Female comedians have a WhatsApp blacklist of predatory men. It's time for our MeToo moment

As accusations of sexual harassment emerge from the comedy world, Stevie Martin explains why her industry desperately needs its MeToo moment

Stevie Martin writes on the sexual abuse and harassment endemic in the comedy world
Stevie Martin writes on the sexual abuse and harassment endemic in the comedy world Credit: Natasha Pszenicki

In 2018, I was invited to join a Whatsapp group that acted as a safe space for hundreds of female comedians to discuss and help each other. I left it a month later, at 5am. 

It was excellent. Five stars. Members of the group launched the ‘Home Safe Collective’ to make sure comics - women, trans women and non-binary - could get cabs home safely during late night shows at the Edinburgh Fringe. But I left the group because the things these women had gone through terrified me. I started to feel panicky whenever I heard my phone ping. 

There were stories of promoters harassing them, intimidation and bullying backstage, groping and snide comments by MCs, gigs to avoid and venues to steer clear of. The ‘Home Safe Collective’ itself was started after the murder of Australian comedian Eurydice Dixon as she walked home after a gig. It seemed like this was just part of the female comedy landscape, and rather than getting any help, it was up to women to solve it. To protect themselves. Because nobody else seemed to be. Our MeToo moment just didn’t seem to be happening.

This week, Harvey Weinstein’s case was settled in New York, with the Attorney General setting up a $19m fund for some of his victims and releasing them from their non-disclosure agreements. For some, this will signify the “completion” of MeToo. The abusive figurehead of that 2017 movement - where abuse in the entertainment industry was finally exposed, and women far and wide shared their stories - has been brought down.

So I guess it’s over now, right?

MeToo was supposed to get the ball rolling. But while the ball rolled and flattened some predators, it only seemed to brush off a few famous comedians, bounce off Louis CK, and stop. What happened? Well, nothing. 

Until last month, when the outing of another American comedian, Chris D’Elia, as an alleged sexual harasser sparked a conversation on Twitter about abuse in comedy here in the UK. From rape to unwanted green room fondling to using alcohol to coerce without consent, women started sharing their stories - and a Whatsapp-based blacklist began circulating of predatory male comics and promoters. It’s growing every day. 

The movement reached a wider audience when Katharine Ryan (one of the few female comedian household names) sarcastically tweeted: ‘Not sure why women in British comedy are sharing so many stories here when we could easily tackle the issue on one of our zero primetime entertainment TV shows’. 

The path to said primetime entertainment TV shows appears to be littered with, at worst, sexual abuse, and at best, a corrosive environment. Shappi Khorsandi has written this week about how, in her early 20s, when she arrived at a gig, a male comedian joked, ‘’Oh here she is, I’ll get the knife, you get the duct tape’. 

This undermines you. Then you have to go on stage and be just as funny as those people who haven’t just been the butt of a gag about being murdered - which is different to “banter”, because it’s a real possibility. 

When I started out in comedy, as part of a female sketch group, it was depressing. A male MC once introduced us saying: “Next up is a sketch group and, oh, it’s all women. I hope they’re funny”. We were constantly questioned over whether we wrote our own material, something my then boyfriend, also a sketch comedian, was never asked. During a televised live show, I waited in the wings, while my sketch partners were on stage, watching the most famous comedian on the bill mime-masturbate over their images on the monitor.

Because of these experiences, we stepped away from the 'circuit' and would only do gigs run by trusted friends, or ones we had organised ourselves. This is something I continued when I went solo, relying on income from voiceovers and podcasts rather than regular gigs and while it's much nicer, it creates a barrier between me and the comedy industry that I'm sure hasn't done me any favours.

Listening to the experience of other female comedians, my experience is low level. If there were an Olympic games of trauma, this would be a seat right at the back, behind a pillar. But behaviour doesn't have to be physically violent to be damaging. I recently found out about a male comic who paid other male comics (performing at a comedy night he ran) with phone numbers of female comedians, rather than cash. How are we supposed to feel respected, and even a part of, a community that appears to view us as sport? 

A few months ago, the Live Comedy Association (LCA) was set up by industry members to act as a much-needed governing body. Last week it had the brilliant idea of creating a committee specifically to tackle abuse - a sort of HR department. A welcome solution if run effectively.

Shappi Khorsandi has spoken about being the butt of rape and murder jokes in her 20s on the comedy circuit Credit: Clara Molden

But it’s hard to run it effectively. A comedian elected as LCA comics rep was asked to step down after stories circulated about his alleged abusive behaviour. Another comic, who put himself forward to replace said comedian, then also stepped down, as accusations were made that he was a sex pest. Background checks need to happen for all members of the board because harassers often position themselves as allies. Checks have to, of course, be put in place for the accusations themselves, too; I've seen “give us names, and we'll blacklist them, no questions asked” tweets, which completely undermines the concept of justice.  

On the other hand, I’m gagging to run a gig where we all perform with the blacklist names scrawled in pen over our bodies so it’s probably best I’m not in charge of this. 

As the Whatsapp blacklist grows, one glaring issue is that some of these men aren’t famous. The comic, chef and presenter Hardeep Singh Kohli has been accused by several women of unwanted sexual advances and this has been reported in the media. A few other “names” I’m sure will follow, but most people outside of the comedy scene wouldn’t recognise the others. 

So will this really be a tipping point? Will anyone help us this time? Or will women have to continue to do all the work, warning each other of gigs to avoid, laughing and brushing off jokes about being raped and killed, walking on stage with a smile after being made to feel small and vulnerable? 

The LCA is a great start but we need male comedians to help us, too. Show solidarity on social media, speak up when inappropriate jokes are made backstage, report abusive behaviour to promoters. Promoters, you need to ban these men. We just want to do our jobs. It’s difficult being funny, or feeling like you deserve to be on that stage, when you’ve just had your backside grabbed. But it doesn’t have to be like this, which is why we need to all pull together, to keep this ball rolling.

Stevie Martin co-hosts the podcast 'Nobody Panic', which is available on all major podcast platforms.