MATT (CONTENT WARNING): Hey Nancy listeners - before we get started, we want to give you a heads up that this episode discusses sexual assault.
TOBIN: Hey guys it's Tobin.
KATHY: And Kathy.
TOBIN: And we are jumping back into your podcast feeds with a surprise bonus.
KATHY: So if you know us you know that we love actor and comedian Cameron Esposito.
TOBIN: Love her.
KATHY: You may know her from Take My Wife, the TV show she co-created with her partner, Rhea Butcher.
TOBIN: Or you might know her from her podcast "Queery" where she interviews fascinating queer folks.
KATHY: Or you may know her from being a hilarious stand-up comedian.
TOBIN: So funny.
KATHY: Which is what we're going to talk to her about today.
TOBIN: More specifically she has this upcoming special that she is about to release called "Rape Jokes."
KATHY: It's a super timely and hilarious hour of comedy that gets into how we talk about sexual assault. I know it sounds like a super hard topic to make jokes about but Cameron does it, everybody she does it.
TOBIN: She does. It really is so funny and so smart. And Kathy since you just went on this epic pub crawl with Cameron the other day...
KATHY: We hit up every lesbian bar in New York City which isn't that many.
TOBIN: I'm so jealous. So we invited Cameron into the studio so you two could talk about the story behind her new special.
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VOX 1: From WNYC Studios, this is Nancy! With your hosts, Tobin Low and Kathy Tu.
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CAMERON: People having the strength, the bravery, to just be like "This happened to me. Here's how it happened. Here's what happened.” Like, that's, that's so hopeful. Like, I find that gorgeous. I feel like it's gorgeous. I'm excited about it. And then right next to that, there's just like a shriveling Nosferatu.
CAMERON: "What am I supposed to do at work? If I can't talk about her sweater!"
CAMERON: You know I've been doing this hour about sexual assault from the perspective of a survivor.
KATHY: Uh huh.
CAMERON: Me, Cameron Esposito, I'm a survivor of sexual assault and I've been doing it for like just four months but very hard -- like multiple shows a night, really small venues.
CAMERON: Like just really really touring very hard on it and,you know, part of that is that it feels like with this conversation, I don't know if you feel this but I'm seeing that when we're talking about,if you want to call it this,the Me Too movement...
CAMERON: ..it's the folks that were getting called out and then removed from their jobs -- it almost seems like the beginning of the image rehabilitation is happening. I've started seeing some murmurs of conversation...
CAMERON: ..of those folks coming back. It felt to me like it went from like here's a person that abused power. Now they're going away and maybe they'll come back and in that whole conversation it to me didn't feel that we were centering survivors at all. And I want to talk about that.
KATHY: I see. OK. You've been talking about sexual assault for a while now. Like you tweeted about it in the past, there was -- I remember on Take My Wife there was an episode about it. But this seemed to come like so quickly. Is it because you were starting to feel like you want to get ahead of these I guess these quote-unquote comebacks for the people that were taken down?
CAMERON: I mean sort of it. You're right. This is not a new topic for me to take on but in Take My Wife it's you know it's a scripted version of my story and it's not me it's a character named Cameron. She looks a lot like me.
KATHY: Dresses like you.
CAMERON: Telling some part of a story but it's not me, the stand up comic talking about it.
CAMERON: I didn't want to be the comic that talks about this because there's just a lot, there's a lot to me. I didn't want to get "I'm the sexual assault comic" and then like I can't ever move through that because I think for most people that have experienced this in their lives that's, that's part of the hindrance and coming out about it, is not wanting to be labeled as different or victimized again.
CAMERON: So I like sat on it for a minute. You know, like I really waited to see if somebody else in standup specifically would come forward because the idea of rape jokes, which is what the special is called, you know these are not, this is not a new concept that folks would tell jokes that include the word rape or mention rape.
CAMERON: But those jokes usually, historically in my experience have been pretty flippant and not about this as if it is something that happens to real people.
KATHY: Will you tell me what is like the quintessential rape joke that comics tend to tell?
CAMERON: My experience is that sometimes stand-ups will be onstage and literally just like say the word rape like "RAAPE!" And that's the whole joke, you know, like it doesn't have a great punchline doesn't really have a setup. The audience hears that and they will have a reaction because it's a taboo word. We just have a reaction as people, so the comic will say that and then the audience will be like "Ha ha ha ha ha!" But then the comic will internalize that as if it has been a positive response. "Oh, I've told a good joke!" And then they tell that joke for, like, oh I don't know, two decades.
[KATHY AND CAMERON LAUGH]
CAMERON: Yeah, I mean I think that anytime you're dealing with a topic that is this weighted, you have to take it seriously. So just respect that there are people that are affected by this, respect for that it is real.
KATHY: So if a comedian is going to go there and really try to tackle a topic like this, what do they have to be thinking about?
CAMERON: So there are two things to keep in mind. Like, for myself I always challenge myself as a comic to take on all different types of concepts, things that happen in our culture. I don't think there are things that can't be joked about. But if you know that this is something that has harmed people, I think you have to challenge yourself as a comic to be good enough to get back out of that hole. If that makes sense.
CAMERON: So just like to, to really push yourself to tell like the best joke so not a joke that you just said gets a response because you're throwing out a word that gets a reaction from the audience.
CAMERON: So that's number one and then number two, I also think if you are part of a community that is historically less affected by this, and of course there are survivors you are men and there are survivors you are every type of person. But if you're a man on stage you have to remember that people see you. You know, I think sometimes comics don't think about an audience receiving them and, like, knowing our history. Right? So like if I'm a woman. people are already giving me the benefit of the doubt that I can talk about this from a different perspective.
CAMERON: And by the way, like, you know there aren't actually that many topics where women get, like, the benefit of the doubt and usually we're kind of at a deficit.
KATHY: [LAUGHS] Yeah.
CAMERON: So, this is the one topic where if you are a dude, that you might have to try a little harder. And if that feels awful just imagine what it's like for me to do my job.
KATHY: In the special, you talk about your personal experience with sexual assault
CAMERON: So I tried to slow myself down.
CAMERON: We would play this game, where like, throw darts at a dartboard. And if I hit the dartboard, we'd shotgun a full beer, and if I missed, the dartboard would shotgun a full beer. So, it was loose rules.
CAMERON: One night after this game, we were back in my dorm room, and I did not say yes. I couldn't have. I don't fully even remember what happened. I just know that I have flashes, and I woke up the next morning, and he was gone.
KATHY: It took you a while to realize that it was assault. When did that happen? Or, how did that happen for you?
CAMERON: Well part of this is entrenched with queerness in a way that I don't know that like my story kind of can't be separated out from my identity, because I was raised really Catholic and I didn't have sex edd. And I also didn't really learn anything about, just biologically what it's like to be a person with a vagina. So like I didn't know that if you were a person with a vagina you could, like, have an orgasm. I didn't really know that I should have sexual urges or desire.
CAMERON: It was very much about sort of availability for the other which also fits perfectly into the Catholic narrative about what women are for. You know, I was really taught like "Women are a vessel."
CAMERON: And I was cultured female in a society that doesn't really disprove that anywhere. So I didn't understand my own agency at all. And I also didn't know that gay people were real.
KATHY: Ugh, same! Same.
CAMERON: You know. Right. Yes. I mean how did you first figure out if gay people were real?
KATHY: It wasn't until, like, I think I kissed a girl, literally, when I was like "Oh this can happen!"
CAMERON: Literally same story. Same. Same.
CAMERON: I had no idea what was going on with me. I had no idea that this was something that like, a lot of folks not only identified as but like, lived as successfully, you know, had like jobs and lived in the community and, you know, people knew them.
CAMERON: All of those things combined to give me like a real sense of separation from my body and my desires. And it was in that, in that with those like, perfect conditions, because those are perfect conditions for somebody to take advantage of you.
KATHY: Mmm. And, so like how long ago was it that you were like "That was assault."
CAMERON: Somebody told me.
CAMERON: I know that sounds really strange but I used to tell this story about what happened to me in college, which is that I was a particular night I was drinking and I would drink to kind of cope with the enormous feeling of sadness and pressure that was happening in my life, because I was also coming out at a Catholic college where you couldn't come out. You could be kicked out of school for being gay. So, like I couldn't talk about what was happening for me what I was realizing. I had a girlfriend that I was in love with. But my friends didn't really know her. I had like two lives going on.
CAMERON: And I had an enormous amount of shame that I was feeling. And really like, no support. When I told my folks, that also went very badly, at the beginning. So I was just in a rough spot, like I was having a very tough time. And, you know, there was this one particular night but the behaviors from this person who assaulted me, they lasted for a lot of my college career.
KATHY: Yeah. In the special, it sounded like.. he was kind of stalking you.
CAMERON: Yeah. I mean again, I think that I'm not trying to excuse behavior. But one thing that I know is true is that, I had no information about my body. I had no information about what sex actually should be like, what consent would look like. And so I have often wondered for this other person if that was also true. Not because I think that what he did was great or acceptable, but because when I think about this issue, you know, that's another reason I want to talk about it right now, is because we could get into the mindset that if the, you know, eight guys whose names we all know are removed from positions of power that this would be fixed. You know we could get into the mindset that like, over the last couple of years these stories have been coming out about these very specific people. And by the way, I think that they should face consequences. And I think they should not be in power, but that I think is not just percentage wise because this happens to so many people, because so many people are assaulted or harassed. Removing those eight people from power, those eight men -- that won't change this in our culture.
Kathy: Coming up after the break… how Cameron Esposito thinks comedy can be the thing that creates that change.
Tobin: Nancy will be back in a minute.
CAMERON: I don't know if I'm letting you in on something here, but something that imbues value into women in our culture is fuckability. Specifically by men. So if you're a lesbian and you're just like "Aha! Actually, I'm right over here! I'm not even in the fuckability!"
CAMERON: Like it's a low. You really start to question your value.
KATHY: So Cameron - you’re in college, in the middle of figuring out your sexuality, and then this assault happens. What kind of impact did that have on you?
CAMERON: I mean number one I was so isolated. At that time that I didn't really talk to anybody about it and I didn't, I couldn't identify myself. And then also I think it just made the...And I think this is true for a lot of people, it made the coming out process really about, well, especially if you're a woman, if you're cultured female, a lot of our value in society is on our fuckability.
KATHY: Yeah I was going to, I was going to bring this up from your special because that was a point that you made that I hadn't heard anybody say before, and immediately it was like that is a hundred percent true.
CAMERON: Yeah, so I also know that part of why this happened,why I didn't identify this as a problem, is because I really felt that this just this enormous fear about opting out of a power dynamic that exists in our entire culture. So it's not that I think this is great or that I want to support it. It's just like when you are cultured female, you're supposed to use your sexuality to get ahead. Like that's something that we were literally taught. And so what if you don't have that to offer? To me, that just left me with this fundamental feeling of like I have no idea if I am valuable. So if you are isolated, you don't know if you're valuable, you don't know if you have agency, you don't know if you should have sexual desires. It's perfect conditions for somebody who knows what they want and doesn't really care what you want, to come in and take advantage.
KATHY: Wow. How do you feel now when you tell the story?
CAMERON: Well as a standup comic it feels terrible.
[KATHY AND CAMERON LAUGH]
CAMERON: Because I'm so used to getting laughs. And...
CAMERON: Five zero minutes into the hour, is like when I talk more specifically about what happened to me, and it is hard because I don't think that it should be funny like shouldn't get laughs.
CAMERON: And it also doesn't get laughs and that's what I want to happen. But also as a stand up comic, it feels terrible to be onstage and not be eliciting laughter.
CAMERON: Cuz that's like, again, you're sharing your emotions. So then going up on stage making people laugh for 50 minutes and then having like two minutes of just utter seriousness. Nobody on that side I think feels weird about it but it does feel weird on this side.
KATHY: You do follow it up with, like, your love of SVU. So I really appreciated that.
CAMERON: Yeah, I can get the audience back which is also, I love to challenge myself so that does feel good, because I'm like "Oh I can get people to be completely silent and kind of sad, maybe like cry a little bit and then I can still make them laugh after that. Man, I am a brilliant genius."
KATHY: I like where it comes up in especially right now because I love the way it builds with your background, and by the time you get to talking about what happened to you, I as an audience watching removed from where you actually are, I felt a connection to it. And now hearing about how somebody was the one to tell you about how that was an assault, like it reminds me of like when I was when I was really young like, under five years old I was molested by a neighbor and I didn't know that's what happened until a friend, I was telling her I had these feelings that it doesn't feel good I don't what the feeling is, I still can't quite put a label to it but I'll get it every once in a while. And that was happening at the time. And a friend was like "Trace this back to when this happened." And that's what I realized like it was like this neighbor that was in it was in Taiwan. And I'm only telling you that because I feel like the way you build the set, by the time you get to talking about your assault, there is a connection to it that I didn't think, I didn't think of myself as a survivor. And then I watch you talk about it and I'm like I think that there was a there was a connection there that I can't quite put words to, but I understand it on a level that I didn't think that I would. This must this must happen for you all the time afterwards, right? When people come up to you and they tell you about their stories, and I guess, maybe the question is like how, how do you receive that? How do you, how can you be the what is it like to be the receptacle of all these stories of people coming to you with their own personal trauma?
CAMERON: Well first of all thanks for telling me that. And I'm sorry that happened to you.
KATHY: My very first reaction is going to be, "It happened such a long time ago. I don't even remember it." You know, like it's such a weird thing.
CAMERON: Absolutely. I understand why that's your reaction.
CAMERON: That's what I'm trying to also work on, is leading with I'm sorry that happened to you when folks tell me their stories. Because you're right this is something that's been happening after shows. And what I realize is that, in our culture, we spend a lot of time being like, "Well it was a long time ago" or "I don't even know if I frame it that way. I'm not even sure I would use that word to describe it," or some folks will be like, "Well what happened to that person" or, you know, "Oh, now I don't know if I should have close relationships with people because like will the things I'm doing be misinterpreted?" Like there's so many different reactions we have that I think get in the way of what potentially should be our first reaction, which is just to say to each other like "I'm sorry that happened to you." If we just started there, I think that could really reshape the way all of this is addressed. Like, it's not about your future partners having to navigate like, your whole backstory and it's not about like, whether or not justice was served because sometimes it just can't be and there are situations with statutes of limitations, or our ability to identify things or it's so hard to prove things in court. You know, we just talk about things that are so far removed from the emotional impact on you and on me. So yeah I'm sorry that happened to you.
KATHY: Do people say thank you?
CAMERON: Yeah, like I totally get it. I mean it's hard for me to have people say to me after shows like, "I'm sorry that happened to you " because I'm like, "Wait. Didn't you think that was funny?" Like, you know, what I want people to say is that the hour is funny.
CAMERON: Like I want people to be like, "That was so hilarious! I can't believe you pulled that off! You are a great standup comic." But instead, sometimes folks are like, you know, holding me in the moment that I am -- not physically holding me. Ooh, God no, don't touch me.
[CAMERON AND KATHY LAUGH]
CAMERON: But I mean, like, being present with me, and it feels terrible because we are again cultured to like, not take up our space like, "This is a gross thing to talk about" or "Oh am I overreaching. Am I taking the spotlight away from someone else who had a worse story than I did?" And I don't think you need to relativize it like that. We can kind of just all lead with empathy.
KATHY: Cameron, this has been amazing. I love talking to you.
CAMERON: I really appreciate it.
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KATHY: Cameron Esposito’s special “Rape Jokes” is available on her website, cameronesposito.com, starting June 11th. You can stream it for free or buy your own copy with the proceeds going to a nonprofit that fights sexual violence.
TOBIN: All right, let's do credits.
TOBIN: Alice Wilder and Matt Collette!
KATHY: Sound designer…
TOBIN: Jeremy Bloom!
TOBIN: Jenny Lawton!
TOBIN: Melissa Lent!
KATHY: Executive Producer…
TOBIN: Paula Szuchman!
KATHY: I’m Kathy Tu.
TOBIN: I’m Tobin Low.
KATHY: And Nancy is a production of WNYC Studios.
[CREDITS MUSIC ENDS]