Rosemary Lucy Hill discusses sexual harassment, assault and groping at live music events, and what can be done about it.
Pauli[i], aged 15, was watching one of her favourite bands. She was having a great time dancing and had an excellent spot near the front. There was a drunk man dancing nearby and this slightly worried her. And then he put his hand down the front of her trousers. Suddenly. With no introduction or other exchange between them. Instinctively she brought her fist up and clocked him on the nose. Her friend summoned a bouncer and the man was thrown out. Not because he had just sexually assaulted someone, but because he was drunk. When Pauli told the bouncer what had happened, they just shrugged, saying, ‘well he’s gone now’.
She went to the toilets to gather herself. She was shaken and angry. She returned to the auditorium, but not to her spot near the front. She went to the back, to her mum. Her mum said ‘oh that’s drunk men for you’. It was only in the car on the way home that she realised the gravity of the situation – that she had been sexual assaulted. She did not report it. Given the response of the bouncer and her mum, she did not think anything would be done about it.
This is one of the experiences of sexual violence[ii] at a gig that we heard about in our research on the Healthy Music Audiences project (for more information about the project see here). We also heard about strangers’ repeated touching of breasts, buttocks and genitals, unwelcome massages, hugs and kisses, and staring. We heard about the feelings of fear, anger, shock and loss of dignity that these experiences led to. Pauli’s experience with staff is fairly typical of the responses of venues. In fact, when we spoke to cis male venue managers and promoters they all expressed how shocked they were when there was an incident at one of their events – they just didn’t think this kind of thing happened. We think sexual harassment, groping, assault and unwanted sexual attention do happen frequently at gigs. Pauli’s narrative suggests some of the reasons why it does not get talked about: it is downplayed by friends and family; venues are unprepared to act in the interests of victims; victims themselves have little faith that venues will do anything about the incident. In fact we heard over and over again of bouncers shrugging off complaints, of distrust of security staff, and in one instance, of bouncers being the source of the harassment. For women, sexual violence is a fairly regular part of our nightlife experiences . It happens; it’s normalised ; we don’t talk about it much; we try to ignore it so we can enjoy the music we’ve paid to listen to.
Inevitably sexual violence at gigs impacts on those who are on the receiving end (more likely to be women). Incidents compromise our freedom to act as we wish . They prevent us from being engrossed in the music we have come to hear. ‘At the very least it is distracting’ said one woman. And more than distracting. It ruined people’s nights: people moved from the front of the stage to the back; one participant spoke of drinking more to cope with what had happened; others left the venue altogether, writing off the night and ruing the lost ticket price. Over the longer term people avoided venues where things had happened to them or where they knew of things happening to others. People stopped going to gigs alone where that had previously been okay. One woman stopped going to gigs altogether. Years after incidents, our participants still felt angry and they came to the research project hoping that talking about their experiences may lead to change.
Whilst the ultimate responsibility for stopping sexual violence lies with the perpetrators, venues, promoters and gig goers all have a responsibility for changing the culture of live music so that everyone can enjoy hearing their favourite band free from assault or harassment. So what can venues, promoters and gig goers do to prevent sexual violence and respond to incidents when they happen?
Currently only one third of venues have a sexual harassment policy . Most of the venues and promoters we spoke to wanted to do something, but were unsure what that might be. One venue had very clear policies that were widely publicised and consistently adhered to. This venue also took a reflective approach so that policies and their implementation were always under review in discussion with their community. This venue began from the position that groping, harassment and assault must not be considered as hazards of live music participation, but that all venue patrons should be able to enjoy gigs free from harassment. This is a good approach.
It is important that venues, promoters and their gig going community work together to draw up policies and procedures, so that everyone involved has some investment in maintaining high standards. All of these groups need to be aware of how ‘rape myths’ (ideas about sexual violence that blame victims or minimise the harm it causes, for example that drunk women in short skirts were asking for it, only attractive women are subject to sexual violence or that most incidents are the result of mixed signals) shape attitudes to sexual violence. Groping, harassment and assault must not be considered as hazards of live music participation about which the venue, promoter, bands and fans can do nothing. Something can be done. The law says that sexual assault occurs when someone intentionally touches another person sexually without a reasonable belief that they consent to the touching. To move forward in preventing and responding well to incidents of sexual violence, it is absolutely vital that those who suffer these incidents are taken seriously. Responses such as that it should be ‘expected’ or ‘taken s a compliment’ are damaging – some of our participants experienced these kinds of comments as a ‘loss of dignity’ or ‘dehumanising’. Most incidents are not reported, in part because victims worry because they will not be believed or taken seriously. Note that the number of false rape accusations is no higher than false reports for other crimes (3%). There is no single way in which victims respond to sexual violence. Expectations that people will respond in a particular way can lead venue staff and others disbelieving those reporting incidents. The burden of proof should be placed on the accused, not those reporting an incident, and the wishes of those who have suffered sexual harassment, groping and assault must be respected. This may involve removing perpetrators, banning them from venues and/or calling police. Inebriation – on either side – is not an excuse for perpetrating sexual violence or harassment, nor should it be considered in mitigation.
One of the most important things that venues and promoters can do is seek out staff training – organisations such as Good Night Out and White Ribbon provide training and can help in the development of policies. They can also advise on access to funding. Venues could also consider running fundraiser events to cover the costs of staff training.
There should be clear lines of reporting amongst staff when things go wrong and dedicated staff members available for gig goers to report incidents to. We would like to see a means of digital or phone reporting on offer too, so that those affected can report after they have left the venue or if they cannot find the dedicated staff member.
Ultimately it is up to the perpetrators of sexual violence to stop doing it. Gig goers should not harass, grope or assault anyone. We should respect the autonomy and boundaries of other gig goers, bands and staff, regardless of their sex, sexuality, gender presentation, level of sobriety. We should bear in mind that only consent that is freely, actively and enthusiastically given counts. If consent is not given, then stop. When we see friends’ or others’ bad behaviour, we should call it out if it is safe to do so. We should support our fellow gig goers by intervening or contacting the venue’s designated member of staff. We should not tolerate sexual violence or take it as expected part of our live music participation.
We have put together a short booklet of recommendations for venues, promoters and staff. It is available to download here: http://gender-studies.leeds.ac.uk/research/healthy-music-audiences-music-gender-and-health/
We would like to see venues, promoters and gig goers take up these recommendations and work to make gigs healthier experiences for all music lovers[iii].
- Kelly, L., Surviving sexual violence. 1988, Cambridge: Polity.
- Fileborn, B., Reclaiming the night-time economy: unwanted sexual attention in pubs and clubs. 2016, London: Palgrave Macmillan.
- Phipps, A. and I. Young, Neoliberalisation and ‘lad cultures’ in higher education. Sociology, 2015. 49(2): p. 305-322.
- Vera-Gray, F., Men's intrusion, women's embodiment: a critical analysis of street harassment. 2017, Abingdon: Routledge.
- Webster, E., et al., Valuing live music: the UK live music census 2017 report. 2018.
- Sexual Offences Act, U. Government, Editor. 2003.
[i] All names have been changed.
[ii] We are defining sexual violence as “any physical, visual, verbal or sexual act that is experienced by the woman or girl, at the time or later, as a threat, invasion or assault, that has the effect of hurting her or degrading her and/or takes away her ability to control intimate contact” [1.] with the acknowledgement that men, trans and non-binary people also experience such incidents.