Speak Up

A couple of months ago my band, Summer Cannibals, was playing a show at the Crystal Ballroom in Portland, Ore. We were on a bill supporting Guided By Voices, a band that’s been very influential on some of us in the group. Support slots like these can be tough; the people aren’t necessarily there for you. They’re not there for some buzz band who maybe blew up on their first record; they are there to see a band they’ve loved for years. They are dedicated and passionate. These types of sets are the ones where I feel the most pressure — I feel like we have to “win over” the crowd in a way that we don’t when people are coming to see us or we’re playing with people who are closer to being our peers.

Despite all of this, the set went great. The crowd was responsive, enthusiastic and totally did not hate us (which I’m always endlessly grateful for). After we finished I immediately went downstairs to our merch table. This is something that one of the band members does at every show. It’s crucial at our level of obscurity to connect with the few fans we do have. I really believe that allowing people to attach an actual human person to the loud music and wild hair-flipping stage personas that we present when performing helps form new and more lasting fan/artist relationships, which is one of the most important parts of this job.

As I stood, selling merch and talking with showgoers, two men (presumably) in their late 40s came to the table. The exchange began cordial and normal enough — they both complimented me on the set and then said they were “pleasantly surprised” (this being a common proclamation of which I’m never sure is a genuine compliment). One of the men asked, “How much would we have to pay you to come play at our office party? We work at Adidas, so could probably pay a lot.” I let them know that our booking agent took care of that stuff and her contact info was on our website, and I said that if he wanted to reach out she would pass it along to us if it made sense for us.

The men then both began pressing me to give them a price for our “services,” while I made attempts to deflect. One of them shouted, “Five hundred dollars!” In the politest way I could, I let him know that we generally didn’t play in Portland for that little. He didn’t understand and repeatedly asked why. So I explained the basic economics of playing shows and how it doesn’t make sense for us to play for less than what we could make headlining a 300-to-400 capacity venue that we could likely sell out, selling tickets for $10 apiece and taking a percentage of that. He appeared annoyed, then looked at his friend and said to him, “Don’t you just want to punch her in the stomach as hard as you can?” His friend appeared confused and nervous, and then began to laugh awkwardly while making eye contact with me. I responded with, “Excuse me?” He then looked me directly in the eyes and said, “I want to punch you in the stomach as hard as I can.” I was shocked. Confused. Afraid. The only response I could muster was, “Why?” He responded, “Because you’re cocky. You’re good but you’re cocky, and it makes me want to punch you.”

Now, anyone who knows me will tell you I am rarely at a loss for words. I’ve always got something to say, and I’ve never really had a tough time defending myself to people who step out of line. This felt different. I felt genuine fear. I smiled. I brushed it off. I didn’t tell the security guards in the lobby and I didn’t look at him and yell, “Fuck you, you giant asshat!” I did nothing, and I regret that. I regret not letting a security guard know I felt unsafe, and having the man escorted out. My fear, though, was that if I escalated the situation he could be waiting for me outside when I left the show at 2 a.m. My fear was that this man would actually physically harm me.

Some people might say this should be taken as a joke; one of those people would likely be his silent coward of a friend. The truth is that the threat against women is real. Recent figures show that about one out of every three women on Earth experience physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetime. What some might think of as a joke, we have to view as a threat, because the risk to not do so is too high. When a man catcalls a woman on the street, maybe he genuinely thinks he’s just trying to give her a compliment (however sexist and delusional his thinking may be). Women in these instances aren’t able to give a catcaller the benefit of the doubt because in these moments, our safety is at stake. In this instance it wasn’t a faceless bully on the Internet, or a heckler in a crowd of 1,000 people. This was a man, 60 lbs. heavier than myself, standing three feet away. The threat was real, and I was looking it in its drunken face.

I don’t know how to change such a person’s way of thinking. Obviously, a person like that has so little respect for me (for reasons so ingrained inside his brain that he probably isn’t even aware of them himself) that, most likely, there is nothing I could say that would change his mind in that moment. His friend, however, is the one I’d like to talk to. Dude’s friend: I think you have a moral responsibility to stand up to your drunk buddy when his dialogue turns into something harmful directed at a woman (or anyone for that matter). I saw it in your eyes. You knew it was wrong, you were embarrassed — fuck dude, maybe I’m projecting here, but I felt like I saw remorse in your eyes. Would you have said something if the woman your friend was threatening was your sister, mother or daughter? You were the witness — you were the one who could have been the change in that moment. I didn’t speak up because I didn’t feel safe to. What’s your excuse?

The last weekend of May this year we were playing Sasquatch Music Festival at the Gorge in Washington. The view was beautiful and the crowd was sizeable and energetic for our early time slot, and we were all very excited to play. Now, we’ve had hecklers before. It’s not new. I’d say 99 percent of the time they’re men, and honestly, most of the damage they do is to themselves. Trust me when I say you never look or sound cool. There’s not one person in the crowd or onstage who hears you yelling between songs and thinks, “Huh, that seems like a cool guy I would like to get to know.” After we finished our first song a young man in the front of the crowd yelled at the top of his lungs, “You’re so sexy!” I rolled my eyes and we continued to play. After the second song he yelled it two more times. OK, we fucking get it. We played our third song. After we finished it and the applause began to die down the same young man screamed, “Call me daddy!” I lost it. I felt a fire run through me. The hairs were standing up all over my body. He had touched a nerve. I made eye contact with my sexist heckler and said into the microphone, “I’ll call you daddy when I punch you in the dick.” The crowd erupted in cheers. I told him that even though I didn’t think I could get him kicked out of the festival for saying dumb sexist shit, I could and would continue to try and make him feel like an ass if he didn’t stop. He was silent the rest of the show but stayed where he was, watching intently, from what I could see the few times I looked in his direction.

To be clear, I do not think threatening violence — even when a person is being incredibly inappropriate while I’m attempting to do my job — is ever cool. But in the heat of the moment this didn’t register. I was angry, and I had a microphone and an attentive crowd. I know there are better ways of standing up in this type of situation. It wasn’t until I began writing this piece that the similarities between what I had said to the young man heckling us and the guy at our show months later started to become more clear. Violent language is ingrained in all of us, and I feel that, as women, we are so accustomed to hearing it directed at us that it becomes instinctive to use it as a defense in attempts to show that we aren’t weaker. The issue of violent language runs deep, and I fully don’t think I’m prepared to cover it all; I can only speak on my recent experiences and share what I’ve learned.

Later that evening at Sasquatch we had an album signing at a booth in the festival. The sexist heckler stood in line with the rest of the fans, and when I saw him, my heart dropped. What was he going to say? Shit, what was he going to do? He approached the table and said, “I’m so sorry.” Uh. What? He’s sorry? Was I hearing this correctly? He continued, “Honestly, I just wanted your attention, and I went about it in a really stupid way. I really didn’t realize what I was doing. I won’t ever do something like that to anyone again.” Then he asked to shake all of our hands. I told him thank you.

I don’t write any of this with the intent to complain about men, or to pat myself on the back for saying something mean to a young heckler. The purpose of writing this is to stress how important it is that we call attention to these unsafe, harming interactions so that a change can happen. I didn’t say anything to the guy who wanted to punch me in the stomach, but I honestly believe it’s not too late. I’m saying something now. We have to call out the dangerous, threatening and problematic behavior of male fans and audience members, because if we don’t, then nothing will change.

When we ignore the problem it only grows. When we call attention to it and don’t shy away from this dialogue, the problem begins to lose its power over us.

To the women who face this on a daily basis and to the men who know better: please speak up, and when you do, talk loudly, be visible, and let everyone around you know that silence isn’t an option. We can’t allow ourselves to be oppressed. There are people who haven’t been taught any better, and sometimes it’s so ingrained in their lives that they are completely unaware of the people they’re harming. I’m making it a part of my job, as someone with a microphone — however small my audience may be — to speak up and push against these problems, but the truth is that if we hope to ever see legitimate change, it means that it has to become everyone’s job to speak up.

By Jessica Boudreaux, distributed under a Creative Commons CC-BY license.

Image by Katharine Jacobs, distributed under the CC-BY-ND creative commons license.

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