: I’d felt like I had a voice. I had spread my mess out on the floor, and we had taken a long hard look at it, and laughed. We didn’t laugh because it wasn’t real, but because it was.