Sexual harassment on the music scene

by Anya Jaremko-Greenwold

The sexual harassment of women is insidious; you won’t always see it happening, but rest assured, it’s always happening. The extent to which females receive rampant, pervasive disrespect might be surprising – unless you are a woman yourself, in which case you already know all about it. Nonprofit anti-harassment group Hollaback! released a viral video in late 2014; a hidden camera trails a woman walking in New York City for hours, recording the endless catcalls she receives from men on the street. The Internet reaction to this video was swift and extreme; men in particular seemed unnerved. “Is it really this bad for girls?” a lot of them asked. “Yeah, it’s pretty bad,” most women responded. Pop star Kesha’s ongoing lawsuit against music producer Dr. Luke has made numerous headlines recently; the singer has accused him of sexually and mentally abusing her for 10 years under contract. Her claims have prompted myriad conversations surrounding misogyny in the entertainment industry.

Women must constantly toe the line between getting offended by comments (“Hey, you should smile!” “Nice ass!”) and letting it go, picking their battles. From a young age, most girls are taught to smile, be gracious, look nice, appease the authority figures of the world (most of whom are men). Many guys, in turn, have been socially conditioned to believe certain behaviors will ultimately be tolerated. Film, TV and popular music have all assisted in encouraging male aggression, suggesting that dominance is attractive and even important in the quest for a woman’s heart. Audience members at a concert might think the performers on stage are attractive or generally willing to be seduced because they’re in the spotlight. These women are seeking attention, sure – but are crude propositions the type of recognition anyone could believe they crave? “Female musicians are expected to have a provocative, sexually charged stage presence,” said Tracy Ford of the local band The Crags. “I just want to be a band member playing music. People have said to me, ‘You should look nicer up there,’ so I do feel pressured to dress up. But I usually wear jeans and a T-shirt. I refuse to be a part of those expectations.”

Women on the stage

Women in performance industries – musicians in particular, for the sake of this article – need to incur the affection of potential devotees. They can’t afford to alienate fans, especially in the beginning of their careers. Simultaneously, most musicians want to avoid being followed home by an overenthusiastic admirer after a show.

Local solo artist Lacey Black began performing at age 16, getting attention for being young and cute; she couldn’t tell whether it was harassment or if the novelty of seeing a young person playing music inspired people to comment. In her early 20s, the attention began to shift; though it seemed mildly flattering and not overtly sexual, the remarks grew more annoying. “I don’t think the performer aspect is all that different from any waitress or retail employee in the public domain,” said Black. “The difference is that I can’t walk away and say I have another table. I don’t have an escape. The nature of performers is that we’re required to be available.” Musicians have to engage with their audience in order to connect; whether this audience is booing, making disrespectful side-comments or listening to the music with hushed reverence. “As a private contractor, I don’t have a boss to go to and report it when it happens,” said Black. “There’s no protocol. When do I bring this up: When he looks at me weird from across the room? When he talks to me? When he makes a threat? They hardly ever make a threat. But if he’s with a group of people – might he break off and wait for me outside? You have to do a lot of mental calculations.”

No matter where Black has performed, she feels lucky the waitstaff or bartenders have her back. There is strength in camaraderie, and Black also observes that she was never harassed when she had male band members surrounding her. While grateful to have support, she’s realistic about what her chosen profession entails. “On the one hand, it’s not that bad – it’s an inherent part of my job,” said Black. “I’m not proud of it, I don’t like it, but it’s something I’ve managed to deal with in a way that works for me.” Although Black feels help is never far away, it’s not necessarily apparent when she does need it. “Even if you have friends in the room, they may not recognize what’s going on,” said Black. “They don’t realize the guy who just came up and talked to me for 30 seconds was propositioning me. I’ve had sexual harassment happen with my dad sitting 15 feet away.”

“Harassment” doesn’t only connote a man grabbing a girl; perpetrators might be charming or subtle in their advances. “I’ve been offended down to my core only a handful of times,” said Black. “Usually I’m just irritated. I’ve had somebody walk me out to my car maybe 10 times in my whole career, and that’s playing over 200 shows a year.” Women are accustomed to using caution when walking alone at night anyway, especially in urban areas; we’re on the lookout, glancing over shoulders for prospective creeps. A performer, bartender or waitress might request a questionable character be removed from their establishment when he’s making them uncomfortable – but if the harasser is a regular, or prone to spending lots of cash there, the profit could take precedence.

Musicians want people to hear their music, to appreciate their art. An artist might flirt inadvertently with listeners – but this doesn’t mean further romantic overtures are welcomed. “I’ve had casual run-ins where I have to question, ‘Is this conversation about my music, or is it because I’m a female?’” said Giovanina Bucci, a solo musician new to the area. “I don’t want to have to assume someone is ill-intentioned; but sometimes you get deeper into a conversation and realize, ‘this has nothing to do with my music.’”

Possibly the most tragic result of this trend is women questioning whether harassment is their fault, or if they’re doing all they can to attract the “right” kind of treatment. “If I curl my hair, put on red lipstick or wear a shirt with the shoulders cut out – am I inviting that energy?” asked Caitlin Cannon of local all-girl group The Cannondolls. “It’s necessary for me to have a brand and dress how I want; I don’t think it’s bad for women to look or feel sexy, and it seems like my responsibility to look good when I perform.” How fair is it for women to wonder whether unwarranted scrutiny is something they’ve brought upon themselves? “I do play into the culture of it, trying to come off sultry and inviting when I get my picture taken for PR reasons,” said Bucci. “But I also want to maintain my dignity. The thing I have to offer is my craft. What do my face, legs or cleavage have to do with that?”

How to deal

Figuring out how to maneuver through these situations is an arduous process – but that’s OK. “I’ve had generally great interactions with men, but I’ve also had years of learning,” said Ford. Both Black and Cannon look to humor to rebuff come-ons. “I treat every advance as a joke,” said Black. “Ninety percent of the time, they’re drunk or emboldened by the atmosphere, but as soon as they say something and I laugh it off, they realize ‘I’ve said something terrible; I’m so glad she’s laughing.’” Maybe these men are trying to get laid, but often they just want your attention, Black said. “Being confrontational makes it escalate,” said Black. “They might come back with, ‘What, you can’t take a joke?’”

Bucci tries her best to avoid confrontation, although she’s not sure that’s the best tactic to employ. “I’ve had men say inappropriate things, and I reinforce the behavior by laughing it off and moving forward with the conversation,” said Bucci. “That’s doing nobody any favors. It’s giving them permission to say ‘Your tits look hot when you play,’ or whatever.” At what expense are women keeping their mouths shut, preserving the peace?

“If I can respond with an off-color comeback or quip, it will shut them up and redirect things,” said Cannon. “This is sad, but true: if you show a man you’re smart, the observance of your intelligence trumps anything he might have to say about you physically. If you can intimidate them with your intellect …” Well, what’s better than getting the upper-hand with brains?

“Playing here, I do get people saying, ‘Hey doll face, you sure look pretty up there with your guitar,’” said Cannon, “But I use that to my advantage and try to make it part of the show, or call them out on the microphone.” Undermining people’s expectations and staying strong in the face of disparagement works, Cannon said. The knowledge of your own self-worth might be the only weapon you have to hurl back. “Try not to take it personally,” Cannon recommends, noting that those who show disrespect are likely compensating for their own howling insecurities.

How can we change things?

Most women are accustomed to sexual harassment, and we often find ways to deal. But when is it time to stop sweeping insolence under the rug and challenge the status quo? “There aren’t many defining moments when I was off-put by someone’s behavior – but that got me thinking about how I’ve become complacent due to the normalization of that behavior,” said Bucci. “It’s now part of the common culture.” We should tout examples of acceptable conduct versus inappropriate comportment. They’ll never know unless we set boundaries. “It’s about moving feminism forward in a constructive, thoughtful way, so that the culture starts to shift,” said Bucci.

It’s not all bad news. Black points out that Taylor Swift has managed to conjure a wildly successful music career without nude photo shoots or sexual provocation. Fans connect with her music and message because it’s universal. Cannon is also optimistic: “If I’m connecting to people on a heart-based level, that other stuff kind of falls away,” said Cannon. “It’s a good exercise in intention. What am I here to do? I could get upset by a lot of what happens and feel victimized. Whether or not (a guy is) going to be an asshole to me is secondary. That’s what I feel my job is – to transcend all of that.”


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