Content Warning for sexual assault. If you need assistance, call 1800 RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or Lifeline on 13 11 14. For clarity, in this article violence is defined as intentional or negligent behaviour that results in physical or sexual harm.
Over the past three years, a plethora of think pieces have called out sexual and physical violence within music scenes alongside the groundswell of requests to end gender disparity on festival lineups. And earlier this year, The Industry Observer released an open letter penned by Australian women working in music that detailed an unnerving amount of sexual assault and harassment within the workforce.
It’s no wonder then that more bands are joining the collective push to create safer spaces and gender equity. Each and every facet of the industry and of DIY communities has a role to play – we need a holistic approach to dealing with perpetrators of violence.
What can you do if you’re playing the show?
“When you’re onstage, you are setting the mood of the event,” explains guitarist and vocalist of Melbourne act Wet Lips, Grace Kindellan, “[You’re] giving everyone permission to behave in a certain way.”
When talking to different people – both bands and sociologists – about the ways violent behaviour could be prevented or de-escalated, it’s oft debated how much power musicians actually have.
“Bands can have a really central role to play in changing the culture at festivals,” says Dr Bianca Fileborn, a UNSW lecturer in criminology and one of the researchers behind the university’s new study on sexual harassment and assault at Australian music festivals. “Some of our participants have commented that they really appreciate it when bands take a stand against sexual harassment and assault, and encourage the audience to look out for each other – they felt that this did foster more respectful audience behaviour.”
Kindellan helped curate one of the hut stages at last year’s Gizzfest, where she witnessed a group of young men pushing into people at Hexdebt’s set, giving one woman a bloody nose. She describes the rest of the day as “a constant battle” to try and prevent drunk men from being aggressive towards the audience and disrespecting performers; her friend endured hours of victim-blaming while reporting her experience of sexual assault.
Kindellan witnessed King Gizzard and The Lizard Wizard stop and ask their audience to take care of each other during their set, and then continue to play to a heavy-handed mosh. “When you start the set with a statement about being respectful of the bodies around you, then you call out violent behaviour in the crowd and refuse to play the rest of your set until it stops, then you are sending a message that violence is not ok and will not be tolerated as part of live music,” she explains. “That’s what Blake Scott and The Peep Tempel do and it works.”
Maintaining crowd-control from the stage doesn’t come without challenges. “The bigger the venue, the less likely you are to be able to see and directly intervene when you see something going wrong,” says Sadie Dupuis, the lyricist and guitarist for Speedy Ortiz, who created a help hotline for punters to use during their shows. “It’s not just about one band calling out harassment from the stage, it’s about everyone who goes to concerts becoming a little more aware of how their behaviour impacts those around them.”
Dupuis says of her motives to start the hotline: “from age 13 to my mid-20s, I’d been touched inappropriately and without consent in a crowd,” and “[at times] I had no way of reporting harassment to a venue because the person harassing me worked for the venue.”
“When we headline, we also print safer space guidelines, bystander intervention and conflict de-escalation strategies… that does a lot to set a tone for the night,” Dupuis explains. They’ve since been approached by bands, promoters and festivals that want to implement similar tactics at shows; and Melbourne’s Camp Cope started their own hotline during Laneway Festival last year.
“Perpetrators have been able to use the crowded nature of these spaces to get away with touching people,” explains Dr Fileborn. “It’s also been really difficult for participants to do anything about these experiences, as they often don’t know who’s responsible. Perpetrators can easily disappear into the crowds – this makes responding to incidents extremely difficult.”
Aisyiyah, vocalist of Arafura and former soundie of Blackwire Records, echoes this. “There is either nobody to report to or it’s just so ingrained that victims are made to feel weak or whiney if they make a fuss over it. It’s a hard thing to turn into statistics so wider audiences who aren’t subject to violence are unaware of the severity of it.”
She says that promotional material needs to explicitly denounce hostility. “It may not be very attractive from a marketing perspective, but it’s very important to make it known that you want people to have fun and be safe and that you’ll stick up for them if need be.”
What’s wrong with stirrin’ up a pit?
It’s important to be mindful that the people around you might have a more complicated relationship towards violence than you do, and that won’t always be visible to you. I love having a good dance and getting a bit silly at gigs – but please don’t drag or push me into your drunk and sweaty shove-fest.
For one, women and LGBT+ people are statistically more likely to have experienced discriminatory, sexual and domestic violence outside of shows, and people of colour and trans women are disproportionately subjected to physical violence. And coming into contact with these forms of aggression when you’re just out to have a good night can result in re-traumatisation.
Not to mention living with post-traumatic stress disorder can mean some punters may have flashbacks and even become reactive in attempt to protect themselves: all this can happen while a perp just thinks they’re having harmless fun. Your aggression-induced adrenaline rush shouldn’t take priority over someone’s right not to relive some of the worst moments of their life; and live music should, at the very least, have a red hot go of giving minorities a tension release too.
“I don’t think able-bodied people even consider that there are disabled or chronically ill people at gigs.”
“I don’t think able-bodied people even consider that there are disabled or chronically ill people at gigs most of the time,” says Nancy Vera, trumpeter and vocalist of ensemble FRUIT, who has hypermobility spectrum disorder and neuropathy.
The ensemble’s main composer Jessica Corcoran also has the former disorder, and says of people pushing and shoving, “I feel threatened, like it’s a physical challenge of who is ‘tough’ enough to cop being pushed around or knocked into – and this doesn’t take into account that being shoved can easily mean an injury for me due to my compromised joints. I become hyper-aware of the threat of injury to myself and others and tune out from the band.”
“I’ve been groped at shows many times – one time was during Royal Headache at The Imperial, another time was at Black Vanilla at Goodgod,” says Aisyiyah. As an Indonesian woman, she couldn’t tell whether the perpetrator’s motives were racial, but she explains that “brown women’s bodies are more likely to be subjected to violence because we are perceived to be submissive and are constantly fetishised.”
“Our experiences of physical violence on a personal level may not be more prominent, [but] we definitely face different kinds of discrimination and marginalisation on multiple levels that are more insidious and scary,” Aisyiyah explains. She brings up the nature of state violence, which has a history of targeting people of colour, LGBT+ folk and people from poorer backgrounds.
Brown women’s bodies are more likely to be subjected to violence because we are perceived to be submissive and are constantly fetishised.
“There needs to be an acknowledgement that violence doesn’t just happen on an interpersonal level and that police and security aren’t always there to ‘protect’ us,” she explains. “We have to find alternatives to police – we can collaborate with local restorative justice groups, rape crisis centres, social workers, mental health professionals, youth workers, community safe houses who are all there to help minimise violence without resorting to even more physical violence and arrest.”
Is genre an aggravating factor?
“Rock – at least certain strains of it, and perhaps the most popular strains of it – has this stupid macho oppressive history. I can’t wait ’til rock is excised from that grossness,” says Dupuis.
We really only need to look at comments coming from our own backyard for proof: last year, INXS’s Kirk Pengilly said he misses the days where he “could slap a woman on the butt and it [be] taken as a compliment, not as sexual harassment.” I guess it’s easy to confuse the social pressure to please men in power (rather than admit discomfort) with flattery when you’re a rich, cis-male, white old rock-dog. Yeah, poor Kirk.
Aisyiyah says, “I definitely experience different crowd behaviours moving across genres but at the end of the day, I’ve seen people thrashing about carelessly and ignorantly at overtly feminist shows when the band is like: ‘Hey everyone, don’t be violent!’” She explains that this is why there needs to be proactive protocols in place by venues and promoters.
And Dr Fileborn adds, “It’s really difficult to know if certain ‘types’ of bands result in more sexualised or aggressive behaviour, and it’s important not to demonise specific sub-cultural groups as this is likely to be counterproductive and lead to defensive responses. It’s possibly more the case that different types of bands or music are able to be taken advantage of by perpetrators in different ways.”
My white, hetero cis-dudes: please speak up
My attempts to contact acts that have recurring and, at times, bizarrely aggressive moshes, were either met with silence or a “we’ll have to politely decline,” – even after I explained I wasn’t interested in starting a witch hunt and was instead trying to open a dialogue.
It’s fair to say that we (media, especially) put more pressure and emotional labour on women, trans folk and people of colour to talk about their experiences of violence, than the (predominantly, but not always) straight white men who actively engage in it: and that’s gotta change.
More dudes need to come out of the woodwork and be amicable to listening, learning and speaking up. “I don’t think it’s challenging to want to do the right thing, which is why I have so little tolerance for bands that promote any kind of violence with their music, and for artists who don’t directly condemn it,” explains Dupuis.
The bigger picture
Of one of the more minor (and it’s still not really that minor) cases of sexual assault I’ve endured at a show is a dude knowingly grinding his boner against me while watching The Smith Street Band. And he had room to move; he could have easily inched away – it’s fucking repulsive.
When unwanted sexualised attention within music spaces feels so repetitive, all those experiences become compounded. You start to feel like that’s your role in that space – to be consumed in some form or another, rather than to participate.
Grace Kindellan says, “We live in a patriarchal society where masculinity and power are conflated with aggression, violence and a lack of compassion. Men are conditioned to give up part of their humanity and see caring as weakness.
“When a young man beats up or sexually assaults a woman or a trans person, they get ‘boys will be boys’. Patriarchal violence is everywhere; live music is just another venue for it.”
How can everyone help out?
Participating in music is obviously not this deep, dark well of despair – otherwise I wouldn’t be making it and working within it. But it is important to consistently challenge ourselves; to compassionately call each other out without becoming apologists for oppressive behaviour, and to give space for healing and growth.
“When bills are booked with all white, cis-male lineups, that gross mentality of rock as an aggressive boys’ club is reinforced,” says Dupuis. “There are only men onstage, so why should women in the crowd be met with respect?”
Dupuis also encourages fans to email her, the label, the promoter and the booking agents when they have booked a known abuser – but only when it’s safe to share that information. “I’ve gladly dropped off shows on more than one occasion upon learning (from fans who e-mailed me!) that a promoter or venue had stood behind an abuser or a bigot.”
Bands can have a really central role to play in changing the culture.
When it comes to frontline support for survivors and victims, Creative Interventions explains it’s important to listen to their stories without placing blame.
On the perp side, the community intervention toolkit states it’s important – and this is only if you have the emotional energy and it’s safe to do so – to give perps the opportunity to “recognise, end and be responsible for their violence.”
It’s not just about music. Change starts with better sexual education in schools, with updates to policy in workplaces and for reports to be taken seriously. And safer spaces are limited; there’s always gonna be a chance something will go wrong at a show. But the point is to try to be an ally in diminishing rates and to give room for more empathetic and compassionate spaces to share art in. I think that’s a pretty cool thing to be a part of.