After three decades in the business of comedy, fans and critics alike know what makes Margaret Cho tick. As a pioneer of self-awareness and sex-positive storytelling, Cho was dealing out honest, NSFW routines long before Amy Schumer became a household name. It’s all good, though — the two friends admire each other.
On stage and off, 46-year-old Cho is a maverick activist. She pushes back against social and political structures in defense of marginalized people, such as members of the LGBT community and, more recently, those conducting sex work around the world. (As a former sex worker herself, it’s a single aspect of a complex, layered identity.) She’s an Asian-American bisexual and an outspoken victim of rape and assault, who has also has suffered from body issues and abused drugs and alcohol. Her work reflects this complexity: the Grammy-nominated comedian has navigated her way from darkness back to the light through stand-up, authorship, acting, song and dance. She’s an empathic artist who needs her fans for sanity as much as they need her for release.
In September, during an interview to promote the release of her Showtime stand-up special, Margaret Cho: psyCHO, the comedian told Billboard that she was sexually molested from age five to 12 by a family member. Cho had spoken out about her experience with rape and assault on stages around the world for years, but in this frank, candid moment, she was cemented as a brave role model for survivors. Like so many victims of abuse, she recognized that healing can be confusing and is forever ongoing. In typical Margaret Cho style, she’s invited the world into her process.
Currently underway is Cho’s #12DaysofRage, a Twitter campaign in which she shares videos describing assaults as they happened to her and invites her followers to do the same. The global response has been tremendous. Cho personally replies to many of the submissions and defends those still too afraid to share their stories (“If your mother didn’t protect you from rape, let me be your mother. I would be so honored. I love you,” one tweet reads. “It’s okay to be silent. I am loud for them,” another says). The #12DaysofRage effort is a lead up to the November 13 release of her new music video and song, “(I Want to) Kill My Rapist,” which will debut on PerezHilton.com.
Women in the World spoke with the celebrated, outspoken artist about her mission in a candid interview where she revealed her philosophy and why she believes ex-Pretender Chrissie Hynde is wrong to shame sex work.
Women in the World: Last week, you posted a video to your blog about an assault that took place after an afternoon date at a Starbucks. Sharing stories like these blows the lid off of the ‘rape in a dark alleyway’ narrative. In conducting #12DaysofRage, what other myths about rape and assault have you seen dismantled?
Margaret Cho: That it’s “danger,” that if you tell your family that they’ll help you — unfortunately, I told my family and they stood by my rapist. He’s far more welcome at family functions than I am. That rape apologists are just as bad as rapists, if not worse, and that rape happens mostly between friends, acquaintances, families. I was raped — or attempted to be raped — by my best friend. [Though] I’ve had a couple of things happen like that, it’s not like people breaking into your house, or strangers. The majority of [assaults or rapes] are people that we know. Even spouses and partners rape.
It’s not just a woman’s issue — men are raped a lot. Almost as many men have responded to this campaign as women. There’s a lot of silence. People have a lot of shame and suffering around it and I felt that the best thing I could do was to share my experiences, which I have been doing for a long time, and let people know that of all the things that I’ve endured.
WITW: Reading through some of the #12DaysofRage responses online, people are being so candid with you. That speaks to your honesty — they’re mirroring you, they feel comfortable with you.
MC: I feel they are experiencing release and healing as I am with them. I’m grateful for that and I’m so proud that I’m able to be a part of it.
WITW: You’ve spoken about the rage women have against their abusers. It can be so unhealthy if just let to sit. How do you channel yours?
MC: I do it through art, that’s how I’ve been able to figure out my journey — to use my work as catharsis. That’s often the best thing that we can do, is to allow ourselves to rage because it’s so rare that we get to. We’re told to forgive — I don’t want to! I don’t want to forgive my abuser! I don’t care to and I don’t like that assumption that forgiveness makes me a better person. It’s not authentic to me, my feelings and what I need. But everyone has their own way.
My philosophy is, “murder the rapist in your mind so you stop killing yourself.” I’ve seen, in my lifetime, that sexual abuse has turned into self-abuse. When I kill the rapist inside of me, I will stop killing myself.
WITW: Do you prefer the term survivor or victim?
MC: I’m a survivor. But I’m also victim, too. Surviving has the connotation that you’ve been through it, you lived through it and that’s wonderful — but a victim is what I was. “Survivor” is the more healing way to look at it.
WITW: The personal is political in your work. You speak truths as you know them, which, in my opinion, makes you an effective activist. Is there anywhere you draw the line?
MC: No [laughs]. I draw the line at naming my rapist. He not only raped me, but also raped family members that I don’t believe know. That’s what I struggle with — I would name everybody, but there are people I know who would be affected who were so young, they may not have any memory of what happened. I honestly believe that they actually have no memories. I was a witness to many things. I want to name names, but in truth, what keeps me from doing so is [that] I’m trying to protect the innocent. They really are innocent and should remain innocent if they don’t remember. It’s not my place to destroy their lives.
If I had my way, I would tell everybody and prosecute everybody, and there would be a million lawsuits happening right now. I have so much complication around it because it is my family and it is younger people who I love. I’m afraid they don’t know.
WITW: The world is rapt — both in defense and disregard — with the profession of sex work. You recently added your experience and voice to the conversation. Why is sex work so polarizing?
MC: I don’t know why it’s anyone’s business! People do what they need to do. I did it, and it was nowhere near as traumatic as being raped. I was so numb for so long that sex work for me was not a big deal. I don’t like people telling other people what to do. Sex work for a lot of women is really important, especially in countries where women don’t have a lot of power. Here we can have at least some form … of making money. Amnesty International agrees with me.
Where do people get off telling people what to do? It’s their bodies. If you legalized sex work and legally protected the sex workers, you wouldn’t see anything like human trafficking. All of that would be obliterated.
WITW: Outside of legalization, what are the biggest changes that need to be made to build a safer and more empowered future for sex workers?
MC: It’s going to be in the world regardless of whether it’s legal or not. Keeping it illegal is hurting rather than helping. Respect their voices. Stop shaming.
Chrissie Hynde [of The Pretenders] — who I love, by the way — has some very, very opposing views about rape and about women who are sex workers. She has a lot of disdain for Nicki Minaj and Miley Cyrus and she called them sex workers, as if that’s an insult. They’re not sex workers, they’re entertainers. The fact that she used sex work as an insult, that really bothers me. I hate whore-shaming. This is a job that exists, that is real. I love Chrissie Hynde, I wish that I did not have to listen to her tell women that rape is their fault. But, she has a pretty voice.
Margaret Cho’s “(I Want to) Kill My Rapist” debuts on PerezHilton.com on November 13.
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