Sunday, August 14 saw Cherokee Street's Foam Coffee & Beer packed to the gills. Attendees filled every seat in the house, spilling cross-legged onto the floor, squished shoulder-to-shoulder beyond the bar and crowded into the back room. Though the small space frequently hosts live music, this event had a very different focus.
The people here on this night had gathered to talk about sexual abuse in St. Louis' music scene.
"There are people in this very room who have hurt people, and even more people in the room who are close friends with abusers, so making a public space free from abusers is very difficult — possibly impossible," Jessee Rose Crane explained to the crowd, addressing fears that those accused of harming people might be in attendance. "A 'safer' space is more accurate, and it's something we can actually do."
Regulars in the city's punk, noise, country, Americana, rock and other DIY music scenes were in attendance, including promoters and venue owners — a surprisingly even mix of men and women. The crowd was visibly tense, but respectfully quiet for the entire discussion. They came to learn.
In the weeks prior to the event, the local music scene was shaken by a series of revelations posted on social media about some of its prominent members — allegations of sexual abuse and assault. The mostly online discussions that followed were surprising, heartbreaking and devastating to many people in the scene, which is as intimate as it is vibrant and diverse. The event at Foam was planned and executed as a direct response.
Crane, best-known in St. Louis as a member of the bands Funs and Swear Beam, lead the discussion, flanked on the modest stage by fellow musicians and community members Sam Pounders, Claire Sawyer and Jenny Wilson. The panel discussed what it means to give consent, to hold each other accountable and how to make improvements in the music scene to make it safer for women. As the panelists explained, it's not just a few abusers that keep women from attending shows and feeling safe — facing the friends of abusers can be even worse.
Those who commit sexual assault, after all, are often protected by their friends. "He's such a good dude" or "he's never done anything like that to me" are common responses when they catch wind of misconduct. This makes women who have been victimized feel like liars and outcasts, unwelcome and out of place. The irony is, of course, that the DIY community is supposed to be where outcasts go to feel a sense of belonging with other misfits.
Crane had advice for friends of survivors who tell them their story: "Thank them for trusting you, don't defend the abuser and believe the survivor." It can be difficult to hear that one friend has done this to another, and it takes time and talking it out to process, she explained.
Sawyer told her story of being being disrespected and assaulted as a young woman booking DIY shows in her own house. She then separated herself from the scene for years — a common strategy for women seeking to avoid their aggressors. Unfortunately, this self-defense tactic results in fewer women participating in the music community overall. The scene is, as Sawyer put it, "made safe for the cool guys who are the abusers, and the dozens of women who have been assaulted are no longer allowed to participate. They lose their friends, they lose their families and they lose their space. Survivors don't know how to address apologists or how to talk to those who hang out with rapists."
The panel explained that the music community needs to change its collective tone when a victim speaks out — in other words, we all need to take better care of each other. Wilson insisted that women should not have to be in charge of all of the discussions that will make the music scenes here safe — that women should not have the responsibility of being the conscience of the whole community. "That's exhausting," she said. "Men should talk to each other too."
Crane discussed the importance of consent in a sexual relationship — how "no means no but also yes means yes." She advised men to ask, "May I kiss you? May I touch you there?" She explained that being in a relationship with someone does not provide automatic consent. "Being intoxicated does not provide consent. Agreeing to make out does not provide consent to sex. Even going home with someone does not mean consent," she said.
"Some of this seems like common sense," she said, "but we are all learning here. I'm learning too."
Crane even outlined ways for those who have been accused of misconduct or worse to cope with what they have done, telling them to "be honest, stay honest and get honest," to "respect the survivor — they get to call the shots for how to handle the abuse" and to "learn to listen, which is hard because people invariably become defensive when accused of wrongdoing."
The natural urge to defend oneself prompts abusers to tell "their side" of the story. Crane has advice for this as well: "Don't."
Crane, who spent some time living in Chicago, credited the city's Feminist Action Network for many of the talking points, resources and ideas she discussed during the evening. One solution created by the group that Crane would like to replicate in St. Louis is assigning "support liaisons" to shows: sober, responsible, neutral parties who are there to help if needed. Liaisons would stop any inappropriate touching, make sure intoxicated individuals make it home safely and de-escalate aggressive behavior. Crane explained that liaisons are not bouncers, and would use nonviolent tactics to make spaces safer for everyone.
Pounders asked the crowd to think about who their trust networks are, and demanded that people "call out close friends when you see them doing something inappropriate." She expressed hope that the digital outcry over sexual abuse in the scene would translate into reality.
Crane also had advice for event organizers: "Ask women what they would want from you" in the event that they are made to feel uncomfortable.
"I would drop dead if anyone asked me. No one has ever asked me," she laughed.
Changes are already being made. Kaveh Razani of Blank Space and 2720 made a statement online that if anyone feels unsafe in his venues they should let him know immediately. Luc Michalski and Mike Herr, organizers of Pu Fest, did the same, as did Chris Baricevic, owner/operator of Big Muddy Records, and David and Jake Maness, founders of the Whiskey War Festival.
After the panel spoke, the floor was opened up to the crowd. One woman told her story of sexual abuse — no one believed her, and she was ostracized from the community. "I want to be told 'I believe you,'" she said. Sawyer used the opportunity to explain again that how the community responds to an incident can make an even bigger difference in the victim's life than the initial rape.
In her closing remarks, Crane reminded the crowd that "to be critical of something is not to attack something." She explained that she has love for individuals accused of rape, and that she is processing and learning like everyone else. She explained that the backlash she has personally encountered in setting up this public discussion was far outweighed by the positive outpouring from friends and strangers. "It's worth doing. That's what I know." She said to "focus on the good. Face-to-face communication is really radical. No one wants to do that. But listen to your friends, even though it takes so much energy — the people in this room are ready for it."
The panel called for a show of hands for those who would listen and take action if someone came to them with concerns of being uncomfortable or unsafe. Everyone put their hands in the air.
The discussion has begun.