How gigs can be made safer for women: “We need to involve acts, venues and gig-goers”

Fresh focus on female safety has led to greater scrutiny on the toxicity in live music – and there's plenty of work to be done. Charlotte Krol meets the fans, bands and activists leading the charge

“My friend and I went to see Bob Vylan at Birthdays in east London about three years ago. This drunk guy just would not leave my friend alone. He kept coming close into her space, whispering in her ear, basically trying to crack onto her. She repeatedly told him ‘No’ and he wouldn’t listen. We told security, but they were incredibly slow to act.”

Kate Crudgington of Get In Her Ears, a non-profit platform promoting safe enjoyment of live music for women and non-binary people, isn’t alone in her experience. Many of us have heard or seen Crudgington’s story unravel at gigs or festivals. In 2018, a YouGov survey found that 30 per cent of women had faced assault or harassment at festivals.

Since last month, the murder of Sarah Everard – one of the most resonant cases of violence against a woman in recent memory – has heightened tensions and sparked conversations about women’s safety, including in the live music space, with dozens of organisations posting advice on social media or reaffirming messages of support.

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Crudgington explains that her complaint was acknowledged and a statement was released by the venue, but the response was lacking. “I think the responsibility should be shared not just on the promoter but the venue hosting it,” she says. “I think that would be really useful – some kind of mandatory training for venue staff.”

The training of event staff to deal with reports of sexual assault or harassment is at the heart of another organisation: the Good Night Out (GNO) campaign. It runs an accreditation programme for venues to help them “reach certain standards that we believe are the absolute baseline for creating a safer environment”, explains Managing Director Bryony Beynon.

That includes sexual violence response training and ‘onboarding’ for all staff so they are equipped to deal with instances swiftly and appropriately. Accredited venues range from the Brighton Dome to The Brudenell Social Club in Leeds and Oslo in London.

Campaign posters are put up around the venues and trained staff can wear badges to alert people that help is on hand. “It’s really about giving people these little nudges while they’re in the space to know that this has been thought about,” Beynon says. “Hopefully they don’t even have to consider it but if it happens then it’s already on their radar that that venue has a policy in place.”

GNO, which began in 2014, has accredited 186 nightlife spaces to date; all are re-assessed and renewed on an annual basis. Its work has flowed into other organisations that share the same mission of spreading awareness and establishing safer music environments, such as Girls Against. “We’ve been working with GNO – it’s a very collaborative effort,” says co-founder Bea Bennister. “They do all the training and we want to be able to recommend them to the venues that we work with.

“That effort between all the organisations fighting for the same thing is what we started to get off the ground… but then lockdown happened.”

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Girls Against began trialling establishing safe spaces in venues before the pandemic halted gigs. “It’s basically an area where you can go if you’re feeling overwhelmed at the event,” Bennister explains, “and [we have] at least one trained, non-male security guard up there to provide support – because from my experience even having one woman in the security team just makes you feel so much better.”

During the coronavirus crisis, Girls Against has been investigating policy and looking at ways to improve their own ideas, intending to resume the safe space initiative once gigs return. Some organisations have found that women’s safety at gigs isn’t the only pressure point. Amelia Boyle of Gig Safe Glasgow, whose organisation has also been trained by GNO, serves to support anyone with vulnerabilities in the live music environment.

“When I first looked into it, I saw there were way more issues to do with autism or people with disabilities that make it challenging for them to go to gigs,” Boyle says. Her organisation stations a help desk at small venues in Glasgow where people can take refuge, chat or request to speak safely away from the venue floor.  “It’s been a very positive experience. People have come up to us as said they wished we’d been at other gigs. There’s so many stigmas, too, especially with men asking for help. That’s why we try to have a man and a woman on the team at each event because sometimes men can feel weird coming up to me.”

Boyle adds that Gig Safe Glasgow is in the “very early stages” of looking into developing an app or an online function to show people which gigs the team is stationed at each month. And once concerts return, the initiative aims to have out more posters at venues to raise awareness of what it does.

“People say this is a ‘male problem’. If we don’t get male artists involved, it continues to be a female problem” – Safe Gigs For Women’s Tracey Wise

Perhaps one of the most vocal organisations in the wake of the Sarah Everard story was Safe Gigs For Women, which wrote a Twitter thread advising and advocating for change. “Women should not have to spend every moment of their lives calculating the risk level of their existence,” part of it read. “To put it plainly: Women are not the problem.”

Tracey Wise, founder of Safe Gigs For Women, tells NME that her organisation believes “a multi-layered approach that involves acts, venues and gig-goers” is part of a solution. The initiative has worked with acts including Frank Turner, Architects and IDLES, and festivals including Wireless and Reading & Leeds, in trying to stamp out inappropriate actions and attitudes. “If they don’t want their gigs or festivals to be somewhere where that behaviour is allowed then they need to speak up, whether that be on social media, onstage, writing their own blog posts,” explains Wise. “Then that sets an example before the gig or event has even happened.”

That example, she adds, needs to come from male acts: “People are saying, around the Sarah Everard story, that this is a ‘male problem’. If we don’t get the male bands and artists involved in this as well, it continues to be a female problem.”

Safe Gigs For Women also promotes ways in which gig-goers can be active bystanders in intervening when an assault or harassment takes place. See the outline of the four ‘Ds’ of being a bystander below: direct, distraction, delegate and delay.

A crucial, collective voice in establishing safer spaces for women comes from musicians themselves. 18-year-old alt. pop singer Alfie Templeman has been outspoken on the issue, recently writing on Twitter that he will not tolerate “any sexual assault/harassment at any of my gigs and you will be thrown out and banned from ever coming to see us”. The problem, he tells NME, is that people feel “too uncomfortable” to call out what they’re seeing – and that laws aren’t harsh enough: “Sexual harassment should be a criminal offence. It’s about providing extra laws on top of this so we can work to build safer gigs.”

He adds that people need to be educated from a young age if society is ever going to move on from outdated attitudes and behaviours: “It’s about re-educating men in the first place. I don’t see any lessons in school taught about this, which is quite disturbing.”

Frequent gig-goer Jessica Horne agrees: “If groping carried a hefty fine or easily landed them in prison – if we had a lot harsher laws – then that could help improve things.” She points out that the Home Office announced on March 18 that misogyny will now be recorded as a hate crime in England and Wales, but asks: “What does that really extend to?”

Big Joanie: taking a stand against discrimination at gigs. Credit: press

Estella Adeyeri, who plays in Black feminist punk band Big Joanie, echoes Templeman’s comments that artists need to shout about what isn’t acceptable. “It would be untenable for me if somebody came to a Big Joanie gig and didn’t feel safe in any particular way,” she says. “We’ve been quite intentional about the fact that our gigs are for everybody and that everybody is to be respected, regardless of gender, sexuality or race or if they have a disability. I think when you wear your values on your sleeve, you tend to attract an audience that identifies a response to that as well.”

Adeyeri, who is on the board for Good Night Out, adds that her band would never have an issue stopping their performance to call harassment out and alert venue staff to the issue. Referring to the organisations accreditation programme, she says: “That’s where I think staff training would be extremely useful. I’m impressed with all of the work GNO has done – I see their materials at venues. That work of changing attitudes can be really helpful because the whole ethos then tends to permeate the people who actually go there. I think you can almost set the agenda of what you will accept at your venue.”

“When you wear your values on your sleeve, you tend to attract an audience that’s on board with them too” – Big Joanie’s Estella Adeyeri

Other suggestions include having a greater female security presence at gigs. Mari Lane of Get In Her Ears says she always feels “safer if there’s a female security person” at a gig because it “creates a more collaborative environment”. Girls Against’s Bea Bennister is on board with this but notes: “Unfortunately it’s still quite rare to see – and people would feel more comfortable reporting things [to women]”.

Bennister adds that one of Girls Against’s biggest challenges is “changing the system of how security guards work and how they’re trained” and says: “We struggle trying to contact and work with them because they often don’t want to change how their training is implemented. Venues are usually very happy to collaborate but security companies are harder to crack.”

beyond practical interventions of training venue staff, establishing safe spaces, ensuring greater diversity in security teams and encouraging gig-goers to be active bystanders, many of the organisations NME spoke to addressed the deeper issue of ignorance and ingrained male entitlement that needs to be uprooted.

“People always tend to bring it back to, ‘Oh well, we need to educate more in schools’, and absolutely we do because you have to get there before these attitudes are bedded-in,” says GNO’s Bryony Beynon.

But she thinks grown men can change their behaviour too – even just quietly through conversations with their friends: “If the training that we’ve delivered to several thousands before in nightlife has taught me anything it’s that people can change their opinions and thoughts pretty rapidly if you give them room to explore these ideas in a space where they don’t feel ashamed and not scared of getting it wrong.”

Tracey Wise, meanwhile, thinks sexual and social education in the UK needs improvement to tackle the root issue: “We’ve never really talked about consent, relationships and attitudes to women, and healthy relationship boundaries. Age-appropriate-led sex education needs to start from a younger age [and] understanding what it means to have consent before you engage in interactions with others”.

“It won’t be fast,” she adds, “and it won’t come overnight, but that will bring the biggest change.”

Main image credit: Alamy

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