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June 6, 2017 | by  | in Music |
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Safe Cultures, Not Safe Spaces

CW: Discussion of sexual assault

For those of you who eagerly await Pitchfork’s every social media update with bated breath, you’ll likely be clued in on the current sexual abuse scandal surrounding indie band PWR BTTM. For those who aren’t aware, Ben Hopkins, who alternates between drums, guitar, and vocals for the two-piece, was accused of multiple instances of sexual abuse against one woman in a Jezebel article, and then a raft of further allegations came out on social media from a variety of sources. As a result of this, the band was dropped by their label, their music has been removed from most streaming services, and their upcoming tour for their recently released album Pageant has been cancelled. In other words, PWR BTTM’s musical career is over.

For those, like myself, who have experienced sexual assault firsthand as well as through the accounts of family and friends, and been incredibly frustrated by the way violence is incompetently addressed by relevant authorities and society at large, this is something of a victory. It is heartening to see repercussions being dealt out at this level of severity, as these kind of issues are rarely taken seriously in the public sphere.

The fact that PWR BTTM is made up of two musicians who are openly queer and non-binary (they both use they/them pronouns) cannot be ignored. Queer communities have generally taken a much harder line on sexual assault and consent and it’s also much easier to demolish the careers of those who are already outsiders. With so little LGBT+ representation in the music industry, it is hard to see artists that are unabashedly queer and gender variant, and who do things like request gender neutral bathrooms in the venues they play at, be taken down in the way that they have, while many other straight, cis perpetrators of such abuse and worse still have flourishing careers. The fact that the current president of the United States is a known sexual abuser is a testament to this, and a list of famous perpetrators could fill out all the pages of this magazine, with those like Chris Brown, Woody Allen, and Casey Affleck among them.

However the fact that PWR BTTM are queer, and have actively tried to empathise with victims and to promote the fact that they create “safe” spaces for their fans, makes this all the more of a betrayal. It also exposes the inherent problem in assuming that because a space is queer and trans-friendly, it is automatically a safe space.

Safe spaces are an idealistic concept. It’s clear that no space can ever truly be safe for everyone. That’s not to say that safe spaces aren’t an admirable endeavour, it’s just that, in a lot of music scenes, including Wellington’s, mechanisms to support safe spaces are created and dealt with in a very tokenistic manner. A promoter or collective will state that they don’t tolerate racism or homophobia and that if anyone feels uncomfortable, they should talk to a specific person. They then feel as if they’ve discharged their duty for making that space safe. However, there is very little commitment to actually addressing underlying issues of, for example, the often-internalised misogynistic attitudes that lie at the heart of many parts of the music scene, and are often covered by a veil of faux-activism and wokeness. When assaults occur, repercussions often come far too slowly and without the necessary severity. The inherent problem is when safe spaces are set up by cis, white, heterosexual men, who aren’t really aware of what it truly feels like to be unsafe at a gig — how are they supposed to provide spaces that feel subjectively safe to those who experience unsafety and discomfort regularly at bars and gigs?

Emma Hall-Phillips, a Wellington-based electronic musician who DJs under the moniker Aw B, recently set up a collective called Moments that prioritises women/femmes, LGBT+ people, and people of colour when booking artists, and puts on awesome electronic music nights. At their most recent gig there was a phone number that people could call and people who would really listen if anyone was uncomfortable, and a diverse crowd, which created a really lovely, queer-friendly, and respectful vibe. She creates a safe space by holding the musicians she books accountable for their actions (one of the acts who was billed for the most recent gig was taken off the lineup because multiple people came to Emma with accounts of abusive behavior from him). Emma also identified how spaces can be made unsafe through the attitudes of bar staff at venues. They often won’t take any action against an alleged assault unless there is some kind of concrete proof, which is very difficult to provide in these kinds of situations. A potential remedy for this would be more rigorous training for bar staff in terms of how to adequately respond to these kinds of sensitive issues.

However, HEX, a well-established Wellington rock band made up of women, point out that safe spaces can undermine the fact that abuse isn’t site-specific — it exists wherever people exist. Having safe spaces can be seen, in a way, to legitimise the fact that most of the world is unsafe space, and remove the collective social responsibility to try to create safe spaces wherever we are. HEX believe that the conversation needs to focus on creating safer communities, which is a much harder issue to tackle. This is obviously not to say that safe spaces aren’t important and useful, just that they are often used as an empty piece of terminology. The focus needs to shift to being more transformative of the current, dominant culture. There needs to exist a strong sense of responsibility for the creation and maintenance of safe spaces, and transparency and open lines of communication need to be present when undesirable things happen.

This is one of the great failings of our modern culture: silence. We are so willing to sweep bad stuff under the rug when it happens, as this is easier than dealing with the social censure, discomfort, and embarrassment that can come with actively calling out harmful behavior. However, we need to take responsibility for the shitty things we do and say, the way our own behaviour makes other people uncomfortable, and our complicity in the behaviour of those we choose to surround ourselves with when we let them get away with something like yelling lewd comments at a stranger without reproach. Cis men especially need to be aware of the way in which they take up space and move through it, and how this can be very much exhibitive of their privilege. In this way, often without even being aware of it, they can make others feel uncomfortable or even threatened.

Solo artist and DJ Alexa Casino points out that safety, for her, is being around people she feels comfortable with, and this generally doesn’t happen when you’re surrounded by white guys. “I feel when you bring in performers and artists who are gender minorities/people of colour/queers, you also invite their fan bases, meaning that crowds are more balanced and it isn’t just a sea of fish who all look the same.” We need to acknowledge our own privilege, and as Alexa says, if you don’t understand why someone else feels unsafe, that doesn’t make their feelings invalid; it only affirms that you have the privilege not to share the experience of minority class oppression. She argues that instead of providing simple consequences for behavior that has been normalised by patriarchal structures, we need an overhaul of the current culture of a nihilistic lack of responsibility and hedonism when we go out, so that safe spaces aren’t special, they’re just expected.

PWR BTTM is the first account in modern times of the appropriate response being made to allegations of sexual abuse. Although it’s difficult that this was done to a queer, non-binary band, it at least shows that the music industry is starting to commit to attempting to stamp out sexual abuse and unpack the patriarchal structures that it stems from. The fact that these abuses occurred in purportedly “safe” spaces makes it all the more problematic. It shows that we as a society need to commit to creating a culture of being more socially responsible for our own actions and the actions of those we choose to surround ourselves with, rather than just employing very surface-based mechanisms to attempt to make a space seem safe. As HEX believe, “creating safe space is like vacuuming in a dust storm. It’s not addressing the actual cause of risk, which is, of course, people and our behaviors.”

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