Always Riled Up: War On Women and Making Festivals Safer

There is absolutely no place in the world for hate, violence, abuse, discrimination or predatory behavior of any kind.” – Polyvinyl Record Company

We’ve seen and heard this sentiment, and in some cases this exact phrase, offered up many, many times particularly in the last few years as society (and social media) have increased the pressure of not perpetuating cycles and varieties of abuse. The above quote deals directly with the incident that recently rocked the independent music community once more with reports that Ben Hopkins from the band PWR BTTM engaged in sexually abusive behaviors leading to Polyvinyl dropping them, their manager quitting, and the band eventually calling off their tour. But sexual violence isn’t limited to the performers. Our show spaces have become rife with this problem.

We have countless examples from (the original) Woodstock to Glastonbury that sexual assault is an ongoing problem at our shows and festivals. Every year there is at least one reported rape or sexual assault at a major music festival in the U.S. Europe has become concerned enough with the issue that Sweden, as a nation, are proposing new laws and in the UK promoters are actively working to get not only their festivals but their artists on board with calling out this behavior. With a new festival season around the world looming, promoters, artists, and allies are taking it upon themselves to speak out and up to attempt to educate concert-goers about this issue in a renewed effort to stem, and eventually turn, the tide of sexual violence (among other things) in our shared show spaces.

That an article like this one or this one or this one or this one needs to be rolled out at the onset of each new summer should convince most people that this is still a problem. Bringing your awareness about sexual violence (i.e. groping, assault, rape, etc.) to the summer concert festival of your choosing should be as second nature at this point as bringing your sunscreen, insist those who organize around the issue. It shouldn’t have to be this way and yet it is. But three women are taking a big stand to discuss it with people in order to address this issue head-on over the 41 dates of this year’s Warped Tour that begins on June 16th in Seattle, WA.

I had the opportunity to speak with Kira-Lynn Ferderber, the author of one of the above pieces, and Shawna Potter from War On Women, to discuss the work they are doing with festivals, what we can do with “call out culture”, and what it’s like fighting back against sexual assault and violence in the world of underground music. One of the major points that Ferderber makes is that both “hip hop and punk have an entry-point of anti-oppression messaging” when it comes to their fanbases which can make messaging a little easier than, say, in the metal world.

She holds trainings at festivals that can sometimes be as limited as 20 minutes on quick things to look out for and what to do in certain situations for festival workers. When it comes to bands being active about this issue she says “there’s no way to corner them (bands) into having these conversations. They really have to come to it (addressing sexual violence) on their own.” Considering that this is our starting point she thinks one way begin to address sexual violence is for fans to tell bands that they care about this issue and won’t support them if they don’t take it seriously. A way she suggests bands can be more pro-active is to “ask venues and promoters what their sexual violence prevention policy is” adding that “the more people ask about it, the better the chance of it becoming the accepted standard practice”.

One of the refrains that we hear when trying to communicate to people first coming to this issue is something akin to “but that doesn’t happen at the shows I go to!” Ferderber says to that, “Women in every genre of music have been talking about this forever. There’s more awareness of it now and more formal research being done, and more being shared on social media and mainstream media.” She also speaks with the fatigue of a community that essentially is gaslit into defending themselves due to a culture of victim blaming and cynicism. “Women and girls have been telling these stories for a very long time. If you think it’s not happening at the kinds of shows you go to, it might be because the culture there is actually worse – maybe it’s so bad there that people can’t even acknowledge it.” That’s where efforts like Creating Safer Spaces and the work she, Potter, and Autumn Lewis are doing comes into play.

Warped Tour (and festivals in general) are great places to get a message out to the masses. For bands, it’s a huge opportunity to showcase themselves for fans as well as potential labels and sponsors. Potter anticipates the tour giving her band and the organization a big opportunity but knows that there will be some resistance to the message. “I expect there to be women and gender/queer folks that are receptive as well as a lot of great male allies, too, but I’m not naive. I expect there to be a lot of silly posturing and bad information that somehow promoting a safer scene is anti-fun.” She goes on to say “We’re not against you dancing or having fun but, rather, against the -isms that fuck things up for everybody.”

Federber recommends “that people learn good bystander intervention skills that are safe and non-confrontational and effective, not just for music shows but, for any time that you’re in a crowd or even just walking down the street” as one of the things audience members can do to help. As Potter says, “It really comes down to bystanders getting involved and taking victims seriously, believing victims from the get-go, and taking proactive measures to let their community know that shitty behavior will not be tolerated.” For her it’s about needing people to “have the confidence to step in before things get too serious, instead of doing nothing and letting “iffy” behavior slide because that is what leads to potential abusers/manipulators seeing just how far they can push things with no consequences.” The theme about taking on this issue from all angles and accepting some modicum of responsibility for the solution is big with both.

While Potter is on-stage, Federber and company will be staffing the band’s table where Warped attendees can get more information on how they can help be a part of the larger solution to this issue. In addition to stopping by their table there will also be workshops held at each stop. But tabling and workshops only do so much. Potter and Federber believe bands also need to help change the scene by demanding that venues they play have and clearly express their sexual violence prevention plans. “The need to recognize the power that they have, particularly headlining acts, is important”, says Potter.

The punk scene is littered with bands who at least attempt to back-up their talk with their walk. Potter echoed this, recounting a story of the first day out on a previous tour with Anti-Flag when she and a bandmate had, on separate occasions the same night, experienced harassment from someone from the venue. After sending out a vague tweet about it the headliners asked about what had happened and went after the venue themselves. Potter asks, “What if bands did that kind of call out at the beginning of tours or shows?” The implication there being that it isn’t a standard practice though Potter also notes “It’s cool when bands do mention this on-stage” but more needs to be done. “Advocating for safer spaces is absolutely something big bands should do. We still get our 30 minutes yelling about my rights. When you get that kind of power you absolutely should be using it for good.” says Potter in an effort to encourage other bands and artists to speak out.

Twitter and social media can be good tools for fighting this battle as well which is highlighted above. As Potter put it, “We can use it to quickly document shitty behavior” and in that way it can go viral. The possibility for something to “get legs” of its own when situations like this get broadcast can show how unacceptable the behaviors are but it still takes subsequent action. For festivals this may mean dropping a band who flout this issue or promote “shitty behavior”. For bands it may mean losing fans, logistical support, and their very record contracts.

At the end of the day for Potter, it’s about creating an experience that can connect people through her music and the band’s message in creating a space for catharsis particularly when that audience often is made up of people from marginalized communities including survivors of sexual violence. “The emotional release is helpful for me and I’m pretty sure I see it from the audience. You can tell when someone is feeling it, like when someone sings along on the line “I was raped” from “Say It” it’s a really beautiful thing to see someone being validated in real time.” She is grateful to be a part of that cathartic loop.

Potter knows that there will be comments at the end of articles like this one and others denigrating, if not outright ridiculing, their message, but she asks, “To folks like that: how amazing do you feel when you’re singing along and it feels so good, doesn’t it? Doesn’t everyone deserve that feeling?” She goes on to say, “There are so many people that need that. Everyone deserves validation of what they’re going through. That’s why hardcore and metal communities come together in the first place.” Ending sexual violence in our show places isn’t about destroying anyone’s fun. In fact, it builds it up. Potter and others are showing how that works this summer and it’s important in light of recent events and a long history of this violence that we address it: bands, fans, and promoters.