“It’s definitely harder to come out as a wrestling fan than a survivor of sexual assault…”
Comedian Richard Gadd has a secret he wants to get off his chest.
It’s one that leaves him crimson-faced and somewhat shameful, yet it’s one that thousands of men in the UK share – and millions more the world over. Above all else though, it’s a secret he thinks we’re just not talking enough about. And after all, the more we talk about something, the more we ‘normalise’ it, right?
Richard is a fan of professional wrestling. There. We said it.
One thing that isn’t a secret however is that four years ago Richard was a victim of sexual assault. In fact, he’s so transparent about his ordeal that he based his award-winning, critically-acclaimed Edinburgh Fringe-stealing show Monkey See Monkey Do about it, which enjoyed two sold out runs at London’s Soho Theatre earlier this year and is currently back at the Fringe for a victory lap of sorts.
And while there are a few subtle pro wrestling references throughout, when it comes to sexual assault, Monkey See Monkey Do sees Richard own his experience, using it as a source of dark comedy and poignant reflection; the show is made up of recordings of real life therapy sessions that took place after his abuse, and detailed accounts of how the ordeal made him question his masculinity, sexuality and even his mental health.Oh, and all this unfolds while Richard is on stage in skin-tight neon pink lycra shorts peddling furiously on an exercise bike.
In Monkey See Monkey Do, the comedian deftly deconstructs his hang-ups and neuroses about being a victim of sexual assault – How could something like that happen to him? Does it make him less of a man? What does it mean about his sexuality? – all of which are personified by the titular monkey.
“It’s definitely harder to come out as a wrestling fan,” Richard jokes as we catch up after one of his sold out shows at the aforementioned Soho Theatre, “but I regret not doing this show sooner. It’s weird, because four years ago I was stuck in my own private hell, but now – when I’ve decided to talk about it – I realise how much society has progressed around us.
“Ever since I started to question myself and come to terms with what happened, society has progressed massively – I can’t think of a single person who’s reacted badly to this show. There probably would’ve been more stigma around me doing a show like this four years ago, but then again there’d have been more stigma four years before that.”
When Richard says that he “questioned himself”, what he means is that the assault made him question – or maybe a more accurate word would be ‘explore’ – his sexuality. While previously identifying as heterosexual, he now says he’s closer to bisexual, or pansexual, and in Monkey See Monkey Do he makes no bones about having had sex with both guys and girls.
“I don’t know who said this quote or even if I’m making it up in my head,” Richard starts, “but someone said that people will soon learn that you fall in love with people, not genitals, and I think that’s quite interesting. When you’re younger and a little less developed in knowing who you are, labels can be strong and empowering, but as you explore yourself a bit more they can create confusion in your head. I’ll be like, ‘Oh, if I like that then I can’t be this, but I still enjoy doing this so does that mean I’m not fully that?’
It’s important to start seeing sexuality as fluid. I built up all these prejudices about telling people I identified as bisexual, and in my head the people I was most worried about were the burly men who played on my football team, but they were all lovely about it.
“Don’t get me wrong, there’ll be the odd ones who stay stuff like, ‘Nah, you’re gay and just can’t admit it!’ But weirdly, I get that more from gay people. People who I thought would welcome me with open arms sort of gave me stick, so it was odd for me. There’s always an irony when people who’ve experienced prejudice are prejudiced themselves.”
Richard alludes to sex addiction in Monkey See Monkey Do – which he admits is maybe too strong a term, as it’s “almost a fashion in celebrity culture” – but it came as a direct result of his sexual assault; rather than want to shy away from sex, he wanted to “carry on as normal” as a way of coping and processing what had happened, with sex very much being integral to his recovery.
“I was speaking with this one guy at [male rape and sexual abuse charity] SurvivorsUK,” he explains, “who said after he’d been sexually assaulted, he sort of detached himself from his body and became very asexual. People react differently to sex when they’ve been sexually assaulted, but I felt like I didn’t want it to ruin me, so I found that I was having more sex and I was wanting to rediscover the connection I had with it.
I was determined for it not to effect my sex life in any way, but it’s a constant battle trying to get back into your body, in a way, after having had this out of body experience, which is the assault.
SurvivorsUK helped Richard come to terms with what’d happened to him, and he urges men who find themselves victim of rape and sexual assault to take advantage of the services and support networks out there. After all, despite more than 12,000 men being raped in England and Wales every year (according to Rape Crisis), only five per cent of all service users were male.
But it can be quite difficult to actually accept what’s happened to you in the first place – denial plays a big part in the aftermath of a sexual assault, hand-in-hand with the fear of judgement if people find out. Unsurprisingly, going through a traumatic experience like rape can be detrimental to a person’s mental health.
“I’m amazed people ever manage to go to the police the next day,” Richard says, “because it muddled my brain for so long – processing it, then denying it, then accepting it, then denying it again. It was this constant refusal to accept what’d happened because I didn’t want to believe it. And then while that’s happening, there’s such a short window in which police are able to get evidence, and after that you’re worried it’s going to be a case of he-said, he-said, and it comes down to whoever can afford the better lawyer. It just all feels so impossible.”
And as is quite often the case for victims of sexual assault, Richard found in the immediacy that he took on a lot of the blame himself: “The abuse in itself is horrible, but then the human condition is to blame yourself for being in a situation like that. How could I be so stupid? How could I be so naive? How could I allow that to happen? And that’s why people get away with it so much – because we put the blame on ourselves and that’s what needs to change.”
As much as performing and touring Monkey See Monkey Do has been a cathartic experience for Richard, it’s had a similar effect on the audiences, too, with many writing to him to share their own experiences after they’ve seen the show. But there’s still a stigma that needs to be overcome, which can only be achieved by being more open and speaking out.
“The amount of men who speak to me afterwards is alarming,” he says, “but most of the emails I get will end with ‘this stays between us’. There’s a little more openness when I get emails from women who’ve been victims – there’s less paranoia that their words are going to catch up with them down the line.
Statistically, there’s loads of people around the world who’ve been sexually assaulted and who just aren’t speaking out because they blame themselves, but I’m still finding being open about it to be a source of strength. It can be very hard to see that when you’re so stuck inside of yourself, though.
A lot of that, Richard says, comes down to sexual assault leaving you with the innate feeling that you’re no longer a man. We all know that #masculinitysofragile, but it’s fair to say that being a victim of rape can push it to breaking point.
“Thinking in terms of gender can be dangerous,” he quite rightly points out, “but I probably feel stronger now about being a man than I have done in years. I remember I’d shave my head and put on a deep voice to be more ‘manly’, but I didn’t feel like one inside at all. I hope people believe me when I say this, but the sexual assault made me feel more empowered as a man because I realised that masculinity is just a ridiculous projection. There are no scientific rules, it’s just a word, you know?”
At the end of Monkey See Monkey Do, Richard urges the audience to take the negative that happens to us and turn it into something positive in the world. It reminds us of Carrie Fisher’s powerful quote, “Take your broken heart, make it into art.” And that’s just what Richard has done with Monkey See Monkey Do – create art, pink lycra shorts and all. After all, what is art if not something to inspire us, to empower us, to make us think and to make us question the world we know around us.
“I’ve still got anxieties about doing this show and for people only knowing me as that guy who got sexually assaulted for the rest of my career,” he demures, “but it’s a risk I was willing to take. I thought it was going to ruin me, in a lot of ways, but I’m glad I did it – it’s like an albatross coming off from around my neck.”
It certainly won’t be the only thing Richard is known for – he has a lot of exciting projects coming up in the future which he’s tight lipped about, and he recently starred alongside Daniel Mays and Mark Gatiss in Against the Law, a film about the decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales, which opened the BFI Flare Festival in London and aired on BBC2 as part of the station’s Gay Britannia season.
And besides, rather than being “that guy who got sexually assaulted”, we think Richard is more likely to be known as the bloke who with Monkey See Monkey Do, without hyperbole, offered a lifeline to people who needed it.
For more information on male rape and sexual abuse charity SurvivorsUK visit survivorsuk.org or call 020 3598 3898. Richard performs Monkey See Monkey Do at Edinburgh’s Summerhall (Venue 26) from 18-27 August. Click here for tickets, click here to visit Richard’s website and click here to follow him on Twitter.
For those not attending the Fringe this year, a live recording of Monkey See Monkey Do from Soho Theatre will air on Comedy Central on 16 August at 10pm.