Not safe to surf

Sexual harassment at gigs is a problem many women feel forced to accept as a normal part of a musical night out says Antonia Charlesworth

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“Buying my album for $12 doesn’t mean you can finger me,” Iggy Azalea told her fans in an interview earlier this year. The singer revealed she had stopped crowdsurfing and put a barrier between her and her audiences at live shows because she was being repeatedly sexually violated.

Love her or hate her, Azalea has broken ground as a white, female Australian hip-hop artist in the mainstream. Sadly she is now coming up against an ingrained culture of misogyny in the genre, which often depicts violence against women, including assault, murder and rape. Under the hot stage lights she says she now wears two sets of underwear and a pair of flesh- coloured tights under her pants as a protective barrier.

Sexism isn’t confined to hip-hop though. The Big Issue in the North has spoken to female musicians from other genres who say they’ve been subject to sexual harassment at their own gigs. Singer-songwriter Kate Nash told us how she felt she let herself down by not challenging one man who groped her, and Joanna Gruesome’s Alanna McArdle described being made to feel vulnerable and unwelcome at her show in Manchester after a similar incident.

“A man grabbed my ass at the bar,” she recalls. “I was shocked. I felt completely humiliated and violated. Straight after it happened I went to sit in the dressing room on my own and didn’t come out for the rest of the night. I was too tired to feel like I could put up a fight and I just wanted to disappear.”

Being groped, verbally abused and leered at are things most women have been subjected to

There are many historic examples too. In 1991 Courtney Love stage- dived and by the time she returned to the stage she’d had her clothes ripped off and been assaulted several times, after which she penned her song Asking For It. At a Leeds University college ball in 2010 Florence Welch broke down?on stage after she was abused while crowdsurfing. More recently Perfect Pussy’s Meredith Graves said she felt “profoundly fucking unsafe” after she was groped. And at Rockfest earlier this year Staind frontman Aaron Lewis stopped mid-set to call out audience members who were molesting a teenage girl while she crowdsurfed.

Stories of sexual harassment amongst gig-goers are alarmingly commonplace and too often considered a normal part of a night out. Being groped, verbally abused and leered at are things many women admit to having been subjected to. One reader of The Big Issue in the North described being groped at a Stereophonics gig in Sheffield as annoying, but said she wasn’t that bothered as the man had had a few drinks.

It’s not going completely unchallenged though. LaDIYfest Sheffield is a community-based feminist collective aiming to open up discussion about this issue and others. Last Thursday McArdle was one of four panellists taking part in its Women Make Noise discussion, focusing on women’s experiences of music culture. Sheffield is also the first of the northern cities ?to welcome the Good Night Out campaign, which aims to tackle these unwelcome advances. It involves pubs and clubs pledging to take a zero-tolerance approach to sexual harassment and training their?staff to deal with complaints. The crowdfunded campaign is set to go nationwide, Sheffield being one of the first group of 14 towns and cities it was rolled out in last month.

“It’s about targeting the things that are perceived as normal,” explains Steph Ratcliffe, in charge of the Sheffield campaign. “You might not feel it is important enough to call the police about it but it’s inappropriate and unacceptable and exactly what we’re trying to stamp out.”

Posters are placed around the venue and in both men’s and women’s toilets encouraging victims to report harassment. Ratcliffe says the most important part of the training is ensuring staff get the initial response to a complaint right.

“Training focuses on listening in a non-judgmental way and not victim blaming – making comments about what the person is wearing or how much they’ve had to drink. It’s not about them playing judge and jury or deciding what counts as harassment – it’s about letting the individual decide what happens next.”

Ratcliffe has managed to get the three major independent gig venues in Sheffield on board – the Harley, Leadmill and Corporation. Ian Lawlor, acting general manager at the Leadmill, hopes the Good Night Out campaign will give customers the courage to speak up if it does happen to them, knowing that the venue will actually do something about it.

Many believe artists should do more to speak out against sexual harassment at live shows. Some though have been raging against this for a long time. In the 1990s the Riot Grrrl feminist punk movement saw bands addressing issues such as rape and domestic abuse. It was pioneered by the band Bikini Kill and at their shows frontwoman Kathleen Hanna would call for all girls to the front. This segregation was her solution to the violence and harassment she witnessed. But in an industry that judges women at every opportunity, it can be difficult for female artists to speak out.

What better way for men to push out women in music than by doing so at shows?

Welsh frontwoman McArdle agrees, saying that by being vocal on these issues she can see why other female artists aren’t.

“If I even mention sexism, the culture of violence at shows or talk about my experiences of suffering sexual assault at shows I am immediately shouted down. I’ve had rape threats because of it,” she says.

McArdle feels everything she tries to do is reduced to her gender. She is a “female vocalist”, good “for a girl”, constantly judged on her appearance.
“This confinement translates?to physical space and can do so incredibly fluidly at gigs. What better way for men to confine, isolate and push out women in music than by doing so physically at shows?”

She believes that it’s the same patriarchal forces that stop female artists from speaking out on these issues that keep victims from reporting them. “Live music audiences are made up of mostly men and so they have set the pace and the rules of gig spaces so far,” she says. “Sexual assault and violence are commonplace because it goes unpunished. It is deemed ‘part of the territory’ of being at a gig, and as we live in a patriarchal rape culture women will most likely feel that it was their fault.”

McArdle says bands are too complacent and are thus fostering a culture where this abuse can thrive – they need to start calling out this unacceptable behaviour when they see it.

Kate Nash, an unabashed feminist who says she has never felt pressurised not to talk about sexism but who?has been repeatedly ridiculed by the media for doing so, agrees that these incidents shouldn’t be seen as trivial.

“I think girls need to be aware of their rights and made aware that it’s not their fault. And the men that do this need to face more consequences,” Nash says, adding that she has dealt with “bad behaviour” in the crowd on numerous occasions.

“I find it so much easier to deal with than when it’s something directed towards me. I’m very protective over my fans and of the environment that I am trying to create for them. I will always call it out.”

Nash, whose fourth album is out in the spring, recalls various occasions of being heckled with “weird sexual stuff” and says she has experienced different levels of sexism, but her worst experience was being groped when she went into a crowd.

“When I came back on stage I continued for a couple of songs but I felt so uncomfortable with it. I didn’t know how to respond and I felt like?I was letting myself and the crowd down because I couldn’t relax and perform at my best and I hadn’t done anything. So I stopped and called out the guy, told the crowd what he did and kicked him out of my show. I told him never to come back to one of my shows and that I hoped he learnt from this experience.”

Many gig-goers The Big Issue in the North spoke to described the crowds at gigs they’ve attended as nothing but supportive and said women shouldn’t be deterred by one bad experience. Another, who described being forcefully pulled on to the dancefloor by a man she didn’t know, pointed out: “If I didn’t go to gigs, I’d have missed out on some of the most fun I’ve ever had.”

Of course gigs can be wonderful environments where fans are united through a shared love of music. The message from the Good Night Out campaign and the musicians daring to speak out is that people must stop taking advantage of that situation so that we won’t have to resort to the physical barriers and divides used?by the likes of Banks and Hanna. Witnesses and victims need to take?a zero-tolerance approach and shout loudly that sexual harassment should never be considered a normal part of watching your favourite band.

Gig-goers and @everydaysexism

The Everyday Sexism project catalogues instances of sexism experienced by women on a day-to-day basis. Below are some tweets from the project, detailing sexism at gigs.

“Told a friend how my bum got groped at a gig. He laughed and said it must of been a joke & to lighten up. I obviously laughed.”

“Leaving a gig, was stopped to be told, “that’s an awfully unfeminine instrument you play” #ShoutingBack”

“At a gig with girlfriend all way thru she was #grabbed by bloke from behind-she felt 2 ashamed to say till after :(“

“I played a gig last night and got told by the sound guy ‘when you get your pocket money love, buy yourself a pedal board’”

“At a gig, guy kept pulling my hands up to dance. When I refused he crossly hit my shoulder & spanked me, twice. Crap dancer.”

“Leaving amazing Goldfrapp gig at Somerset House. Pass 2 young men, one says ‘Hey slag’. Routine.”

“At a gig, alone. Felt something brush up my skirt, touching my rear. Twice. A group of nearby boys were taking turns.”

Have you experienced sexual harassment at a gig? Tweet us your stories @bigissuenorth. If you’re interested in setting up the Good Night Out campaign in your town email

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