A working group has been set up to address sexual assault and harassment in New Zealand's comedy scene. Ruby Esther reveals her experiences starting out at 17 and asks whether an inquiry will make a difference
We have a whisper network about them. About members of the New Zealand comedy industry who we should not be alone with in the green room, who we should not accept lifts home from and who we should never drink around.
I came into this industry at 17 and was introduced to the normalcy of text messages warning me about men I was on line-ups with. Now, at 21, I am also an author of those texts. But finally, we've been promised change.
With the announcement that a working group has been established to investigate sexual abuse and misconduct in the industry, I think I feel hopeful. I feel hopeful that it will no longer be the sole responsibility of female and non-binary comedians to simply "not get assaulted" and to "think about the company you may be in". I just can't tell if that feeling of hope in the process is naive.
The established group is made up of a mix of male and female comics, producers and other key members of the industry. It is a group made up of people the majority of the industry wholeheartedly trust, myself included. Already they have announced that new policies will be taking place, sexual harassment prevention training is being undertaken, resources to be shared with all venues and producers are being developed and all of this is being done under the guidance of sexual harassment prevention consultants.
These are fantastic steps. Comedy creates a unique environment in the sense that the line between work and social life often blurs. We have no HR department, we're allowed to drink on the job and there is zero vetting or police checking as you progress up the ranks from rookie to professional. So these steps feel like a move toward establishing clear, professional boundaries.
However, though the members of this working group are people we trust, the individuals in the industry to whom victims chose to come forward and disclose their assaults to in the past were also once trusted.
What did they do with that trust? Obliterated it. They listened to personal accounts from close friends and colleagues, only to dismiss those traumatic accounts as "just his sense of humour".
As someone who was met with this exact phrase after revealing that, backstage, another comic informed me he preferred sex when girls said no — and having him then go on to attempt to assault me a year later — I can confirm these incidents are not just punchlines. They are an attitude. Ignored sexual comments stimulate an environment for sexual assault to also be ignored and dismissed, not so much as a sense of humour but as not serious enough if we aren't willing to involve the police. The attitude needs to change.
I think it is possible to implement the aforementioned actions of the working group without caring why those actions are being implemented. It is clear that to some members of the comedy industry, the sudden public exposition of sexual abuse is a problem to be managed, not cared about.
For survivors it is nightmares and panic attacks, a mistrust in everyone. But for those who are high up enough in the industry, it is a blip in a business plan. They will put in place these new policies and procedures but will their attitudes and their understanding change?
For the people in these positions of power, the establishment of the working group and its planned actions projects the idea that everything before now is null and void. That is incredibly unjust. The idea that these offenders face no consequences is nauseating when victims are facing so many.
I have to take anxiety medication before each gig — not because I'm nervous about performing — but because I'm terrified of what incident will occur this time.
There is a pool of comedic talent we have missed out on because women and non-binary newbies were made to feel unsafe and unwelcome within their first few open-mics; there are rapists on international television. Known in the industry for several assaults, the man who victimised me is not being banned from comedy but will simply never be put on a line-up with me again — as though there is some high school feud between us and not a crime. None of this is just.
I am ecstatic to see the working group implement changes that will make it safer and more welcoming for newer comics but I will not quietly watch past incidents and survivors be swept under the rug as though they were casualties in a trial run of comedy clubs.
As is with most professions (legal, political, entertainment), abuse stems from the top. Thus, that is where we need to see change.
Threatened with lawsuits of slander and defamation, victims have been silenced by perpetrators and men in positions of power need to stand by us and help break that silence.
I feel lucky to have established some wonderful relationships through comedy, some of whom have already shown solidarity by removing particular comics from line-ups or marketing and backing those of us who have spoken out.
Words cannot describe how edifying it is to be believed and to be supported in this issue. The bar to be considered a "good guy" in comedy is incredibly low.
For most of us, by the time we enter the comedy industry, sexual assault and harrassment are not new concepts. I was 12 when I found out what they were. But in this industry, it is as blatant as having women on a conveyor belt waiting for their turn.
The working group is going to throw a spanner in the works but it is not going to be the only solution. We need everyone to care — and right now, they don't.