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Inside the unrelenting world of sexual harassment for a female stand-up comic

Rebecca Kohler says every industry has its version of 'Weinstein Culture,' and shares the trials of being one of the few female comics in the industry.

Comic Rebecca Kohler.

Emma McIntyre / For Metro

Comic Rebecca Kohler.

About seven years into my stand-up career, I walked off stage after a particularly good set, and a male comic I’d never met made a beeline for me. I thought he was coming to congratulate me. Instead he came out with, “You have a great ass, and when I wasn’t looking at your ass, your jokes were okay, too.”

My jokes were okay, too?

It was disheartening, to say the least, that my jokes were only a sideshow to the stump of fat and muscle attached to the back of my body. Even more disheartening: I was used to this. This was how (a lot of) “male comics” talked to “female comics” and if you didn’t like it you could…not be a comic?

So when news of Harvey Weinstein’s horrific behind-the-screens behaviour came to light in October, I was disgusted, but not surprised. Every industry has its version of Weinstein Culture. In fact, I endured some of the worst sexual harassment while working at a diner. But if sexual harassment were a meal, the comedy club would be an all-you-can eat buffet.

We joke for a living, so everything — every sexist comment and uninvited touch — is a “joke.” We make jokes, we should be able to take jokes, or so go the excuses. Call a man out for it and it’s, “Hey, relax, I’m just kidding!” It throws you off your instincts, and you’re not sure what’s harassment or hilarity.

Then there’s the  “You’re asking for it” attitude. If you talk about sex on stage (Which I do. A lot), some people think that gives them free reign to talk to you about sex off stage.

Driving home from a gig, I once had a comic ask me, “What are you gonna do later? Suck some dicks?” I scowled (my version of sticking up for myself). He laughed and said, “I listened to your set. You’re not allowed to be offended.” Yes I am. Because just how what you’re wearing doesn’t excuse unwanted physical or verbal advances, what you talk about shouldn’t either.

I once asked a comic I barely knew if I could get a ride to our upcoming gig (standard practice) and he suggested I offer him a blowjob in return. I had foolishly planned to pay him in gas money. Ha!

Some of the things that have been said to me and my female colleagues would make an HR employee’s blood run cold: “You’d think an ugly woman like you would be grateful to see my penis,” “Just so you know, people are starting to worry that you’re gay” (after a rebuffed kiss), “What do you think about pretty girls doing comedy?” Also: ass pinching, ass slapping, unwanted massages, being humped from behind — “jokingly!”

There isn’t really an HR department in stand-up; if you manage to find someone to complain to, the most they might do is not pair you with that comic again, making them someone else’s problem.

Maybe this is one of the reasons, until recently, there were very few women in stand up. When I started in Montreal in 2000, I knew of only two other Anglophone women who regularly performed in the city. TWO. And when that number grew, I rarely worked with them for dumb reasons from decision makers like, “We can’t put you on that show, we already have a woman.” So, strength in numbers wasn’t really a thing.

And with 90 per cent of comics being men for so long, the culture of sexual harassment flourished like a bad infection. All my colleagues — the club manager, the club owner: men. There wasn’t much incentive to change a system designed by men for men. In one case, a comic who was reported to franchise owners for assaulting a female employee at a club was, instead of being fired, just not sent back to that particular club. I guess comedy clubs have more in common with the Catholic Church than one might think.

The good news is all of this is rapidly changing. Not only are women and other under-represented groups storming the comedy world – balancing out the gender pH balance like a trusty stick of Secret – but with every Cosby, Ghomeshi and Weinstein, another brick falls out of the wall. It’ll be nice not to have to climb it every time I go to work.

About this series: Allegations of predatory behaviour by producer Harvey Weinstein, and now countless others in power, sparked a groundswell of #MeToo stories, proving again that for many sexual harassment is a fact of life. Share your experience with us. Find Metro on Twitter and Facebook or emailsjbattersby@metronews.ca.

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