Arts·Point of View

How can artists deal with sexual assault in the wake of #MeToo? This conversation is a good start

April Aliermo asked three support organizations to offer their expertise.

April Aliermo asked three support organizations to offer their expertise

(Dandelion Initiative/dandelioninitiative.blog)

Warning: this article contains detailed discussions of sexual assault and harassment. 

Being a musician, like other artists and perhaps other freelancers, I have an unusual workplace structure. I spend a lot of time working alone or with my band mates. In some ways, I consider other musicians my co-workers. Some are good friends, others friendly acquaintances. These relationships, though, sit on a blurry line between professional and social. Once, I was at a post-music festival party and one of my fellow musicians made heavy advances on me and didn't clue in when I pushed him away. Intoxicated, he was pretty insistent. Though I had to continue pushing him away, for some reason, his presence didn't bother me and I sort of just accepted his insistence as "normal" party behaviour. Nothing beyond this happened, but looking back, I can't quite explain why I continued to hang out with him and didn't reprimand him on his misbehaviours.

In the wake of #MeToo, there have been more and more call-outs of sexual assault in my own art scene. There have been reports of sexual assault in pretty much every kind of professional place of work, but what makes it different where artists and musicians do their work is that there are no governing bodies making and enforcing rules or policies. There is no human resources department for us to report misconduct to. Instead, people do things like share their horrible experiences on social media and warn others who to avoid by word of mouth. People want to be supportive of victims, but with no official guidance, actions toward justice are too often confined to commenting on a status, unfriending the accused or deciding not to work with the perpetrator.

People want to be supportive of victims, but with no official guidance, actions toward justice include things like commenting on a status, unfriending the accused or deciding not to work with the perpetrator.- April Aliermo

I've run into a couple of co-workers who I heard through the grapevine have apparently sexually assaulted women in my scene. Not really knowing what to say or do, I made the typical small talk, though in a more awkward way than usual. I've been wondering — what do I say to these guys? How do I support the women calling them out? What do we do as a community?

There was another time someone touched me in a way that felt really uncomfortable. He was a massage therapist for artists. I questioned my feelings, wondering if I imagined inappropriate actions or not. I didn't really talk about it with anyone and, I don't know why, but I didn't do anything about it. Maybe I just wanted to forget it and move on. Looking back, I guess I didn't know what to do and didn't want to dwell on it too much.

A campaign by Good Night Out. (Good Night Out)

In an attempt to have a bit more guidance on what to do in all of these situations, I turned to a few groups whose mission is to offer support and alleviate sexual assault in workplaces like mine.

Viktoria Belle is an activist, survivor, musician and the founder of DANDELIONa Toronto-based grassroots initiative by survivors for survivors that she founded in 2016. The group is comprised of volunteers who train bar and venue owners and staff on creating safer spaces and on using anti-violence tactics. Dandelion creates publications that prioritize the voices and experiences of marginalized survivors. 

Stacey Forrester is the coordinator of GOOD NIGHT OUT, the Vancouver chapter of a U.K.-based campaign that focuses on harassment and assault in music and nightlife settings. Their mission is end sexual harassment and assault in venues, bars, clubs, pubs and festivals across the world.

Veronica Lawrence is the co-founder of SASS, which is run by volunteers from the Calgary arts community. They work toward creating safer spaces through educating venue staff, festival organizers, promoters and bands. They also provide resources to survivors and advocate on their behalf when dealing with venues and the community. SASS offers educational conferences, discussion panels, educational workshops and resources to everyone.

This is what they had to say:

There have been people in our small arts community being called out or publicly shamed for sexual assault. I think because we don't have any sort of official guidelines or a human resources department to report to, many of us feel lost. What advice can you offer to someone who experiences assault?

Vikoria Belle: To any survivor I would first say: I believe you, I see you, this wasn't your fault and you are in charge of what you want to do and how you want your healing to look.

Whatever you have been through and however you choose to heal is all valid. Seek out the resources in your community that can offer you support. Calgary has the Calgary Sexual Health Centre and Calgary Communities Against Sexual Abuse; Vancouver has Women Against Violence Against Women; Edmonton has the Sexual Assault Centre of Edmonton. I am sure there are equivalents in every city. Know that there are people in your circle of friends, in your artistic community and in your family that will support you. When you figure out who they are, share with them whatever you feel comfortable sharing. Even if you don't want to say anything about what you have been through, arm yourself with their company. 

To any survivor I would first say: I believe you, I see you, this wasn't your fault and you are in charge of what you want to do and how you want your healing to look like.- Dandelion, a Toronto-based grassroots initiative by survivors for survivors

What advice can you offer to someone called out as an abuser?

VB: There are no blurred lines: if someone has said you harmed them, you did. Less than 2% of sexual assault reports are false — less than 2%!

VL: Be quiet and listen. If the person you have harmed comes to you directly, listen to what they have to say, hear out about how they feel and ask them if there is anything you can do to make things right. They may tell you that there is nothing you can do — you have to be okay with that. If they want to be left alone by you and never hear from you again, respect that. You have to live with the harm you have done. Look inward and seek out a path to fix yourself so you don't do this kind of harm again. Find out if there are programs in your city that provide counselling to folks who have committed abuse, programs addressing toxic masculinity, any kind of program that will provide you with learning to help you change. There is no magic equation of actions that will allow you to make up for the harm you have done. If you are musician, take a break from public appearances, touring etc. and seek out counselling. Take a long period of time to work on yourself. Two weeks or two months is not enough time. Also know that not every action that harms someone is illegal, and not everything that is illegal causes harm.

What advice can you offer the rest of the community in terms of supporting a victim?

VB: The (Toronto) music scene has been a bystander to sexual assault and harassment for too long. If you see it, call it out. If you aren't sure, ask the survivor. It's most important that the community stops accepting the status quo and that men and male-identifying folx can dismantle toxic masculinity.

VL: Listen first and then listen some more. Let your friend take the lead in the conversation and in sharing whatever they feel comfortable with. Do not ask probing questions. Do not tell them they "have to" go to the police or confront their abuser or make a public call-out. Ask them what will help them to heal. Ask them how you can support that healing. They may want to pursue no action at all beyond speaking with you about it. That in and of itself is a radical act. But, if they ask you not to book their abuser's band on your tour or at your venue — don't book the band. If they ask you to warn other friends of the harm this person has done — warn your friends. Follow the wishes of the survivor as much as you feel comfortable. And always remember that confronting an abuser can often lead to further abuse, so never confront them without permission from the person who has been harmed, and even then, tread carefully.

Listen first and then listen some more. Let your friend take the lead in the conversation and in sharing whatever they feel comfortable with. Do not ask probing questions.- SASS, a Calgary-based initiative offering educational conferences, discussion panels, educational workshops and resources to everyone.

SF: Get to know what resources exist in your community for people who have experienced sexual violence. Remember to keep an eye out for ones that are low-cost and safe for a variety of cultures, sexual identities and gender expressions. Share them freely and openly — on your social media, at shows, etc. — so that people don't have to seek them out.

If they are telling you, it's likely because they are in need of support, so don't make them regret the choice to confide in you. Recognize that there is no one way for a "victim" to look. Do not automatically move the conversation to one that involves police. We tend to only see sexual assault as legitimate when police are involved, but there are dozens of reasons why people do not wish to make a report to police.

Work on yourself — including your own internalized rape myths. This is the voice in your head that says things like, "Well she doesn't look like a victim," or, "But you have fucked before, right?" etc. All of that is a barrier to you supporting the survivor.

Resist the urge to inflict violence on the perpetrator, especially if you're male-identified. DO NOT make it about you and unleash on a tirade about how you're going to beat the abuser up. If the survivor has already had to navigate male violence the last thing they need to do is manage more of that.

A sign at the entrance of a DIY venue. (April Aliermo)

I think part of where some of us feel lost is how to deal with or engage with an abuser. The cis men that have been called out in our art scene are friends or acquaintances that we've been seeing for years at shows or at parties. It feels awkward to say something, but it also feels weird to ignore the issue or ignore the person altogether. What are some productive ways we can deal with or interact with these people when we come across them?

VL: This is a question we have been getting a lot over the last few months. If a friend has been named as an abuser, the primary consideration should really be — is the survivor okay with this person being confronted? If not, then it is important to tread very carefully and only speak with your friend in general terms, or about behaviour that you have witnessed directly. If the survivor is okay with this person being confronted, there are a number of factors to consider. How close are you to this person and are you the right person to try and get through to them? Will they listen to you? Have they shown the capacity for growth in the past? Will you be putting yourself or someone else in danger by confronting them? Before you approach a conversation, please consider all these elements carefully and approach the conversation with caution. You need to make sure that you feel equipped to have a conversation with the abuser that is non-judgmental and open so that they can feel comfortable enough to potentially take accountability. I have provided this link to an "accountability primer" as a resource in the past.

Calling out abusers and publicly shaming them seems to be the first step people take when addressing sexual assault. Last year in Toronto, someone wrote out a "shit list" of cis men to be aware of, xeroxed a handful of copies, and plastered them in the women's bathrooms of frequented music venues. Since then, at least two of those men have moved to another city. I wonder what those men have learned and how their behaviours have improved. What are some other actions we can take to keep people safe?

VB: I think if survivors wanna make a shit list to keep one another safe, fuck yes. Do it. Patriarchy has determined how women and feminized folx resist; if the shit list is angry feminism then that's exactly what we need right now. 

Men need to learn that they are a part of the community and responsible for it as much as women and other marginalized folx are. When we all work to dismantle toxic masculinity and patriarchy, we find equity and justice are much clearer. We are progressing toward trying to grasp and dismantle this — but we can't do that while abusers are still protected by the justice system and by the community itself. To keep each other safe, I think we need to practice setting boundaries, listening to one another and practicing consent every single day.

Women have, probably since the dawn of time, found ways to communicate important information in their circles and communities with the intent to keep one another safe. Today, this is aided (and sped up) by technology.- Good Night Out, a Vancouver-based organization focusing on harassment and assault in music and nightlife settings

SF: Women have, probably since the dawn of time, found ways to communicate important information in their circles and communities with the intent to keep one another safe. Today, this is aided (and sped up) by technology. This is because traditional institutions that in theory should protect us...don't. Also, there is zero recourse for abuse that happens that is technically legal but still non-consensual and makes us feel unsafe.

So until such time as there are formal systems to report harassment and a lot of the "sub-criminal" acts that happen in music scenes, and until the police and criminal justice systems get overhauled to better support sexual assault survivors and ease reporting, we turn to our community. I highly doubt it's anyone's first reaction to go rogue and post shit lists on the internet and in bathrooms — actions like that come from repeatedly seeing that no one is listening or wanting to believe that so-and-so has done harm and will probably harm more people. It comes from this wild and almost desperate place of protection — of wanting to prevent another person from having this done to them. What we really need is a full culture change.

VL: In the last two years, I have seen people try a number of different tactics to support survivors. Here are some of the ones I have seen succeed. 

For venues: get together as a management team and identify your organization's values, then create an anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policy based on those values and what is feasible for your team. Then post that policy on your website, on the walls of your space, on the bathroom stalls — post it everywhere. Follow this policy consistently and without prejudice, every time. Offer an email address and/or a number that patrons can text if they get into an uncomfortable situation in your space and need to discreetly request help. Commit to bystander intervention training for your entire team if it is available in your community. Listen to the concerns of patrons and address them immediately. Hire employees with diverse lived experiences and listen to what they have to say about how you can make your space more equitable. Post signage that outlines bystander intervention tips.

For bands: ask venues what their anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policy is and don't play somewhere if their values don't align with yours, or request that they administer a policy for the evening of your event. Create an email address and/or a phone number that your audience members can text if something happens to them at one of your shows. Don't play on bills with people who have been named as abusive and/or discriminatory. If you learn that a venue you have been booked to play or a band that you have been booked to play with has committed abuse in the past, try and change the show. Speak up about your band's beliefs and support of survivors. Listen to survivors and support them.

For community members: don't attend shows at venues you know condone abuse. Don't attend shows put on by promoters that have committed abuse or that feature bands that have committed abuse. Confront your friends when you hear them making sexist or discriminatory jokes. Confront your friends when you see them committing abusive behaviours. Support your friends if you see them being harassed or experiencing abuse by intervening safely.

I keep wondering about restorative justice as a means to move forward. I know it takes a lot of emotional and mental work, but results can be really positive. Have you seen any thing like this in action? Do you think this could work in our art scene?

VB: Many marginalized and Indigenous communities practice their own forms of transformative justice to recognize the pattern of trauma and violence colonialism and patriarchy has created and how it manifests actions of violence. I believe that restorative/transformative justice is necessary for the communities that have the skills, knowledge and power to enact these models in safe and survivor centric ways. In Canada our justice system fails survivors constantly — would transformative justice change this? I'm not sure.

SF: I believe that transformative/restorative justice is the only model that is going to get us out of here — combined with universal affirmative consent education for people starting when they are very young. Many marginalized communities have recognized that carceral systems are not the only answer and have a long history of using these transformative/restorative justice models. I feel that they could translate well in a #MeToo society so long as the whole community (bands, promoters, venues, survivors) get on board. This work is NOT meant to be carried out by one or two people.

VL: I have yet to see a successful, survivor-centric version of restorative justice take place. I have faith that it can happen — I just haven't seen it yet.

About the Author

April Aliermo is a Filipinx-Canadian musician, songwriter, entrepreneur and educator based out of Toronto. She plays bass and co-writes music and lyrics for Hooded Fang and Phèdre. She strives to build conscious communities while having the time of her life.

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