Live music: standing up to sexual assault

Live music: standing up to sexual assault

On the cold sidewalk of Sydney’s Oxford Street, Savannah Young stands shivering as an icy wind presses her sweat-drenched T-shirt against her body. The motion almost masks her paranoid trembling, as recollections of the night flicker repeatedly through her mind.

“I just didn’t know what to do,” Ms Young whispers, as she recalls what had taken place inside the Oxford Art Factory over the past few hours.

The 20-year-old retraces her journey through the ocean of sweaty bodies heaped on top of one another – a humid haze of bright lights, cigarette smoke, and loud music.

Accompanied by her friend, Alice, she attempts to retreat to the peripheries of the venue. Staggering through the pit of fallen bodies and spilt beer, Ms Young feels the slippery hand of a fellow punter grope her chest. The hand sinks back into the pit, maintaining its anonymity. She turns her head to find Alice shaking, in tears. “Someone stuck their hand up my skirt,” Alice stutters.

Twelve months on that memory is as sharp and relevant as ever for Ms Young, and the emotions attached to it resonate with hordes of women who have found themselves in similar circumstances.

Sexual assault in the live music scene is a common occurrence and not exclusive to Australia, with a steady stream of global incidents being reported each day.

Just last night international megastar Taylor Swift testified in court over an alleged groping incident by a DJ during a photoshoot in 2013 that she described as “horrifying and shocking”. It has brought the wider issue to the fore.

In early July, Sweden’s largest annual music festival, Bravalla, reported 23 cases of sexual assault over its four-day duration. In response, Swedish radio presenter and feminist Emma Knyckare suggested the need for a female-exclusive music festival. She tweeted (translated from Swedish): “What do you think about arranging a really cool festival where only non-men are welcome, that we’ll run until all men have learned how to behave themselves?” The suggestion was met with “overwhelming” support, and planning has now commenced for the festival to take place in 2018.

Ms Young, from Sydney’s northern beaches, says plans for an all-female festival are “extreme”. “[It’s] sad that festivals need to go this far for women to feel safe,” she says.

Ms Young’s experience at the Oxford Art Factory, one of Sydney’s favourite live music venues, is one of the thousands of reported cases in Australia each year. “I like to keep it in the back of my mind,” she says as she reflects on the night.

After being notified of the incident directly from Ms Young, Tasmanian punk outfit, and headline act of the Art Factory show, Luca Brasi, personally condemned the behaviour in a Facebook post uploaded the following morning. “Unfortunately in an incident in Sydney last night… two good mates of ours were left distraught after a certain piece of shit male in the audience decided that their bodies were his property in the pit,” they wrote.

Luca Brasi’s comments triggered a reaction in the Australian music scene, with acts Camp Cope, The Bennies, Cable Ties, Jeff Rosenstock and Courtney Barnett all calling out the behaviour via social media.

“A lot of people really look up to these bands,” Ms Young says. “I think it’s been the most effective way of stomping out that kind of shit.”

FBi Radio presenter and owner of record/management label Chiefly Sounds, Lachlan Wyllie, praises the local Sydney DIY music scene for being militant in addressing and shunning inappropriate behaviour in live music. He cites the now out-of-business Blackwire Records, and their posters condemning sexual and violent actions in the mosh pit.

“The responsibility lies across all sectors of live music: the promoter, the venue, the bands and, most importantly, the punter, to make sure this doesn’t happen anymore,” he says.

Young recalls her first experience with “casual” sexual harassment, at the age of 14, when she went to see her at-the-time favourite band, My Chemical Romance. “I remember walking towards the centre of the standing area and feeling someone just start grabbing my butt,” she says. “I was a child.”

“The mosh pit is the perfect cover-up for people who want to pull this shit,” she explains, “It’s a breeding ground for dickhead creeps.”

When asked if she believes alcohol consumption plays a role in sexual assault in a live music environment, Ms Young replies: “Definitely.”

“Everybody goes and has a few to drink to loosen up and have a good time, but some guys just transform after a few beers,” she says.

A 2015 report by Curtin University and the McCusker Centre for Action on Alcohol and Youth (hyperlink to report) found the links between alcohol and sexual assault undeniable. “Alcohol consumption increases the risk of sexual assault, as victims become less able to detect dangerous situations,” the report states. However, concrete statistics remain difficult to gather as “sexual assault crimes often go unreported [therefore] no reliable estimates are available”.

Lachlan Wyllie stresses the importance of female musicians and bands featuring in prominent positions in the live music scene, as it “shows guys that girls are just as much a part of this as they are”.

He references the recent Electric Lady Festival, held in Melbourne and Sydney in late June this year. The festival featured an all-female line-up, including Ali Barter, Bec Sandridge, Gretta Ray, and Body Type – all acts he praises as being the “next generation of Australian female musicians… using their music to push social change”.

Wyllie agrees that although “the responsibility lies across all sectors of live music,” musicians have had the largest impact on reducing the “toxic” culture of sexual harassment at gigs.

He says sexual assault and harassment has been an issue in live music for decades, though “we’re only just now, in the past five or ten years, getting to a point of taking the issue seriously”.

Ms Young recalls seeing Luca Brasi’s Facebook post the morning following her incident at the Oxford Street show in August last year. She recalls reading the comment section to find a river of women sharing stories of a similar ilk to her own.

“I wasn’t sure whether to feel comforted or distraught… that all these girls had gone through the same thing,” she says.

“I was just like… holy shit.

“From there on, something in that scene really changed. We’ve still got a long way to go, but it feels like in the past year since that incident, everyone’s more aware of what’s going on. Everyone’s keeping an eye out for it.

“In live music, everyone should be comfortable.” – Bill Robinson

Picture Moshpit Mayhem from micadew’s Flickr