Why have gigs become a dangerous place for women?

It’s an unfortunate truth that a good deal of coverage around rock music of late has focused on the mistreatment of fans by band members. Without reiterating the wrongdoings of certain musicians, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that female rock fans aren’t always safe. But what about when the danger comes from a place much closer to those fans than a predatory band member? For every gig-goer that believes in the ethos of looking out for others, there’s another with more sinister intentions.

“Once, when I crowed surfed, someone forced their hand in my pants,” says Jenny. Last year, rapper Iggy Azalea revealed she stopped crowd surfing at her own concerts for this very reason, and Jenny is disappointingly not alone in her experience.

“I was crowd surfing and one of the hands below me went – deliberately – right up my skirt and clutched a proper handful of vagina,” says Jai. “Thank goodness I was wearing granny pants and extra thick tights! Later on, at the same gig, a guy asked me if I wanted to go on his shoulders. I declined. A few minutes later, I noticed another girls was on his shoulders, and at the end of the gig when he put her down, he just started snogging her. She was pushing him away.”

Anna echoes their experiences. “It’s happened to all of my friends,” she says. “Someone grabbed our bums, and wandering fingers went to places they definitely weren’t invited. I’ve had it at student nights, bars, and rock gigs. It’s not a subject that’s discussed enough, in my opinion.”

Depressingly, a quick Google of the term ‘women groped at gigs’ brings up a Pornhub video, entitled just that, as the third-from-top result. Underneath are a handful of articles from the likes of Bullett Media, Mic and Metal Injection asking why a culture exists in which these assaults are free to happen.

Most of the articles reference Iggy Azalea’s experience, and the incident at Rockfest 2014 in Kansas, where Staind frontman Aaron Lewis paused the show to tell a group of men to lay off a female crowd-surfer. “Listen up you fucking assholes,” he shouted, upon seeing the girl being assaulted. “That girl right there is like, 15 years old, and you pieces of shit are molesting her while she’s on the fucking crowd – you pieces of shit.”

You might be thinking a few things are missing from the collection of reports on gig-groping, and you’d be right. The first, glaringly obvious omission is the British mainstream music press addressing the issue. The second is that most of the reports don’t actually contain any quotes from fans who have been affected; they’re all based on the same few eyewitness accounts. The third is that (with the exception of the Metal Injection post) groping is only deemed important enough to talk about when a well-known musician decides to point it out. Let’s get this straight: it doesn’t only happen when the band notices, and it’s always worth talking about.

Musicians vocally opposing misogyny are easier to find nowadays than they were even a year ago, when Aaron Lewis seemed like a welcome dissenter in a culture that tacitly accepted misogyny. When Front Porch Step, who was accused of harassing multiple fans, was given a slot at one date of this year’s Warped Tour, The Wonder Years, Hayley Williams and Beartooth’s Taylor Lumley, to name a few, all took to Twitter to voice their disapproval. In the latest issue of Metal Hammer, Cane Hill frontman Elijah Witt proudly calls himself a feminist, saying he ‘hates how much harder women have to work’ to be taken seriously in the music world. Joining the increasing group of musicians speaking out is another self-described feminist, Subways frontman Billy Lunn, On the subject of harassment at gigs, he’s intelligent, erudite and passionate about stamping it out.

“I’m doing my best at standing up for feminism in the music world, which is essentially a boys’ club,” he says. “But I’m sad to say that I’m definitely a still minority among guys with guitars.”

He says that, while The Subways ‘encourage a lot of crowd surfing and crowd participation at our gigs’, assaults are rare. “We’re all very heartened to see that many men in our crowds show the utmost respect to the female crowd surfers and moshers,” he says. “Our fans are well aware that if I personally see or hear something untoward then I will stop the song and address the perpetrator directly.”

Unlike Lewis, though, Billy feels that mockery is the best way to combat sexist behaviour.

“Someone who yells something sexually aggressive or misogynist is one thing – unenlightened,” he says. “They are a relic of a time when men were hunter-gatherers and used violence and bellowing to belittle an opponent. If you gently mock the unenlightened misogynist, preferably with a well-thought-out retort, everybody in the room is disarmed. The smile is still on your face, the audience can titter at how stupid bigots can be, and the perpetrator feels less berated than constructively belittled, [and may] reassess their way of thinking.”

But does ‘gentle mockery’ really work? It’s difficult not to feel that, when a man’s hands make their way uninvited into a woman’s underwear, mockery is ineffectual at best. Billy acknowledges that the key to undoing the mentality behind groping is education.

“I think something needs to be done about the way men talk to and act towards women,” he says. “Men need to understand the importance of patriarchal context over the last few millennia as we know it.”

He’s right, of course; men who grope women at gigs do not exist in a vacuum. They’re the same men who openly admit in internet forums that they believe ‘any girl that goes crowd surfing either wants to be groped or is too fucking stupid to realise that that’s all that’s going to happen’. They’re the people who believe a woman’s clothing is an indicator of her sexual availability, and that if female celebrities don’t want naked pictures leaked, they shouldn’t have taken them in the first place. Challenging the attitudes that lie behind the belief that women should expect, and actively avoid, such behaviour, rather than simply go about their lives unmolested, is an ongoing battle, and one that it’s heartening to see more musicians of all genders joining.

But in the short-term, it’s a security issue; the physical safety of fans can’t be guaranteed by education alone. So what are security staff doing to keep women safe at events? I contacted a number of security professionals, from bouncers to event companies to specialist music safety firms, but my inbox remained empty. I can only speculate the reasons that nobody responded; whether it felt like too political a subject for a corporate contractor to be drawn into for fear of losing work, or they simply didn’t have much wifi signal that day, I’ll never know. I did eventually manage to track down a man willing to discuss it with me – RJ Summerville of security company Complete Management Ltd.

“I have certainly witnessed this,” he says. “Anything that spoils someone’s enjoyment or makes them feel objectified is a major problem. People pay good money to attend [gigs and festivals] and have the right to enjoy their night without anyone else making them feel unsafe or uncomfortable.”

Summerville says the type of music is irrelevant when preparing, from a security perspective, to combat assaults.

“It would be easy to get into a debate about which genres encourage disrespect to women the most,” he says. “[Groping] is certainly more prevalent at certain types of events, but that’s connected to the demographic in attendance rather than the [genre of music]. It’s down to the event organisers, security providers and other professionals to ensure plans are in place to counteract such behaviour.”

Does he feel the responsibility lies solely with security personnel to stop it? “I think it has to be a multi-faceted operation,” he says. “I think everyone in that situation has a moral obligation to react. With any behavioural issue, education is key; the more educated people are about their conduct, the more likely it is that the issue won’t arise in the first place.”

There are also practical limitations. Some venues, he explains, have badly positioned CCTV or worse, none at all, so incidents are often missed, and eyewitness reports are impossible to verify. As well as education, it appears that venues and promoters need to dedicate a portion of their budget to better safety measures.

There is some positive news, though. Summerville says that the training given to security staff has vastly improved in recent years. “It’s come on leaps and bounds,” he says, and adds that many security companies also work directly with the emergency services when responding to assaults.

While the situation does seem to be improving – albeit slowly – it’s obvious that every corner of the music industry, from the press and the bands to the labels and corporations behind them, need to demonstrate a united front.

“We all need to step up and take responsibility, and it needs to happen now,” says Billy Lunn. Let’s not let him remain a minority any longer.