'I've had men rub their genitals against me': female comedians on extreme sexism in standup

By Rachael Healy

‘If this was a normal office where, on your first day, someone higher up than you goes: ‘Here’s a list of guys in the office who might rape you,’ you would go straight to HR. But there’s no HR – there’s nowhere we can go to say this is happening,” says Laura Duddy, who started out in standup comedy last year.

“For new comics, it’s normal that a more established comic will give them a list of open-mic gigs to try,” says Ellie Calnan, who began standup 18 months ago. “Whereas for women, it’s: ‘Here’s the people and gigs to avoid.’”

Both were shocked to find they experienced sexism among men in the industry regularly, alongside less frequent but more serious sexual harassment, and that for established female artists this was considered a hazard of the job. Incidents ranged from misogynistic jokes on stage to sexual comments from people in power, and a chillingly common refrain – “I got off lightly” – in the face of physical harassment.

Already, Duddy has experienced a promoter making inappropriate advances while they were alone in a car. Calnan had a “creepy and uncomfortable” incident when she was publicly sexualised by a promoter. For women who have worked in UK comedy for longer, these stories are familiar. When allegations of sexual misconduct against US comedian Chris D’Elia (which he denies) emerged in June, people here used Twitter to disclose their experiences with men in the UK industry. Some had already spoken out about experiences within UK comedy in 2017, when the #MeToo movement went global. Some even created comedy shows about the problem.

Three years on, the industry has barely changed. Just this week, the presenter and comedian Hardeep Singh Kohli apologised on Twitter for making women feel “intimidated, undermined and undervalued”.

The UK comedy circuit consists of networks of promoters and venues where, theoretically, anyone can take to the stage, with the hopes of progressing to dedicated comedy clubs, solo tours and TV. Yet, according to female performers, producers, agents and promoters in comedy I have spoken to, there is a deeply rooted sexism in the comedy scene that undermines the confidence and humanity of women, emboldens sexual predators and prevents people from speaking out.

Portrait of Fern Brady on stage at the Soho Theatre. Photograph: Alecsandra Raluca Dragoi for the Guardian
‘You do so much to play down your femaleness’ … Fern Brady. Photograph: Alecsandra Raluca Drăgoi/The Guardian

The industry is still male-dominated. Acts describe a vicious cycle where despite more women now trying open-mic comedy, numbers are thinned out higher up by promoters who never book more than one woman per show and use the comparative lack of famous female comics as “evidence” women aren’t funny. Almost everyone has been belittled on stage. Fern Brady is one of multiple comedians who experienced a compere shouting ‘I shagged her’ after her performance.

Taking the stage after sexist jokes have been told is also common and sets the tone for conduct in the green room. Kate Smurthwaite, who has been a comedian for 16 years, says the job provides a foil; if people are being “toxic and sexist, they go: ‘It’s supposed to be a joke.’” Ania Magliano, who has performed comedy for around three years, recalls a friend confronting a comedian’s inappropriate behaviour: “He said he was doing it in character.”

Women describe feeling pressured to brush off misconduct in order to fit in. “You had to have the blinkers on and laugh about insane stuff,” Brady says. “You do so much to play down your femaleness – I wore a little suit jacket, I wouldn’t wear earrings – but sexual assault firmly puts you back in your place.”

Standup Alison Spittle agrees: “We keep getting told we’re not funny enough – you feel you have to be too funny to assault. I thought: ‘If I work hard enough, I can be treated with respect.’ But it never ends.”

Within comedy’s unregulated power structure, progression depends on networking and impressing gatekeepers. When new acts meet a comedian or promoter who says they’ll help their career, it sounds like a great opportunity. However, women described to me how professional interactions were quickly sexualised.

Nina Gilligan began standup in 2011. Not long after she started, she was invited to perform a paid corporate gig by a man in the industry who had offered to help further her comedy career. He had been calling her frequently, making her feel uncomfortable, but the nature of the gig reassured her that his intentions were professional. He told her the job came with hotel accommodation: “I arrived and asked the front desk where I would be sleeping. They told me I’d be sharing a room with him.”

Gilligan was alarmed. Two women overheard and said she could stay in their room. She confronted the man before the show – he “bluffed” his way out of responsibility.

After the show, once she’d had too many drinks to escape by car, he sexually assaulted her: “I remember thinking, I need to get away from him.”

Unable to find the women who had offered their room, another comedian pointed her to a dormitory with spare beds. “I woke up to this man who had abused me earlier in the night in bed with me. He had his hands on me. I was like: ‘Get out!’ I remember curling up in a ball at the end of the bed. I woke up again as it was coming light – he was in the bed again with his hands on me.”

‘The hotel staff told me I’d be sharing a room with this man’ ... Nina Gilligan.
‘The hotel staff told me I’d be sharing a room with this man’ ... Nina Gilligan. Photograph: Rara photography

Gilligan later discovered that other women had had negative experiences with this man. Being new to the circuit when he approached her, she hadn’t heard the stories in time.

Knowing the limitations of the “whisper network”, some women speak directly to new performers. Brady says: “I’m giving advice to my younger self: ‘You’re not imagining this. It is as bad as you think it is.’” Spittle adds: “I would like to have coffee with new women where they ask for advice about jokes instead of: ‘Which gigs do I not do so I don’t get assaulted?’”

Working conditions can exacerbate the issues: late nights, alcohol, travelling with strangers. Robyn Perkins, a standup for eight years, has experienced the danger of power imbalances in these situations. As a new comic, she was driven three hours to a gig by an established male comedian. On the drive back, he groped her: “I was in the middle of the motorway, alone in a car with this guy. I didn’t want it to happen, but because of the power dynamic, if I’d gone: ‘This is not OK’, he could’ve made me get out of the car on the motorway at midnight.” She also feared he would tell the promoter they had worked for not to book her again.

Kate Smurthwaite
‘If people are being sexist, they say “It’s supposed to be a joke”’ ... Kate Smurthwaite. Photograph: Charlotte Barnes

Some promoters offer their spare rooms to performers who cannot get home. On one occasion when Smurthwaite accepted, the promoter crept up on her in the kitchen, put his hands on her and called her a “porn star”. But she has also experienced similar behaviour in more public settings, including: “guys getting their genitals out and rubbing them against me, things where there is no interpretation of events that isn’t: ‘This is sexual assault.’”

The women I spoke to described how the “grey area” of some incidents stopped them reporting. Others don’t want an assault to define them, so keep it to themselves. Many agreed that raising concerns leads to loss of work and online abuse, or felt invalidated after confiding in colleagues, only to see them continue to work with alleged perpetrators. “What you see on Twitter is only the tip of the iceberg,” Magliano says. “Remember that some people aren’t coming forward – there are lots who don’t feel safe and people who are legally unable to.” The lack of HR structures or a comedy industry union means most don’t know where to turn. This leaves some with a burden of guilt that the man in question will strike again.

“Often, it’s not safe to come forward, because the victim just doesn’t get booked again,” says Perkins.

When Spittle spoke publicly of misconduct, she received abuse from anonymous accounts on Twitter. She says that there are places where she can no longer work. “People mistake professionalism for being quiet,” she says. “But it is professional to try and improve working conditions. I hope people who speak out are not treated as troublemakers. It’s the opposite – the abusers should be seen as trouble.”

Magliano says this aspect of comedy culture needs to change: “There has to be industry-wide action that shows women who speak out against abusers won’t be seen as ‘difficult’. It’s hard when you’re doing something you enjoy for your career to then do something that would jeopardise it.”

Kiri Pritchard-McLean performs at the Women In Comedy Festival Fundraiser, a UK government pilot testing comedy show, at the Frog and Bucket Comedy Club on July 29, 2020 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Carla Speight/Getty Images)
‘You’re constantly weighing up how much morality your career can withstand’ ... Kiri Pritchard-McLean. Photograph: Carla Speight/Getty Images

Kiri Pritchard-McLean says she avoids working with men she knows have harassed others, but this means losing work: “You’re constantly weighing up how much morality your career can withstand.” She stresses that performers shouldn’t be put in this position.

The cumulative trauma of assault and its aftermath forces some women out of the industry. “I’m close friends with someone who had to stop doing comedy for her own mental health due to an assault,” says Spittle. “She’s one of the funniest people I know and loved comedy so much. It’s so sad.”

Some comedians find the courage to speak publicly and even name those who have assaulted or harassed them, only to face warning letters from legal teams.

“What you see on Twitter is only the tip of the iceberg,” Magliano says. “Remember that some people aren’t coming forward – there are lots who don’t feel safe, maybe haven’t even processed what they’ve gone through, and people who are legally unable to.”

Many are disgusted to see revelations about people they respected, and by the hypocrisy of men they know are sexist making public posts condemning harassment. “People you look towards to be allies aren’t necessarily,” Pritchard-McLean says. “We don’t know yet if people are willing to make themselves uncomfortable. Who wants to believe their friend is a predator?”

Some of those I spoke to expressed concern that ousting a few individuals from comedy would not be enough; there must, instead, be systemic change.

The suspension of live comedy during the pandemic has allowed for some action. New industry body the Live Comedy Association set up a task force in June to tackle “systemic misconduct”. The group is not currently able to handle individual complaints, but provides a list of resources on its website, is drafting a code of conduct for its members, and is researching how venues, promoters and producers could create policies on sexual harassment.

Promoters and producers have been discussing concrete ways to make nights safer. The Stand comedy clubs in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Newcastle are among the first to announce new anti-harassment policies. The venues have pledged to never book acts who have behaved inappropriately, and will begin issuing performers and staff with a code of conduct.

Anna Richardson, a producer and promoter who co-runs the London alternative comedy night Permitted Fruit, says it’s “not rocket science”. If a promoter hears rumours of misconduct on the part of a performer: “You have to decide what behaviour you think is acceptable, what level of proof you have to have to not book somebody. My opinion is: there are so many comedians out there, I don’t need to book those grey areas. I’m not saying that if you book them, you’re wrong, you just have to take responsibility for your choices.”

This means mitigating risk with, for example, private changing cubicles, being alert to intimidating behaviour and checking in discreetly with anyone who appears uncomfortable. “But you should be doing those things anyway,” Richardson says.

“One member of the team is going to be an HR rep who can deal with things on a case-by-case basis if someone’s got a concern or complaint,” says Martin Willis, founder of production company Objectively Funny. “We talked about the importance of that person not being the person doing the booking.”

The company is also planning responses to scenarios including abuse during online shows and allegations emerging about an act it has booked. “We want to make sure it’s not a knee-jerk response,” Willis says. “There’s more to supporting people than just barring people.”

Comedians including Ruth Hunter, Gilligan and Pritchard-McLean are creating agreements for clubs and promoters to adopt. “I would love for comedy clubs to have a kitemark of safety which says they have sexual harassment protocol,” Pritchard-McLean says. “If it gets out that they’re not interested in that, don’t think comedians won’t say, and punters will think: ‘I don’t want to go anywhere comedians don’t feel safe.’”

She is also planning a mentoring programme, where new women and non-binary acts are paired with established comedians, to try to avoid the kind of abuses of unofficial mentorship experienced by others.

While such measures could prevent future misconduct, many performers are living with the trauma of harassment they have already experienced. Magliano is setting up a support group for survivors. She is consulting experts on the best way to run it and wants to create “a safe and confidential space for people to talk … and know they’re not alone”.

She says: “I hope talking to each other in a way that allows for open conversation will go some way to starting the healing process.”