Thursday, May 1, 2008

Witness Sexual Assault

What would you do if you witnessed sexual assault? Would you speak up? Call for help?

You're probably familiar with the bystander effect (popularized by media coverage of the murder of Kitty Genovese). People take action when they're alone but in groups they assume someone else will. Does your answer change if you were in a group and you witnessed sexual assault? What if everyone around you was laughing?

That's right, what if it happened at a comedy show? Say a notoriously crude comedian, on the spur of the drunken moment, brought a young woman to lie down on the stage and threatened her to stay still. The he proceeded to grope her breasts and genitals to mild laughter. You can read about it here. The comedian who committed sexual assault is Johnny Vegas.

Perhaps we wouldn't have done anything if we were in the crowd. Perhaps the mild laughter and ticket prices would have convinced us that it was simply entertainment. But after reading about this we've exchanged our innocence for experience (That's growing up my Great Great Grand). You and I are no longer ignorant and are now obliged to intervene if we witness sexual harassment. We are no longer bound by the uncertainty of the herd.

So how do we intervene? Suggestions?
1. By speaking out and hoping to shock other members of the herd into awareness.
2. By verbally confronting the perpetrator.
3. Physical intervention. Standing on tables or on stage.
4. Violent intervention. Trashing the place or the perpetrator.

(note: leaving the show in silent protest is not intervention and not an appropriate response)

You know what would be nice? If we had armbands that said "I'm here to intervene". That way you could spot your teammates in the crowd and know that someone has your back.

If you read some of the comments after the article you'll notice that some people are defending Vegas. Don't worry, people aren't actually that stupid. I wrote all of them. They're to test our skills of logic and critical thinking. Can you spot what's wrong with defending Vegas?

I've included the answer key:

Defense 1
The woman on stage didn't protest.

Surprise, surprise. Sexual assault goes unreported even if it fits the legal definition. Did the woman on stage consent? I would like to hear what she thinks. But even if we accept her nervous laughter as consent -it's still, legally, sexual assault. I am a comedian and in my improv and sketch comedy I occasionally call upon audience participation. I've found that audience members try desperately to help the act. Sometimes they attempt to say something funny but most of the time they nervously allow themselves to be shepherded -trusting the professional. She put her trust in a figure of authority who was abusing his power.

(c) the accused counsels or incites the complainant to engage in the activity by abusing a position of trust, power or authority;

For instance, if a teacher tells a student to lie down and then gropes them to 'teach the class about biology', it's clear to see the abuse of power even if the student is silent on the matter. In Vegas' case he completely abused his power to molest a woman.

Defense 2
That's Vegas for you. Classic shocking, envelope-pushing comedy.

I see. Boys will be boys? I too feel that art should push expected social norms. But considering the frequency of sexual assault against women, it would have been more shocking and envelope-pushing if an audience member (that wasn't sexually desirable to Vegas) had walked on stage, pinned him down, and groped him. Honestly, is 'making the audience uncomfortable' really anyone's criteria for comedy? I know it shakes up everyone's "bourgeois consciousness" but that's easy to say when it's not your genitals being violated.

Defense 3

I was at the show. It wasn't as bad as everyone says.
What do you think sexual assault looks like? Neatly labeled with heroes and villains? This is as clear a case of sexual assault that reality can produce. Don't be blinded by your personal attachment to the comic or your shame for inaction.

1 comment:

Mick said...

No assault took place. Mary O'Hara's Guardian article has been comprehensively discredited by numerous eyewitnesses. The victim here is Vegas who's reputation has been shredded by the offending article and the chinese whispers of the very many blogs which quoted it.

The article is now the subject of a 'legal complaint', by Vegas, and it and the accompanying blog have been removed from the Guardian website.