How, in the name of all things just, is this not a criminal act?

by Louise Livesey // 1 May 2008, 11:37

EDIT: Johnny Vegas has now apparently started legal proceedings over the article by the Guardian, one assumes for defamation but that's not clear at this point. He's appointed a firm with a history of pursuing cases against internet publishers (Schillings). So please mentally insert the word "allegedly" before relevant portions of the story below as demonstrated in the first view paragraphs below. Thanks.

Johnny Vegas, during a stand-up show, *allegedly* "fingers through her clothes" a young female audience member whilst hundreds of people find it *allegedly* funny. Can Vegas spell "sexual assault" because I *allegedly* can.

Here's the brief details:
- Vegas *allegedly* came on stage admitting he had no material and was there to "get laid"
- He then *allegedly* opened with a ramble about how he *allegedly* liked to tell lap dancers that there were "nothings"
- Next he *allegedly* fixated on a young woman (18-19 years old) on the audience and *allegedly* declared he wanted to be "inside" her.
- He then *allegedly* cajoled her into being carried onto stage by six *alleged* "pall bearers" (apparently this is linked to the Shakespear's Sister song Stay in the act) during which he *allegedly* repeatedly encouraged one "pall-bearer" to finger her.
- Once on stage, lying on the floor, the girl was *allegedly* obviously nervous and shaking/giggling and he *allegedly* told her to lay still or he'd kick her.
- He *allegedly* repeatedly pulled her skirt up and she repeatedly pulled it back down.
- He then *allegedly* fingered her "through her clothes" and squeezed her breasts.
- He then *allegedly* straddled her and *allegedly* kissed her, open mouthed, for an *allegedly* extended period.

He then *allegedly* asked that the curtain be brought down, it wasn't, but Stuart Munnery, who had been on beforehand, came on and *allegedly* shielded Vegas, still straddling the girl, with a long coat to obscure what happened next from the *alleged* audience.

Vegas was an *allegedly* special unannounced guest as part of Stewart Lee's *allegedly* "10 funniest comedy acts" tour (although I suggest this may cast a pall over the whole series).

Luckily *allegedly* not everyone was so amused. Mary O'Hara was at the show and writes for the Guardian about it.. Responses on the blog accompanying the article are, unsurprisingly, victim blamaing (like Carefree, EricConway (who maintains that the girl probably really enjoyed it) and musicandmayhem (who thinks she probably liked the attention and notoriety) but again not all and I think Islingworld's is worthy of mention - although they left rather than stopping Vegas's behaviour.

There is more discussion of this at NotBBC which included someone describing tabloid journalists as "nasty tabloid slags". A lot of the comments, however, are thoughtful and show an audience who is now feeling rather bad at not responding appropriately. Meanwhile Chortle ignores entirely this aspect of Vegas's performance and only just stops short of declaring it a tour de force and the Evening Standard's reporter was more concerned about the possibility of physical damage from Vegas straddling her than the sexual assault. The Times awards him three stars out of five despite commenting the show was bigger on sexual harrassment than comedy.

So there you go, if you want applause and praise for sexual crimes, make sure you do it on stage in front of hundreds. Presumably otherwise it's just not cricket.

Comments From You

Jess // Posted 01 May 2008 at 13:51

I'm speechless. No-one in the audience challenged what was happening?

Alex Parsons // Posted 01 May 2008 at 14:08

There really aren't the words. Utterly disgusting.

Neon Light // Posted 01 May 2008 at 14:16

Do we know who this gir is, I mean to say... Do we know if she is OK?...

Samara // Posted 01 May 2008 at 14:21

That sounds absolutely fucking horrendous. I think if I'd been in that audience I probably would have been so horrified I would have had a sort of rabbit-in-headlights reaction, and I hope that that's the main reason why there wasn't general uproar at the time - I hope people were stunned into silence rather than just ambivalent. At least if the girl decides to press charges she has quite a few witnesses.

Catherine Redfern // Posted 01 May 2008 at 14:26

I'm glad you blogged about this. Reading the report on the Guardian made me feel physically sick. I quite liked Johnny Vegas previously although admittedly am not greatly familiar with his comedy routine. I think I did read something in the Radio Times a few years ago when he said one of the best books he'd ever read was The Beauty Myth - and I think he may have said he was a feminist or pro-feminist.

The fact that this happened is just truly awful.

Sabre // Posted 01 May 2008 at 16:03

This is really sad. Even sadder is reading some of the comments on the Guardian's blog. A lot of people are asking why the girl in question didn't stop what was happening. Having been to comedy shows (although not this one) I know that many audience members have a fear of seeming like a 'bad sport' without a sense of humour. Therefore when you get 'involved' in the act you put up with offense that you wouldn't normally. This goes way beyond offensive language/jokes though. I can only imagine the crushing pressure the girl must have felt to conform to expectations in front of a huge audience, some of whom, apparently, seemed to find the whole thing enjoyable and funny. And of course, it's HER fault for 'complying' with the actions of a man clearly getting off on his fame and power.

I'm more sickened by the people who found this funny than those who did not stop it. That's because (among other reasons) it must have also been fairly difficult for any one audience member to protest and therefore also not conform to the expectation that they should find it funny. These days anyone who points out sexism or misogyny in daily life is belittled with comments like 'it's politicial correctness gone mad' or 'oh god, he/she's a FEMINIST' (obviously a dirty word). Then we get events like a sexual assault taking place on stage under the pretence of humour. (Cos if you don't find it funny, you haven't got a sense of humour!)

Leigh Woosey // Posted 01 May 2008 at 16:31

Has any statement been made about this content in his act by the performer or his management? Is there any evidence that the audience member targeted was a plant or had previously consented to her involvement?

Louise Livesey // Posted 01 May 2008 at 16:56

Both Vegas and his manager refused to comment on the Guardian story. There is no evidence at all that she was a plant nor that she consented before or during the acts.

JENNIFER DREW // Posted 01 May 2008 at 17:14

Johnny Vegas committed a serious sexual assault crime against this young woman and all we hear is the usual 'blame the victim' approach once again. But we need to look at Vegas' behaviour. Why did he believe he had the right to commit sexual assault against this young woman? Obviously he believed he was entitled to sexually abuse this young woman. We must not forget pack mentality - because not only was this young woman taken by surprise but since it happened in a public space, she was no doubt afraid that if she objected, other members of the audience might call out 'you're a spoil sport' or 'can't you take a joke.' Vegas deliberately abused his position of power by sexually assaulting this young woman. It takes courage to go against the pack mentality particularly when Vegas was supposed to be engaging in a comedy routine. But sexual assault is never 'funny' it is about abuse of power and sexual assaults are predominantly committed by men on women because men who commit these acts know the chances they will be charged are minimal. Instead the victim will nearly always be blamed for the male perpetrator's actions. So it is in the Vegas case - because even the journalists have failed to recognise sexual assault even when it happens in front of their eyes. Is that what women are reduced to now? To be forced to submit to serious sexual assault because a man thinks it is 'funny' and will add a little 'edge' to his misogynstic comedy routine.

Even if Vegas claims 'but this was just a stunt because the young woman knew what would happen to her' it is not funny or humourous. What would happen if Vegas were to sexually assault a young man in front of an audience, would the commentators blame the young man for supposedly allowing this to happen. I do not think so rather I am certain Vegas would be termed a sexual predator or a pervert. So what is the difference? Is it because a man sexually assaulting a woman must never be held accountable for his actions because women alone are supposed to be responsible for men's sexual predatory behaviour? Once again men's accountability is being invisibilised.

Rachael // Posted 01 May 2008 at 17:16

Is it just me or is Johnny Vegas morphing more and more into Bernard Manning with every year?? The brainless "jokes", the gormless face, the aggression, the fat gut....ah yes - and the sexism!!

Methinks he obsessively watched BM videos as a kid and took notes! Well done Vegas - youv'e insulted someone else. Fat man with desperate need for control!

fenris // Posted 01 May 2008 at 17:29

good points sabre; also i think the pressure to avoid being labelled a "prude" would be pretty crushing in that situation, since young women are supposed to be "up for it" all the time (and in pretty much every way) if they are to be desireable at all.

though in my case i'm sure this pressure would be overwhelmed by the desire to knee him in the nuts.

Ellie // Posted 01 May 2008 at 18:11

Something very similar to this happened to a friend of mine recently...except it happened in the middle of the street and was perpetrated by a complete stranger. It worries me that people might be more willing to call that sexual assault but because this was part of an "act" and was "funny" it isn't. It just makes me feel so angry that people would find it amusing, I just can't even get my head around the mentality that treating a young, probably scared and overwhelmed, woman like this is acceptable and even funny.

Scarlett McQueen // Posted 01 May 2008 at 18:17

Yes I'm amazed at the comments from those who seem to think that if the woman didn't say or do anything (in fact she kept pulling her skirt down, and he kept hitching it up again) then clearly any suggestion of impropriety is misplaced, that she must have enjoyed it, consented, or, failing either of those "known what she was in for".

What a lot of commentators seem to have overlooked is that a) she's on stage and is unlikely to stand up and run away for fear of looking foolish, through general stage fright and, eventually, due to the fact that there was a 25 stone man sitting on her; and b) there IS such a thing as a joke going too far. She may initially have (perhaps reluctantly) agreed to go up on stage, but she didn't give what I would call "informed consent" i.e. she probably had no idea it would go as far as it did. And as Vegas was not billed to play, but was a surprise guest, it's also unfair to say that she should have known what she was getting herself into.

Crucially, O Hara says she attends comedy gigs every week, and accepts offensiveness and stupidity is part of the deal, but delineates clearly between the way in which Vegas used to play this act (ie as a satirical and tragi-comic comment on his own love-hate relationship with women) and the way it is played now (as a famous comedian, and thus with a completely different power dynamic going on with the audience, apparently giving him licence to take tremendous liberties whilst crowds simply sit and watch). Which is another factor the hostile commentators have failed to take into account.

The final and most astonishing, and most British, aspect of this, is the comment from the chap who relishes the "horror of the watching middle classes" as though you see, this is OK, because she's a "librarian" (not sure where he got that from) and he's a working class lad from St Helens, getting her come-uppeance. So objecting doesn't make you just a feminist, but some sort of etiolated middle class wimp. It never ceases to amaze me how any debate in the UK will quickly get derailed or red-herringed by specious class arguments. More divide and rule.

Kirsty // Posted 01 May 2008 at 19:12

I have read this story several times today with growing disbelief each time. I've never exactly been a fan of JV, but this report just hammers the final nail in the coffin.

I really hope the girl in question lodges a formal police complaint. I hope she's ok.

I have been sending this link to everyone I can think of, asking people to boycott everything JV does in future. No doubt I have "no sense of humour" either...

E-Visible Woman // Posted 01 May 2008 at 19:49

Commenters here and on feministing have suggested that the woman was a plant.

I repeat, from my comment at Feministing...

I'm really surprised to have seen commenters on every feminist website I've been on defending Vegas and saying 'Maybe she's a plant?'

Would it be funny if she was acting? Sexual assault ISN'T FUNNY - ever!

Even if it was simulated, staged and she was a plant, I would still be disgusted.

Elenyd Whitfield // Posted 02 May 2008 at 00:59

I have just been reading about this on another website, and feel sick with rage, both at what Vegas did, and at many of the reactions on the Guardian blog. I am always shocked by just how prevalent victim-blaming is, it is the automatic response from so many people isn't it?
I feel that we as feminists need to do something about this, at the very least we can help to publicise it more widely. Apparently Vegas has done similar things before, and almost certainly will again, if he is not somehow stopped.

Leigh // Posted 02 May 2008 at 09:29

E-visible woman - The difference between her being a willing, consenting plant or not is the difference between a crime being committed or not.

Now, if anybody reading actually saw what happened they should report it as a crime to the nearest police station to the theatre., which I believe is West End Central Police Station
27 Savile Row, London, W1S 2EX
( 020 74371212 ). The crime to report is Sexual Assault.

BareNakedLady // Posted 02 May 2008 at 10:25

E-Visible Woman, I haven't seen anyone on here suggesting that the woman was a plant?

That said, I hope like hell she was. It doesn't, as you say, make the 'act' less revolting from the audience's view, but it would make a hell of a difference to the woman herself!

Grace // Posted 02 May 2008 at 10:46

I have gone cold. Perhaps in a warped way, this reminds me of the scene from Interview with a Vampire where the vampires kill a woman on stage (highly sexualised, naked, scared, virginal) and lift up her body, to an audience who are to see a show - they are horrified but don't do anything to stop it. Celebrity means you can do anything.

I don't know what I would have done if I had been there. I'd like to think I would have done something to stop it.

tony ingram // Posted 02 May 2008 at 11:43

I just find it disgusting that no-one in the audience close enough to see what was happening did anything to stop it. Their apathy is almost as bad as Vegas's actions. Surely, it doesn't matter if she was a "plant" (which seems unlikely)-if it looked like assault, someone in the room should have had the guts to order him off her.

chem_fem // Posted 02 May 2008 at 11:53

Grace, that's exactly what I though!!

cat // Posted 03 May 2008 at 11:02

Errr, were any of you actually there? Or do you just believe everything you read in the papers?

Tom // Posted 03 May 2008 at 23:47

Cat.. several papers, blogs and eye-witness reports.. a big conspiracy? Is that what you are saying?

anon // Posted 04 May 2008 at 03:42

Wow, it took 2 whole days for Vegas's PR to show up! Tho really it would be kindest to warn "cat" now that he/she is unlikely to change many minds around here...Anyhoo, there are plenty of first-person accounts on messageboards and forums and the like, if you fancy searching. They generally lean closer to the Guardian's take on things. (But bloody hell, Chortle and the Times actually thought he was funny? Unlike the sexual assault thing, I have read nothing which supports *that*...)

cat // Posted 04 May 2008 at 18:31

hi all,

do you mean me as vegas' pr? I wish! i just ask about if any of you were there, as I was - centre second row. I'm not disagreeing with any comments, but I wonder quite how wise it is to leap into defending or attacking an event it seems none of you here have direct experience of. ok, you can work from others' accounts, although i see little inclusion of those accounts from people who were actually there who disagree with o'hara's 'account'. balance?

Redheadinred // Posted 06 May 2008 at 01:07

Um, I have to agree slightly with both sides of the argument. I'm as serious a feminist as any you'll find, and as far as Vegas goes I'm neutral, never having seen a show of his even on TV. I never, ever approve of assault, but my opinion on this has changed slightly since a couple of days ago when I first heard about it. I was imagining some terrible horror story, and it sounds like it probably wasn't as bad as *some* are making out. But to be honest, what interests me is not the repeated 'she liked it', 'no she didn't' that's going round the internet, but the actual ACTIONS. Some say he 'fingered her', others don't. Some say he meant it when he said he'd kick her, others say it was clearly a joke. But what interests me are those facts which have not differed from description to description, which remain the same from those supporting Vegas and those condemning him.

Okay, so we know he tugged someone's skirt up persistently while she kept tugging it down again. Everyone seems to agree on that, even those defending him. To me, this action shows a great disregard for a person's feelings. It doesn't take a genius to work out that if you do that, and someone protests, they're showing that they feel uncomfortable with it. That wouldn't be acceptable in any other context or setting, even between a dating couple it would be disrespectful. Very few of us would put up with it in the office or on the train, no matter how funny the person doing it thought they were, no matter how many other people found it entertaining. And like I said elsewhere on this site, why is it that tugging a skirt up is less aggressive than undoing a pair of jeans? I reckon someone doing the latter on stage would provoke more controversy than the former, because people seem to be saying all over the 'net, 'well, she wore a skirt in the first place.'

I also gather, from ALL accounts of the situation, that the only thing she was told of in advance was that he would kiss her 'with tongues', and she didn't agree to the other things. That is definitely unfair, and I have to say I'm floored by the carelessness of Vegas, not to make it clearer what was going to happen before she got to the stage. You don't know who you've picked out of the audience, what if he'd picked an actual rape victim, and unintentionally brought back bad memories by doing those things without warning?

All accounts from spectators say that she giggled most of the way through it. Whether with nervousness or humour, there are different opinions. I wasn't there, but I have to say I know if it were me I would have giggled. I LIKE to think I'd have walk away if something happened I didn't like, but I think in reality I would go 'Shit, I don't like this, but I'd better look like I'm enjoying myself. I don't want to look like a moron and ruin the night.' I am 18 years old myself, and I don't imagine that it would be at all unusual for someone of my age to be intimidated by the fame and the fact that everyone else seemed to be enjoying it, into being convinced my gut feelings were just due to my being a bit silly and oversensitive and I shouldn't be such a killjoy. See, even though I KNOW that line of reasoning is faulty, I would still probably allow it to happen to me. And as for those saying she responded passionately to the kiss at the end, lifting her head off the stage to prolong it, again, I wasn't there so I have no idea if this is true, but I probably would have done that, just to bring the situation back to my own control. People have been known to giggle uncontrolably when they were about to be hanged, or strapped to the electric chair. I think it's basic instinct, intended for self-preservation. Your mind won't let you create a situation in which you have succumbed to peer pressure against what feels right, so you tell yourself that's not what's going on. You familiarise the situation by giggling and trying to make it seem like you're in control, and a willing participant. I talk from experience here, and it's funny: it's taken me a while to acknowledge why some of my memories (not necessarily of sexual nature) bring up such a conflict in my mind, where my conscious, regulated self has constructed it as I've described above, when at the same time I feel bad remembering and would rather not. Truth is, I didn't really enjoy that stuff at all, that's just what I told myself so I wouldn't feel a weak person. I'm not saying this is definitely how everyone feels about everything, but it's the kind of thing which might kick in if I was on stage with a stranger who happened to be famous touching my chest and tugging my skirt up infront of a crowd who found it funny. And I've been harrassed, like most, and my reaction was to say 'fuck off' while giggling because other people were around and I didn't want to show my discomfort.

Whatever you believe, it was not only one person who was there who complained about it, it seems like quite a few found it objectionable, so even if those people are a minority, it's not just one crazy lady making it up.

Don't think I'm biased because I'm not a fan, either. If it were me who was in her position, and the comedian involved were one of my favourite, favourite male people from the entertainment business, and they'd done all that without asking, I'd be as pissed as if it were someone revolting who I hated. Yet, the reaction would probably be the same: pretend to enjoy it.


NB, it really interests me that Cat is here on a feminist website, and seems to have a different opinion from the O'hara article, I would very much like to hear her account of things.

cat // Posted 06 May 2008 at 20:46

thanks for asking. i'm really uncomfortable about offering my opinion as being neither johnny vegas nor the woman in question, I feel unqualified to comment. i merely wanted to ask an open question to perhaps trigger people to question their sources. I hope I managed this to a certain extent.

Anne Onne // Posted 06 May 2008 at 21:25

The problem is, how do we frame consent? Do we frame it as default (in which case, the woman giggling and not screaming is considered consent), or do we assume that non-consent is the default, and that her not saying 'Please finger me' is evidence she did not, in fact, consent? To me it would be the latter. There's nobody saying Vegas asked her if he could do what he did. Though even if she had aquiesced, I would still not have considered it consent, just like it's not really cosent if he holds a gun to your head, tells you he'd kill your children if you don't listen, or uses any other form of coersion, whether it be harassing you when you need to sleep or whatever. Vegas used his position as a celebrity, and the fact this was public, and the pressure on the woman to go along, to get what he wanted. He did not consider for a second if she would be comfortable with a complete stranger publicly fingering her. He didn't even ask.

The situation, to me, by definition, is coersion. She was set up, in front of thousands of people, first to kiss Vegas. So far, so good, she may well have played along. But past that, can we really say giggling is meaningful consent, given the pressure to not mess up the show, not make a big deal, in front of thousands of people? She would have felt a huge pressure to conform (as we all do), socialised as a woman to not make a fuss. She had said she would kiss him, she probably thought, and she'd look silly and prudish if she backed out or screamed. Even if she had openly consented, I'd still feel she was coerced, because the pressure was there, with the audience expecting a show, and Vegas as the star feeling invincible. But it never even got to that stage. He didn't ask for consent at all, so how could she have consented? Only if we see women's consent as the default state could we call her actions consent. And that's the patriarchical view. That's what leads to victim blaming and grey rape definitions.

Seriously, can you say that many of us would have the guts to scream out and fight back in front of that audience, risk being seen as someone who can't take a joke?

I don't think she consented. That's because I don't believe there was the free, unpunishable option to not consent. The pressure was on her to not make a big deal. If you are pressured to consent, and feel that you must, because you mustn't complain, then it's not real consent. And that's rape.

Louise Livesey // Posted 07 May 2008 at 13:56

The law also shifted from passive to active consent recently. Legally the absence of active consent is what constitutes a sexual assault.

Redheadinred // Posted 08 May 2008 at 02:00

Not that I really want to see someone get assaulted, but has anyone put this on youtube? It just makes me mad not knowing what happened and what didn't.

J // Posted 09 May 2008 at 12:29

when I heard about this, I made sure to text everybody I knew. I wanted everyone to know that these things don't just happen, they are made to happen by sick assholes, and left to happen by people saying and doing nothing. I was horrified!

Anonymous // Posted 11 May 2008 at 17:57

And to think this happened at a university institution (The Bloomsbury Theatre is owned by University College London)

cat // Posted 12 May 2008 at 18:00

err, do you realise that adding *allegedly* does nothing to protect a claim from being libellous?

cat // Posted 15 June 2008 at 14:15

There's an update to this story - the Guardian articles have been re-posted on the Guardian site, with the following disclaimer at the start:

* Johnny Vegas complained about this article. His solicitors have been in contact with the young woman from the audience who has told them that she went along with the joke willingly and did not feel intimidated, scared or abused in any way during this performance.

Laurel Dearing // Posted 17 July 2008 at 13:48

ive seen many people get groped for laughs and it disgusting. but pulling the skirt up? thats just humiliating isnt it?

as for the interview with a vampire thing that was horrendous, pointless and probably the only horror aspect in the whole film. in a vampire film i expect the blood-sucking to be scary, not pack mentality and sexualised violence. it put me off theatres.

vince // Posted 11 September 2008 at 02:09

On paper Vegas's act sounds horrific. Certainly nobody should be allowed to get away with sexual assualt under another name. In context, it's not clear that this is what has happened. If we are to hold a progressive possition, it is important to avoid a knee-jerk reaction.

Vegas has always used audience intimidation and discomfort in his act, including awkward physical and apparently sexual behaviour towards members of both sexes (the sexual content and pathos remains unchanged in his act, regardless of the object's gender - see youtube for evidence).

Vegas is a character, performed by a comedian who wanted to create an unlikable an pathetic individual. It's a form of reversal, playing upon the traditional expectations of an audience. If that performance falls into an area where an audience member feels genuinely physically abused, well then we must support that audience member and condemn the performer in serious terms. However, if we make criminal allegations against a comedian without any real context or awareness of the "victim's" opinion we are straying into McCarthyite territory.

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