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iO Co-Founder's Controversial Sexual Harassment Comments Spark Debate

By Mae Rice in News on Jan 27, 2016 6:06PM

A comedy show at iO (Allison Kelley/Chicagoist)

Updated: iO co-founder Charna Halpern discussed sexual harassment in Chicago's comedy scene and her comments with Chicagoist Wednesday evening.

Earlier this week, seemingly the entire local improv community took to iO co-founder Charna Halpern’s Facebook to discuss sexual harassment in the comedy scene. Halpern commented prolifically, and the thread, though not set to public on her Facebook, has been posted to Imgur. (Chicagoist has also received screenshots of the conversation from a tipster, which indicate the Imgur posts of the conversation are real, though not completely comprehensive.)

It's a granular conversation, but an important one. The institutional sway Halpern holds at iO make her views an important piece of the comedy scene's culture, which can be less than welcoming to women.

In her post, Halpern—who did not respond to multiple requests for a comment—denies claims that when someone reported a case of sexual harassment to her, she tried to sweep it under the rug by offering free classes. "This call never happened," Halpern wrote, adding later in a comment, "[W]e need to take this issue seriously and not spread lies because you didn't make a team or for whatever reason you are angry."

The thread, of course, exploded. "It's unbelievably rare for women to make up stories like this to get 'attention' or 'revenge,'" said one commenter.

“I can tell you stories of all the things Ive had to deal with. For every real complaint, there was at least one that wasn’t real sexual harassment,” Halpern wrote later in the thread.

In that same comment, Halpern mentioned one case that wasn’t “real,” in which an instructor was patting people—or perhaps only women—on the backs of their heads when they performed well in a scene. One student in particular was very uncomfortable with this, but Halpern said, “[He] would very often come into my office while I was working and pat the back of my head too… I had no illusions that he was asking for sexual favors.”

Though she asked the instructor to stop doing this, her story of the incident reads like a misapplication of the Golden Rule—one of the perhaps unique pitfalls of women reporting harassment to other women.

Later, Halpern wrote, “I encourage every woman to discuss what they felt was inappropriate with ME.”

In a follow-up comment, she added, “How can I look into unreported issues?”

In other words, Halpern is skeptical of sexual harassment claims, but also wants to hear them—which could sound like a Catch-22 to anyone hoping to report an incident.

However, I think it's important to note a few contextualizing facts. Facebook is an immediate medium, where people often learn about a subject in real time on a comment thread and can change their messages to reflect what they've learned.

And, Halpern runs an institution, which puts her in a different boat than most of the commenters. Institutions shouldn’t dismiss claims of harassment or assault casually, but they also can’t believe complainants blindly—not because awoman might fabricate a claim from whole cloth, but because sometimes key details get obscured in reporting, as in this excellent Buzzfeed piece on harassment in the LA comedy scene.

Also, institutions do need an internal standard of what makes sexual harassment “real” However, the standard Halpern floats in her comment, of thinking someone is “asking for sexual favors,” feels like an overly high bar.

A day or two after the Facebook conversation, Halpern posted publicly on Facebook to say that she has heard from members of the comedy scene and plans to listen to them:

I have read your posts and listened to your messages. I'm listening to you now and I will continue to listen. Improv is...

Posted by Charna Halpern on Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Here's the full Imgur post of the previous thread:

Charna Halpern, owner of iO