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Girls to the front: why we need more women-friendly gigs

It's time for gigs to take women's safety seriously, in a world where audience members and performers are routinely assaulted.

Feminist punk Kathleen Hanna demands "All girls to the front!" at gigs. Photo courtesy of Sophie Howarth


Watching riot grrrl Kathleen Hanna demand “All girls to the front!” on the recently released The Punk Singer documentary is an exhilarating experience. Hanna was determined to create a space for women to rock out in the male-dominated punk scene of Nineties Washington, so she ordered all the women to come to the front of the room and didn’t start performing until that happened. The recent events at Rockfest 2014 demonstrate it’s time to revisit Hanna’s policy.

At Rockfest, Staind frontman Aaron Lewis was forced to stop singing and police the “molesters” in his audience who were sexually assaulting a young teenage girl as she crowd-surfed.  He pointed out that the girl was underage and warned the guys groping her to stop immediately or he’d turn the crowd on them. And they stopped. And you can guarantee a few rows back another woman was removing a stranger's hand from her arse. Because the only novel thing about this incident is that the girl didn’t have to leave the gig to make it stop.

Most women have been groped at gigs. Friends describe spending an entire two-hour set by their favourite band trying to manoeuvre away from creeping hands; having men grab their breasts because they know no one will hear them shout over the music; attempting to dress in ways that will deter potential assailants; having beer dumped over their heads when they refuse to let guys kiss them; having their bras stolen at festivals and resigning themselves to lurking at the back of a crowd; compromising their view but at least able to concentrate on the band.

It’s not just women in the audience who are at risk; many women musicians have also been attacked and occasionally raped while performing. In 1991, Hole frontwoman Courtney Love topped off a tour with a stage dive; by the time she got back on the stage her dress and underwear had been torn off, her breasts groped and multiple audience members had put their fingers inside her. Hip-hop artist Iggy Azelea recently spoke out about being attacked at gigs and revealed she wears two pairs of underwear and tights when she performs, Florence Welsh was sexually assaulted at a Leeds gig in 2010, Lady Gaga has been kissed and licked by fans while stage-diving, the stories keep stacking up.

Women are changing the way they act on stage; many artists are beefing up their security and have stopped stage-diving completely. Meanwhile women gig-goers are modifying their own behaviour; although many of them will still charge to the front, even more of them are starting to hang back. In 1999, a series of rapes at Woodstock prompted Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz to highlight the dangers faced by women at live shows. During an acceptance speech at the MTV awards Horovitz asked the room of musicians to help combat sexual assault of women at gigs. He asked them to speak to venues, security staff and promoters to help create safe spaces for women and deal with things like sexual assault with sensitivity.

The lessons to be learned from Woodstock still stand and many of the safeguards that Horovitz described in his speech have not been implemented. Music venues have a far more positive influence on their crowds than many care to admit; simply lowering the temperature in a venue can prevent people overheating and becoming disorientated or getting drunk too quickly. People-finders on hand for larger gigs help ensure that groups can stay together and women don’t become separated from their friends. Making sure that staff are trained to recognise assaults, intervene as necessary and offer support to victims of sexual violence are all vital and yet sadly lacking at most venues.

All these safeguards would also protect male gig-goers who are vulnerable to physical assault and slowly certain venues are starting to recognise their merits. LGBT-friendly venues have been especially quick to get on board with the newly established Good Night Out campaign. Launched by HollaBack, GNO requires venues to sign a pledge stating that they will challenge assault, posters are distributed telling gig-goers that they can approach the venue's staff members asking for help if they are attacked, and warn off potential attackers.

Venues and performers can still do a lot more (and GNO demonstrates that some of them are trying to) but until we hold everyone responsible for the protection of women, from the door staff to the gig-goers to the people on stage, women will still be at risk from roving hands. Horovitz and Hanna had the right idea; when metaphorical barriers don’t work, the idea that people should and shouldn’t behave in certain ways, it’s time to start thinking about physical barriers.

Women will keep attending gigs because women love music, and, to quote a friend who recently emerged from a moshpit unmolested but sporting two black eyes: “music is forever!” Certain types of music have worse reputations that others; punk and grunge gigs are usually linked to higher levels of sexual intimidation while gigs with an older, chilled-out audience (who knew Sludge was a genre?) generally lead to a relaxed atmosphere. But it shouldn’t be a case of dressing defensively for certain bands or favouring Patti Smith and Nick Cave gigs over Rancid because there’s less chance of being groped.

Listening to Asking For It, the song Courtney Love penned after that awful stage dive, is a chilling reminder of the anger and the powerlessness many women feel when watching their favourite bands. Making sure women are safe at gigs should be a basic priority for everyone attending, and if that isn’t working we should revisit the idea of Hanna’s girls to the front policy.

Photo: Getty
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The new French revolution: how En Marche! disrupted politics

The rise of Emmanuel Macron's party has shattered the accepted wisdom.

Alexandre Holroyd bears many similarities to his new boss, Emmanuel Macron. Like the French president, a former banker, Holroyd started his career in the private sector, at the management consultancy firm FTI. At 39, Macron is the youngest ever French president; Holroyd is nine years younger. Both are strongly pro-European and confident in their common mission.

“The Assemblée Nationale is going to profoundly change,” Holroyd told me, sipping fizzy water in a café near St Paul’s Cathedral in London on 16 June. Two days later, in the second round of the French legislative election, he was elected France’s MP for northern Europe – one of the 11 constituencies for French expats around the world – representing Macron’s party, En Marche! (“Forward!”), which swept to a resounding victory.

“People said, ‘These newbies from En Marche! won’t know what to do,’” he told me. “But they will reflect French society: diverse, equal, with multidisciplinary experiences.”

Macron’s election in May capped a remarkable 12 months for the former economy minister, who left the Parti Socialiste (PS) government to run as an independent candidate. But the real power – of the kind that will allow him to implement the liberal reforms he has promised France – arrived only with the legislative election victory.

En Marche! won 350 of the 577 parliamentary seats, a majority that should enable the president to pass laws in the house easily. And the party did so by selecting younger, more socially diverse candidates than is usual in French politics. As with Holroyd, most of the candidates for En Marche! were running for office for the first time. When the National Assembly reopens, three-quarters of the faces will be new.

The renewal of the political class was one of Macron’s main campaign pledges. “There was this will to stop the two main parties’ [the PS’s and the Républicains’] sectarian obstructionism,” Holroyd said. “The French people are fed up with it.”

Much like a Silicon Valley start-up disrupting a sector of the economy – Uber with taxis, for instance – En Marche! sought to disrupt French politics. Macron launched it in April 2016 as a “political club” while still serving in François Hollande’s government. Three months later, more than 3,000 people attended its first event in Paris. The movement welcomed people of all political parties, allowing them to sign up for free online.

Today En Marche! has more than 240,000 supporters. The party’s main source of funding was individual donations and during the presidential campaign, it raised €6.5m. (Macron also took out an €8m personal loan.)

The rise of Macron and En Marche! has shattered the accepted wisdom of French politics: 39 is too young for a president; one cannot be “neither left nor right”; a career in the private sector does not lead to politics; no one can run for the presidency without the support of a pre-existing party.

Yann L’Hénoret, the director of the documentary Emmanuel Macron: Behind the Rise (available on Netflix), described En Marche! as a “very young” team in which “everyone could give their own view” before Macron had the final say. “Young people are said not to be politically engaged. I saw the inverse, every day, all the time,” L’Hénoret told me.

En Marche! members set up more than 4,000 local committees across France and beyond. Anyone interested in Macron’s project could create one and invite family members, friends and neighbours to take part. “Engage in a march, a conversation, a dinner,” the movement’s website suggested.

The groups then started “the Great March”, a canvassing initiative. “It was like an audit of the society,” said Holroyd. A dual citizen of France and Britain who grew up in west London, he became one of the early marcheurs in July 2016, when he quit his consulting job to set up the London committee. He had never been a member of any party before but Brexit acted as a trigger. “I saw my father’s country tearing itself off from Europe and realised I would regret it if I didn’t contribute to Macron’s project, whose European values I profoundly share.”

A graduate of London’s Lycée Français and Kings College, Holroyd could easily engage with his French expat peers – something that helped him win 70 per cent of the vote in the second round. “The only other party to go and talk to the people was the Front National,” Holroyd said. “The particularity of En Marche! is that many members came from the private sector. It’s exceptional in politics that people in the party have professional experiences. It spoke to many people.”

As En Marche! crowdsourced its candidates, it also ensured that its policies resonated with their locals. During the London “march”, 95 per cent of the participants told the committee that they were expats in the UK because of the economic opportunities here. Macron wants France to be able to entice professionals, too. Financially and socially, his goal can be summed up as: “Make France attractive again.”

Achieving a parliamentary majority has boosted Macron’s hopes of implementing major changes. Reforms may start as soon as this summer, with a liberal reorganisation of France’s rigid labour laws, which currently offer strong protection for workers. “France must invest in the industries of the future,” Holroyd said, quoting his president by the word. “Renewable energy, denuclearisation, ecological transition . . . We must become champions in these fields.”

Despite the scale of the victory, Macron’s team will have noted that the turnout was at a historic low on 18 June – at 42 per cent – suggesting widespread voter apathy. And despite its much-praised social diversity, En Marche! has only one working-class MP for every five middle-class ones. “We are conscious that we’ll be in a difficult situation if, by the end of the mandate, things have not changed for the people who have been left behind for years,” Holroyd said. “Those in outer suburbs, in post-industrial and rural lands.”

If they are to succeed, Macron and his MPs will have to find a way to win them over.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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