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12th November 2015

A street free of suggestion? Live music’s struggle against sexual harassment

Elizabeth Rushton speaks to Girls Against about their campaign to banish the culture of victim blaming and battle sexual harassment at gigs

The frequent gig-goer is accustomed to seeing a plethora of inappropriate behaviour at gigs. I’ve seen people turfed out by security for a list of crimes ranging from fighting to lighting up a cigarette or even a flare. But many of us also know that there is often something else just as inexcusable going on, yet it receives far less attention from security than an excessively frisky mosh pit.

This seemingly invisible issue is sexual harassment and assault at gigs. For many of its predominantly female victims, it’s a taboo subject—leaving them feeling powerless to seek help or speak out about their experience at all. In a time where a recent study by The Tab had found that 95 per cent of female students have been groped, it’s unacceptable—but unsurprising.

Recently however, an internet campaign has sought out to put the issue under spotlight. Girls Against Gig Groping (a.k.a. Girls Against) was founded and is run by five teenage girls who are all full-time students. In a relatively short time, it has established a strong platform for itself on Twitter and other forms of social media, raising awareness and generating important discussions.

I spoke to one of Girls Against’s founders, Hannah, whose story of a bad experience at a Peace gig earlier this year had spread rapidly over social media, which kick-started the campaign. Peace subsequently became the first—in a still growing line of bands, including Circa Waves and Swim Deep—to raise awareness of this issue both on the internet and on stage. This kind of campaign is long overdue; they’ve had enough of it being an “occupational hazard” for vulnerable audience members. “It’s just accepted within the music scene because victims don’t want to appear to be making a fuss, which isn’t okay,” Hannah says. “It had happened to all of us before at some point and we knew how awful we felt afterwards, so we decided to do something about it because we never wanted anyone else to feel the same way.”

You don’t need to read Girls Against’s Twitter account for long before you start to see comments that they have retweeted which belittle harassment as a non-issue, from the sublime(-ly laughable) to the ridiculous(-ly astonishing). Examples include such gems as the classic: “the dress they wore is to blame,” and the thought that anyone who has had a drink bought for them is really asking for it. Hannah’s response to this is straightforward. “That’s absolute bullshit—that whole idea is part of our victim-blaming culture. At the end of the day sexual harassment is against the law, it is a crime.”

The Girls Against campaign emphasises that there is a distinction between the kind of contact with others at gigs which has to be accepted and the kind which absolutely shouldn’t. “We know that at gigs you’re constantly being touched by other people, it’s just the nature of the situation,” Hannah explains. “However there’s a line between brushing up against someone and forcefully pushing your hands down someone’s tights as they try and push you away.”

So what can be done about all this? I can’t help feeling that lesser disparity between the numbers of men and women on the stage would generate greater respect in audience members for the females among them. It’s not news that in the majority of musical genres, male artists hog the mic. Last summer the Reading and Leeds festival posters were left almost empty when the exclusively male acts were removed—revealing the shocking underrepresentation of female artists in the music industry. On top of this, the last five Glastonbury festivals have only seen one headliner featuring a female artist for every four all-male acts. There’s a certain irony in seeing a majority of male artists amongst those who have pledged their support for a cause which predominantly affects girls, but that’s probably more of a reflection that make up the music industry today more than anything else.

It’s disappointing to see efforts like Kathleen Hanna’s ‘girls to the front’ policy, which aimed to stop girls shying away from the barrier for fear of being groped and abused by opportunists. 20 years later, some girls have reported on being surrounded and unable to move away from their harassers. Yet, on the positive side, the fan-led Girls Against campaign is part of a wider trend of this issue being taken increasingly seriously. Last year, London’s Good Night Out campaign was launched, calling for venues to adopt a zero tolerance approach and to train their staff to spot and deal with harassment—something Hannah says is one of Girls Against’s future aims. The voices of female artists have grown louder on the subject, with the likes of Deap Vally, Angel Haze and Haim speaking out, and Wolf Alice’s frontwoman Ellie Rowsell lending her support to Girls Against. So whilst the struggle for an equal live music experience for all goes on, the continuation of this vital conversation is one that can, hopefully, take us closer to removing sexual harassment from venues once and for all.

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