I'm talking to Adrienne Truscott on the fifth day #YesAllWomen has been trending on Twitter. We're sitting in the bar of the Soho Theatre in London, both of us New Jersey natives, and just the night before, I watched her bare her vagina to an audience of 100 while downing gin-and-tonics, wearing multiple blonde wigs and pink bras, and cracking jokes about rape. Her award-winning show (finishing a 3-week run) is entitled Adrienne Truscott's Asking For It: A One-Lady Rape about Comedy Starring Her Pussy and Little Else! -- and instead of tip-toeing around that "delicate" issue of rape, she barrels right through it.
"Who here's been raped?" she asks jauntily at the start of her show, a sell-out hit at the Edinburgh Fringe last summer. And immediately after that, "Who's ever raped anyone? Just a little bit?"
Awkward silences and giggles abound: in fact, her show excels at making you laugh at a traditionally uncomfortable topic.
As a rape survivor myself, I was gunning to raise my hand after her first question. And yet, when the moment came, I hesitated. And before I knew it, she'd moved on to the next question. A little annoyed at my own hesitancy, I realised that despite the recent outpouring of rape commentary on the Internet, just how taboo it still is to openly identify yourself in person as a rape victim -- especially in a "good times" setting like a bar. No one wants to bring up a serious and painful topic at a fun night out -- and yet, that's exactly what Adrienne is doing.
But Adrienne's next question -- who's ever raped anyone? -- is for her, the zinger.
This afternoon, fully clothed and without her blonde wing, she tells me: "I am nearly 100% sure that every night, there's someone in the room who's crossed the line." It's not a fact she dwells on during the show, but "if you think that you have fifteen male friends, and not one of them has done something along those lines, then that's why rape keeps happening."
Does anyone in the audience ever identify themselves as a rapist? Sometimes people call out, yes, but it's impossible to tell if they really are confessing to anything or are just playing along with the show. But that's the beauty of her performance -- despite the seriousness of her topic matter, she zips along and doesn't openly judge. "He looks like a classic date-rapist," is the closest she'll get, referring not to her audience members, but to Daniel Tosh, an American stand-up comedian criticised last year for his rape jokes . "Thin lips and a college education."
Of course, Adrienne's on-stage persona might prompt a similar stereotypical thought: "She looks like a classic rape victim: peroxide blonde, drunk in a bar, and showing her legs." And yet, she's not asking for it -- which is exactly her point.
Perhaps it's much more effective that she raises these feminist issues in a form that few straight men would ever object to -- that of a half-naked blonde lady on stage, prancing and giggling. As a result, her audiences have proven to be a mixed bag: not just angry feminists, but also groups of men on a night out, looking for a bit of a laugh. Often she'll get solo men attending the show. "Usually they sit right in the front row," she says. "They could have all sorts of reasons for coming. Maybe they just want to see some pussy."
It's exactly that kind of easy, breezy approach to the topic which makes Adrienne's show the flip-side to the serious, often angry outpouring of feminist thought which the #YesAllWomen hashtag has unleashed in the past week. #YesAllWomen started as a reaction to Elliot Rodger's misogynist killings in Santa Barbara on May 23rd, and at its peak, the hashtag generated over 60,000 Tweets per hour from the Twitter-verse. By now, the total number of Tweets is approaching 2 million.
"It's bringing up so many fascinating things," Adrienne says about the movement. "That there's a lot of women out there who are really fed up. Misogyny is creepy, it's systemic, and no one is untouched. It's a cultural mental illness."
Many commentators have cited misogyny as the impetus behind Elliot Rodger's murderous outburst, which left six dead and thirteen more wounded. In his YouTube videos and 141-page manifesto he says: "All you girls who rejected me and looked down upon me... I hate all of you and I can't wait to give you exactly what you deserve. Utter annihilation." Much has also been said of Rodger's involvement in the online PUA (Pick-Up Artist) scene or manosphere , where men trade advice on bodybuilding, flirting, and general self-belief so they can successfully pick up women.
I have to admit, there's a particularly American notion to the PUA scene, a sort of creepy, can-do American attitude applied to gender relations: just work out regularly, learn the right pick-up lines, and you, too, can get a hot woman. As an American ex-pat living in London, I've noticed the Brits, with their general awareness of a class system, are perhaps less overtly obsessed with changing their lot in life in such an aspirational way. Or perhaps they're just more reliant on alcohol and less reliant on a well-rehearsed "game" when they're on the pull.
But then again, I've found that American women seem much more willing to speak openly about their rape experiences than British women. Which is why I was so thrilled to see Adrienne bring her brand of in-your-face, subversively goofy humor to British audiences.
I ask her about freedom of speech, often used as an argument to defend American male comedians who have made offensive jokes about rape on stage. (Some might add to that list other classic American values like the right to bear arms, and -- for men's rights activists and PUAs -- the right to sleep with a hot woman). Adrienne's all for freedom of speech. "But if we're going to make jokes about rape, then who's making the jokes and how are we making them?"
And indeed, freedom of speech in online forums, YouTube, and on Twitter has revealed the extent of the misogyny that's still out there. But if #YesAllWomen and Adrienne's show are inspiring examples of freedom of speech being used to address the issue, both ultimately point to the need for a much deeper public discussion about rape.
As for Adrienne, after this run at the Soho Theatre, she'll bring the show to a few American venues, then back to the UK for the Glastonbury Festival. And then maybe put "Asking For It" to rest after this year.
But four years from now, she'd like to revisit the show, see if it's worth re-working. "Let's see how the conversation on rape has changed four years from now." Hopefully, it will have moved forward.