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Comedian Beth Stelling Speaks Out About An Abusive Relationship On Instagram

The week before Christmas, comedian Sara Schaefer posted a single tweet that, for a brief period of time, broke the Internet. It was a simple tweet, really — funny and true, but nothing overly controversial, a “to-do list” for female comics that pointed out the double standards faced by women in comedy, including, “be funny,” “don’t turn 40,” “be feminist,” ‘but not too feminist!,” and, most tellingly, “don’t! criticize! men! in! your! business!”

Schaefer recounted the experience over at the Huffington Post, explaining, “I didn’t think it was going to be that big of a deal. I sat in a diner and scribbled it down, and posted it, chuckling to myself.” But, she writes, the list came from a place of honesty, frustration, and exhaustion with navigating the constant stream of bullshit she’s subject to as a female comic in a male-dominated industry. “I was thinking of the discussion and criticism surrounding female comedians in the press, the expectations society has, and the things people — friends, coworkers, audience members, strangers, industry types, agents, managers — have said to me over the 14 years I’ve been doing this. And in that moment, I just felt so tired.”

Though many women (and men) joyfully retweeted Schaefer’s tweet, the response was, in large part, troll-y and enraged. “I’m told I am making this up,” writes Schaefer of the replies she received, “that I’m complaining too much; that I’m a sexist; that I’m the source of the problem; that I’m a bitch, annoying, a child; I’m ugly; that I’m a failure and making excuses for it; that someone should cum on my face.” Schaefer’s experience is emblematic of how frightening and near-impossible it is for female comedians (or a female, period) to express themselves online (or off) in a way that might not be “appealing” to men, that might suggest the scales are tipped, or that the system is broken and needs to be fixed.

Which makes Beth Stelling’s own social-media confession even braver than it already would’ve been. Yesterday, Stelling, an L.A.-based comedian who released a Comedy Central special and album called Simply the Beth earlier this year, opened up about being the survivor of an abusive relationship via Instagram. Alongside photos of her bruised and battered legs, Stelling wrote, “Same girl in all of these photos (me). I’ve had an amazing year and you’ve seen the highlights here, so these photos are an uncommon thing to share, but not an uncommon issue.”

Stelling explained that, up until recently, she’d been in an abusive relationship with a man she’d kept going back to. “When I broke up with my ex this summer, it wasn’t because I didn’t love him, it was because of this. And I absolutely relapsed and contacted him with things I shouldn’t have, but there are no ‘best practices’ with this…It’s embarrassing. I feel stupid. After being verbally, physically abused and raped, I dated him for two more months. It’s not simple.”

In addition to being afraid she’d look “weak or unprofessional,” Stelling was afraid to speak out about the abuse because her ex asked her not to, worried people would know who he was. Though she didn’t name him, she did reveal that he’s a “man in our L.A. comedy community”; her fear of criticizing him publicly echoes Schaefer’s point about being shunned for criticizing men in the business. “You’re very open and honest in your stand-up, and I just ask that you consider me when you talk about your ex because everyone knows who you’re talking about,” the ex told Stelling. “And I abided,” Stelling admits. “I wrote vague jokes because we both live in L.A. and I didn’t want to hurt him, start a war, press charges, be interrogated or harassed by him or his friends and family.”

Stelling decided to speak out, she wrote, when she realized it was “unhealthy” to keep it bottled up. “My stand-up is pulled directly from my life,” she said. “It’s how I make my living. My personal is my professional. That is how I’ve always been; I make dark, funny. So, now I’m allowing this to be part of my story.”

Soon after she began telling the story in her stand-up, Stelling revealed, “an ex-girlfriend of this ex-boyfriend came to me and shared that she experienced the same fate. Then there was another and another (men and women) who shared other injustices at his hand that.” As such, Stelling said she now feels responsible to talk about the abuse in her stand-up, to reach out and connect to other victims and to help herself heal. “Now I’m allowing this to be part of my story. It’s not my only story, so please don’t let it be. If you live in L.A., you’ve already started to hear my jokes about this and I ask you to have the courage to listen and accept it because I’m trying.”

It’s an approach that’s already working: “Already since talking about this onstage, many women have come to me after shows asking me to keep doing it,” Stelling wrote. And even a quick look at the thousands of replies on Stelling’s posts prove that she’s done a service to other women by pulling back the curtain on domestic abuse. “My sister endured over 20 years of battery from her husband and we never knew,” wrote one user. “She constantly was cracking people up with hilarious tales of her clumsy misadventures that had her in casts and bandages all the time. Humor hides a lot.” Another added, “I’ve been eight years out of that relationship. But I’m still ashamed and embarrassed for staying in it for four and a half years. I don’t ever talk about it. I can’t and don’t want to admit these things happened and I allowed it. It has taken a few tries to comment here. But I really want you to know that your voice, so publicly, is courageous.”

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