'I Felt So Trapped': In Indie Music, Sexual Harassment Is an Accepted Nightmare
From predatory industry executives, to sexist and demeaning press coverage of female musicians, to sexually aggressive fans, the indie music scene has a huge sexual harassment problem.
Illustration by Marne Grahlman
We've been sitting at a table in the Red Lion Tavern for only a few minutes when I feel the hand on my upper thigh. It's late spring 2011, warm enough in Los Angeles that I've worn a light cotton sundress, and the hand is creeping slowly inward, its thumb already too close to the crease where my leg connects to my hip. My face flushes (then, even now). This is a business meeting—I've recently been appointed interim music editor of a LA-based publication—and the publicist whose hand is dangerously close to my vagina has invited me for business drinks to discuss opportunities with his clients, clients who happen to be very in-demand. I freeze before shifting my leg to cross the other, instinctual actions both, self-preservation involuntarily kicking in, a way to escape a situation without using words that will not only make for immediate awkwardness, but also possibly jeopardize my career.
I didn't mention this incident again until three weeks ago, when Amber Coffman of the indie band Dirty Projectors wrote a series of tweets about the same publicist, Heathcliff Berru, harassing her as well. The minute I saw them, I felt a surge of—corny as it sounds—sisterhood, and I wanted to let her know that she wasn't alone. I wrote and erased the same tweet many times before finally settling on a limp-dick subtweet around midnight and then I tossed in bed for another hour wondering if I should delete even that. Fact is, I was still scared.
As it turns out, a lot of women are. The issue is bigger than Berru—the accusations against him have simply served to wipe clear the fuzzy lenses many in the industry were wearing when it came to the indie music world. Despite its outward appearance as being more female-friendly, despite there being less puppeteering than in pop music (see Kesha's ongoing lawsuit against producer Dr. Luke, whom she has accused of drugging and raping her), despite the seeming prevalence of "male feminists" in the scene, women in the indie music scene say that sexual harassment is rampant and just as much a reality for them.
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"You think of the DIY stage as a safe place, when really for these women I've talked to, it's not," said Artemis Thomas-Hansard, a 22-year-old Los Angeles-based music journalist who writes mostly about indie artists, like the female-fronted band Cherry Glazerr. "I've heard about kids in the audience trying to finger girls while they're playing, being hit at shows when they try to brush a guy away from putting their hand up their skirts. Kesha is a terrible story, but I would not be surprised to hear the exact same thing is happening in my scene."
In the wake of the first allegations against Berru, women in the industry who also are victims of sexual abuse tweeted their stories, and a woman who works at a record label in L.A created a Tumblr called "The Industry Ain't Safe," where women can talk about their abusers. Since its inception a month ago, there are already four pages of accounts, and almost all specifically reference indie music.
I've heard about kids in the audience trying to finger girls while they're playing.
"This is the world where guys rule. Indie rock is the one place where you can have male Sleater-Kinney fans mansplain to you," said Liz Ohanesian, a journalist and former DJ for the popular L.A. night Club Bang! "Women are fetishized: the Women in Rock issue. Every girl who's ever been in an indie rock band is portrayed in the press and in press releases as a 'manic pixie dream girl.' You're giving these guys an image of this cool quirky girl who's actually gonna pay attention to them."
Even as women are celebrated, they're sexualized. Lana Del Rey's lips received nearly as much ink as her music. Rolling Stone repeatedly turns female-featuring covers into wet T-shirt contests. It's easier to count how many articles don't mention a woman's appearance than those that do. Z Berg, lead singer of the band Phases, told me her all-girl teenage band's first review contained the line, "The Like have three things going for them: their legs."
Worse yet, many men in the industry want the pretty woman to pay them back, to acknowledge them for treating her as an equal. When she doesn't, whatever feminist façade a dude has erected quickly crumbles—even if she's in the middle of her job. "We live in a world where a man can yell at me while I'm onstage, 'Bethany, I wanna fuck you!'" Cosentino wrote in a recent op-ed for the newsletter Lenny. A writer friend of mine, who asked that I not use her name, interviewed one of 2012 Coachella's headlining acts; as she was leaving their trailer, a member of the group hollered that she should "go out in the crowd and sex someone."
A number of publicists and journalists told me stories about sexually inappropriate behavior they'd encountered while doing their jobs—and many, including me, had never spoken up, mostly out of fear for their jobs. More than one woman who I interviewed asked to remain anonymous, and several confirmed but then cancelled our interviews outright. It's a small wonder why. The system "worked" in Berru's case—women accused a man of sexual harassment, people believed those women, the predator apologized and resigned from his job. (It's worth noting, however, that no criminal charges were brought against Berru, which confirms a shocking RAINN statistic—97 percent of rapists will see no punishment.)
I felt so trapped. I had a job to do. And I'm being followed by this dude saying inappropriate things.
Yet this is the exception, not the rule. Consider Kim Fowley, consider Bill Cosby, consider the scores of men accused and women doubted. When a woman weighs her options—deal with it privately or drag it into the public sphere—her mind reels with the ways this can be used against her, the ways it has been used against women for decades. For women who don't have a platform like Cosentino or Coffman, the repercussions seem even more daunting. Publications probably won't pick it up if either the victim or the abuser isn't well-known: In a recent submission to The Industry Ain't Safe, a woman says Marie Claire was interested in publishing the story of her abusive ex-boyfriend until they found out his emo/rock band was B-, not A-list. If a woman shares her story and it fails to gain media traction, it's a lose/lose situation. No one will notice, the accuser likely will find out, and women in the industry have been blackballed for much less than for speaking out.
Andi Wilson, a project manager at the record label Cascine, is still haunted by the experience of being stalked during last year's SXSW by the married co-founder of a popular label. From his appearance at her label's first showcase, she sensed something was "off." She said he pushed drinks and drops of a marijuana tincture on her and persisted in touching her body and whispering in her ear. Suddenly, she realized he was coming to every Cascine showcase solely to see her. When she began ignoring him, he immediately blasted her with "Why are you ignoring me?" texts.
"I felt so trapped. I had a job to do. And I'm being followed by this dude saying inappropriate things," she told me. "I have such a hard time trusting men. Most of my friends are women now." But she doesn't feel comfortable revealing the perpetrator's name due to lack of evidence. She erased most of the texts because she couldn't bear looking at them. And again, "You can't name names. Your reputation gets tarnished."
"In the music industry, the gatekeepers have been men and one of the ways they've given women the keys has been through the equivalent of the casting couch," said Evelyn McDonnell, interim director of Loyola Marymount University's journalism program, author of Queens of Noise: The Real Story of the Runaways and longtime journalist and editor. "These are just assaults we put up with, develop a hard skin about. Ann Powers and I were posting recently about a New Music panel some 20 years ago that we both walked out on. A young women had come up and talked about being sexually harassed by her boss, and the woman on the panel told her buck up and get over it."
Just having in the back of my mind that I'm only here because my editor had a crush on me makes it harder to stand up for myself.
Clearly, that attitude is changing. Thomas-Hansard, who began interning at LA Weekly when she was 19, said she confronted an editor who asked her to text him a photo of the outfit she was wearing to work that day. He apologized and more recently reached out to tell her he wanted to work on becoming an ally. Still, she says her career has been colored by sexual harassment from the start.
"Just having in the back of my mind that I'm only here because my editor had a crush on me makes it harder to stand up for myself, because the way it's been framed for me is that I don't have anything to offer besides being cute," she said. "So if I make a scene and become difficult, I won't have my job anymore. That's the constant insecurity."
That speaks to a deeper issue surrounding sexual harassment, no matter the industry. From a young age, boys are taught never to take no for an answer, while girls are taught to be agreeable, or in other words, always to say yes. The instinct to say "yes" is so embedded that even as a grown woman you're conflicted, involuntarily. "Boys aren't taught to care about being likeable. Girls are both indirectly and directly taught that external approval is the most important thing," Jessica Thompson, a therapist working for a community mental health program in Jamaica, told me. "We feel guilty for standing up for ourselves because that's 'not what nice girls do.' That's how girls end up saying yes even when we don't want to, and that's how boys end up taking advantage of girls who say yes but really mean no."
Navigating that "no" is even trickier when a female professional in the industry has to say no and yes at the same time. Thomas-Hansard said that Berru once invited her to interview a very high-profile artist, and she ended up in a hotel room where that artist was fondling two naked, stoned, and drunk 20-year-old women while Berru repeatedly insisted she sleep with him. Fortunately, she had a friend with her and they escaped. However, he represented many bands she needed access to, so she couldn't just sever ties completely. As both Wilson and I experienced, men in the industry often dangle their connections and power as sexual carrots, with the implicit understanding they'll be yanked away if you refuse their advances. "He was introducing me to artists I adored," Wilson said of her stalker. "Texting me after showcases, 'Just come here! This band is with me right now, come to my hotel.'"
We feel guilty for standing up for ourselves because that's 'not what nice girls do.'
"You don't necessarily want to reject the person because you might be interested in what they're offering. My defense mechanism is shut it down, [but] that cuts off a lot of opportunities. I don't want to be taken off the email list!" Thomas-Hansard told me. Sure enough, "As soon as I communicated, 'This isn't gonna happen,' he disappeared. He stopped sending me [releases and show invitations]."
And surely there are people reading this and shaking their heads right now at why she chose to go to a hotel room, but that's the very same mentality that says, "She shouldn't have been wearing that dress." It's the same mentality that shames women into not reporting sexual harassment, the same mentality that shames them into thinking getting raped was their fault on some level. It's such a pervasive frame of mind that almost all the women I spoke with mentioned blaming themselves.
"You blame yourself! You think you bring it upon yourself. I was accepting drinks and let [the record label manager who stalked me] touch my hip 'cause I was in shock and didn't know what to do!" Wilson said.
"I don't want to blame myself, but I should've gotten out of there sooner. The more drinks that came, I wouldn't have put it past him to have put something in the drinks. It was a very unsafe situation," Thomas-Hansard said.
"There was another creep from a record label that acted like he wanted to hire me for PR. I agreed to let him meet me at my apartment and he proceeded to act like we were on a date. Young and dumb!" a publicist, who asked to remain anonymous, said.
At the same time, those messages of self-blame are contradicted by "chill out" cues designed to convince women they're being histrionic such as: It's not a big deal for a dude to touch your hip. It's a compliment to be shouted at or texted, "I wanna fuck you." If it's not movie-rape bad, it's not that bad. Often, we do buy into that rhetoric, brushing off "lesser" offenses because we're so inured to harassment, because we think that's the price of playing with the boys, because we're just so damned relieved it wasn't movie-rape bad.
So what the fuck is a woman to do? "People just don't know what to do or what to tell you. There's no real code in place to protect women from this kind of behavior. There's a lot of tolerance for sexual harassment and a lot of complacency," Coffman said in a Billboard interview.
Still, McDonnell said, it's better than it was 25 years ago. "I think a lot of it is what has always been there, [but] we don't have to put up with it anymore. These women feel like it's something worth speaking out against and it's incredible," she said. "In the Riot Grrrl era, people wrote lists of people who were predators or rapists or harassers on bathroom walls. Now the bathroom wall is public."