Content Warning: This article contains discussion of sexual assault. If you, or someone you know are affected by the issues outlined below, please know that you are not alone. If you are in need of immediate support, seek it by calling VictimSupport on 0808 1689111 or Rape Crisis on 0808 802 9999. Local assistance can be found at the Topaz Centre (Nottingham’s Sexual Assault Referral Centre). Alternatively, Nottingham Women’s Centre offers a wide range of counselling services.
Last year, The Mic reported on the culture of sexual misconduct in the music industry, highlighting the experiences of harassment endured by several female musicians. As readers will be all too aware, the conversation around women’s safety has rightfully intensified this year, coinciding with a worrying rise in reports of harassment and assault. The culture of sexual misbehaviour extends far beyond the corporate music industry, affecting live music audiences and nightclub patrons. Roxann Yus’ personal account below reveals that groping, verbal harassment, drink-spiking, and other violent behaviour at live music is still endemic.
Concerts are events where adrenaline is high- mosh pits and crowd surfing are par the course. Many artists encourage mosh pits and crowd surfing, and that is just as much a part of the gig experience as the music itself. But what if they can cause just as much harm as enjoyment? Or even make fans vulnerable to sexual harassment? As an avid gig-goer, I have unfortunately, but not unexpectedly, experienced and witnessed harm and harassment at gigs.
The frequency of these incidents leads me to a number of considerations. Should I attribute it to the fact that I am a woman, that I am not as equipped as my male counterparts to withstand the physical experience of being in a rowdy gig crowd- that this should make me more susceptible to harm? I’m forced to consider whether I should really be attending such events without a man by my side. Or even that is it perceived that my feminine appearance indicates that I cannot ‘really be into rock and metal music’? Not least the thought that I should have to stand on the side to avoid harassment.
"Because who am I to know if it is an accident, or who even touched me, in such a frenzied environment?"
I want to explain some of my personal experiences before answering the important question of how we can all stay safe at gigs - which should be a key aim of the music community. Firstly, mosh pits. I often find myself retreating from them - after plucking up the confidence to get involved- because some men view them as an opportunity to aggressively assert dominance, and thus, kick, punch, and jump on any friendly participants of the circle. In other cases, the mosh pit presents perpetrators with an opportunity for groping. Because who am I to know if it is an accident, or who even touched me, in such a frenzied environment? Even if it is accidental, it is uncomfortable enough for me to retreat and exclude myself from an experience I actively want to be a part of.
Secondly, crowd surfing presents a multitude of dangers for both the crowd surfer and crowd. For the crowd-surfer, these include the risk of being dropped, as well as groped (again). Meanwhile, for the crowd, the risks include being kicked, as well as being crushed under someone’s weight. In my own experience in the crowd, I have been kicked and unable to support the weight of a surfer. Both of these risks manifest themselves at a gig I recently attended: I was sharply kicked in the face by heavy boots, and then trampled by the crowd surfer; this was an extremely unpleasant experience and led to a panic attack. This is by far the most extreme example of harm at a concert that I have endured, but nonetheless I doubt it is not an isolated experience that only I am familiar with.
Thirdly, is the most pernicious form of harm common at gigs, sexual harassment. Oftentimes it can be casual: such as a person walking past you, and for some reason feeling entitled to use your hips as a lever. In other instances, it is more overt: I was groped very inappropriately at a concert last year and, despite my physical resistance, the perpetrator would not let go. My boyfriend noticed and intervened, which led to him being pulled up face-to-face by his shirt with an invitation to fight.
It’s clear from the trauma of this incident that explicit aggression at gigs is most often directed towards men. Such an experience has affected my attitude towards the bands who played, despite their lack of control. I connect the incident with their music, and therefore find myself skipping their songs whenever they play.
When women, like myself, choose to enter the pit, we consent to a violence that is inextricably tied to some ‘alpha struggle’. It is a place that is not designed to include feminine presenting people: why would we be eligible to compete for alpha-status? Our presence seems confined to un-violent activities that submit us to secondary status, such as ones we don’t even have a role in instigating, like sexual harassment. The presentation of men as aggressive beings and women as sexual ones are macrocosmic: treatment within the most community-driven spaces are still dominated by wider stereotypes.
Importantly, when harm of any nature occurs at concerts, women are often the victims. We fall victim because for so long we have not been invited into this masculine arena. Our invitation into fun gig activities require a change of the status quo, or else we must suddenly build up decades of experience and confidence to handle the chaos of live music.
In the past few years many artists have addressed the issue head-on by slapping posters on the walls that any verbal or physical abuse will not be tolerated (Nova Twins); introducing signals for a timeout if anybody needs help (Boston Manor); or even stopping the show to help someone in the crowd (Billie Eilish; Death Blooms). These efforts are symbols of solidarity and not only make us feel safe in their space, but they also deflect disrespectful people out of them. Despite the impact that an artist’s solidarity can have on the audience they attract, there are other actors who stay silent on such matters, and by this I refer to the venues themselves. Indifferent security personnel are too often permitted to ‘police’ such events. Individual safety cannot be guaranteed, particularly in venues that host great capacities: neither artist nor security can really witness what goes on.
If my partner beside me cannot see me kicked to the floor by a crowd surfer, how can the people who are paid to protect me be expected to? Efforts from artists contribute greatly to the behaviour of the audience but unless venues can ensure that people of all genders have equal protection through increased security, nothing changes.
"Music cannot have a dominator: it as equally a part of my life as it is the next person"
My main conclusion is that masculine presenting people fall naturally on the side of experienced and confident gig-goers because society has tethered their identity to an aggression that is present in all dominating situations. Music cannot have a dominator: it as equally a part of my life as it is the next person. I hope that these environments will no longer require the prerequisite of experience and confidence to be valid and rather be borne from mutual energy, but until then I can only praise the work of artists trying to make gigs safer. We should be grateful to have live music back, but let’s not squander the opportunity to make it safe and enjoyable for everyone.
Edited by: Gemma Cockrell
Featured image courtesy of Elfike via Flickr.