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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.

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Spotify, Netflix and now shared driverless cars: why don’t we own anything anymore?

With shared self-driving cars on the horizon, companies are forcing us into a minimalism that is profitable for them, but questionable for us.

For decades, the answer to all our collective self-doubt, anxiety, and existential sadness has been to buy, buy, buy. This was particularly evident during the Nineties and Noughties, which, in terms of business, were all about mass production, mass consumption and, inevitably, mass accumulation.

Companies targeted the general public with the message that without owning their latest fad – no matter how trivial it appeared – we wouldn’t be as productive, as beautiful, and, perhaps most frightening of all, as happy. And although material objects took up physical space, they certainly didn’t fill the metaphorical void.

It didn’t take long for artists to respond to the socio-economic ennui. Movies, in particular – from The Truman Show to, more strangely and recently, Disney’s Wall-E – critiqued mass consumption and consequent possession-hoarding. Literature, too – perhaps most famously Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, which was later adapted for film – studied the monstrous nature of hypercapitalism and the beasts it produces.

Despite being some of the most visually provocative commerce-related works to date (and despite anti-capitalist cinema becoming a genre in itself), they didn’t stop our needless purchase-making and endless consumption.

Aside from the self-proclaimed “minimalists”, that is. In a rally against the monopoly of McDonald’s, malls, and mass consumption, the reactionary lifestyle movement arose somewhat organically. A typical modern minimalist isn’t an artist with a penchant for sparse work, but instead somebody who, in an attempt to get back-to-basics, threw out unneeded wares and pared down to the absolute necessities. For their bodies: a few basic shirts and trousers, a basic pair of shoes. In their households: a dining table, some chairs, a fold-up bed. No excess. Minimalists professed that this alternative way of living made them feel happier, and by unshackling themselves and their homes of all the stuff they’d accumulated over the years, they consequently felt far freer. Maybe not free in the absolute sense of the word, but freer nonetheless.

Fast forward a few years to 2018 and minimalism has become something of an online trend, with people sharing tips on ways to declutter and downsize. It has become a lifestyle. We go on digital detoxes and follow the anti-clutter guru Marie Kondo. These changes go beyond the physical and into the digital world – old files, data, and the hundreds of undeleted emails you have are perceived to be just as burdensome as the unused blender stashed in the cupboard. It is mindfulness over matter.

Inevitably, commercial businesses are buying into the vogue of reduction, too: their message for consumers is to no longer to purchase and own wares, but to subscribe to and rent them instead. Ownership – of music, films, cars, and even office space – is, apparently, so last decade. And what you do own, you should “share”: put your flat on Airbnb, for example, or rent your car to Uber or Lyft.

“Flexibility”, “choice” and “ease” have become the tropes of modern marketing. The likes of Netflix, Spotify, Hulu, Apple, and Amazon proclaim that our lives could be simpler, smoother, if we trade ownership for non-permanence. And it’s not just entertainment-orientated businesses, either: even the way we travel has begun to fundamentally change. With London’s Santander bike programme, Uber taxis, and, in future, shared self-driving cars, the rent-on-demand and subscription model has superseded outright buying.

It’s not like we’re paying any less for the inadequacy: we’re still handing over a sizeable chunk of money every month to a small handful of wealthy, unaccountable businesses. Whoever we’re subscribing to and renting from haven’t struck gold so much as a goldmine: they earn more while handing over less.

The culture has shifted, in a subtle and violent way, from one of accumulating too much to one approaching a forced minimalism, which is just as expensive, competitive and decadent as before. Perhaps even the minimalists who appear on Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things (which is currently, and somewhat ironically, streaming on Netflix) wouldn’t agree with everybody being strong-armed into a way of life where we are progressively losing more and paying more for the privilege.

Thom James is a writer based in London.