Out of the spotlight: Sexual assault lurks in the Pioneer Valley local music scene

Author’s note: This article discusses sexual assault and trauma and includes personal stories from victims of sexual harassment, assault, and rape.

The Pioneer Valley is unique for its thriving and diverse music scene with dozens of venues and hundreds of local musicians. Groups like the Pixies, Dinosaur Jr., and Staind all got their start in the area in the 1980s and 1990s. In 2015 online music magazine Pitchfork declared that western Massachusetts was “having another moment” naming local indie rockers as rising stars.

However, local musicians and others connected with the music scene point to a persistent problem of sexual harassment and assault tarnishing an otherwise positive community.

After the #MeToo movement gained traction following the Harvey Weinstein rape allegations, it opened the door for people to share their experiences of sexual harassment or assault, but many people in the local music scene still see it as taboo. Several people interviewed in this story spoke on the condition that we change their names for fear of being ostracized or retaliated against.

“I think the assumption is also that these things will be huge and noticeable when they happen, instead of under the radar and in private so that the people perpetrating it can go out and still be in the community,” said Emily, a 28-year-old Easthampton singer-songwriter and victim of rape whose name was changed to protect her identity. “It’s like how everyone tells you to watch out for people hiding in the bushes when it’s someone you trust that’s more likely to do the damage.”

Kelly Drew, 30, is a journalist, artist, and concert reviewer with Live Music News and Review, and attends shows across the Pioneer Valley on a weekly basis. She is also a victim of sexual assault. She thinks #MeToo has been instrumental in pointing at the elephant in the room when it come to sexual harassment and assault.

“I think it’s more out in the open than it ever has been before, which is awesome, but also runs the risk of becoming a tired subject for those who aren’t necessarily victims of it — that is, most men … Women can only do so much — it shouldn’t be solely on us and our emotional labor to teach men that they shouldn’t sexually harass people,” she said.

Ninety-one percent of victims of sexual assault are female, while 9 percent are male. In eight out of 10 cases of rape, the victim knew the perpetrator, according to data from the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.

Asher Putnam, lead vocalist of Northampton-based circus punk band Bella’s Bartok, said he thinks sexual harassment and assault has always been a hidden part of the local music scene.

He said people in the Pioneer Valley scene are more open to discussing sexual harassment or assault compared to when he moved to western Massachusetts eight years because of events in the national spotlight.

Putnam said he would like to see assailants atone for their behavior and be rehabilitated, while also making sure that victims feel safe again in public spaces.

“If it’s some seriously heinous stuff — rape or any sort of sexual assault,” he says “you’re not going to come back from that. You’re a monster at that point.”

Emily said she thinks people are more open to talking about sexual harassment or assault in the music scene than in the past, but it’s difficult for people to speak out about their abuse because they don’t know how to gauge what someone’s reaction might be.

“I do think something is unfolding where people feel a little braver speaking up, but there’s still a long way to go,” she said.

A focus on healing and listening

Jenn Ritz Sullivan, who has more than a decade of experience working in mental health, is a counselor and peer support organizer with the Survivor Arts Collective, a mental health service group based in Eastworks in Easthampton led by people in the queer community who have been victims of sexual assault or rape who primarily serve the trans and nonbinary communities as well as those who are black, indigenous, and people of color.

“We just try to put the focus on healing and listening to survivors because so many times people don’t speak up because they’re not listened to,” said Ritz Sullivan, who is a survivor of multiple sexual assaults.

One in five women and one in 71 men will be raped at some point in their lives, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. Statistics from the center also show that in the United States one in three women and one in six men experience some form of sexual violence within their lifetime.

Part of the mission of the Survivor Arts Collective is healing trauma through art, Sullivan said. Many of the members of the collective are artists.

Ritz Sullivan, a 34-year-old resident of Goshen, declined to mention if any members of the collective are local musicians due to confidentiality, but said she’s well aware of issues regarding sexual harassment and assault in the local music scene.

“The rule that we go by is that if you are comfortable with outing your perpetrator without your information being shared, we will gladly assist you in that,” she said. “But because it’s such a small community, most people aren’t comfortable with that. They’re afraid of backlash and understandably so.”

According to data from the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, 15 percent of sexual assaults occur in an open public space, 55 percent occur at or near the victim’s home, and 10 percent in an enclosed public area.

Ritz Sullivan is also a volunteer with Boston-based nonprofit Calling All Crows, which aims to shine a light on the hidden sexual assault and harassment taking place in the music industry, said she thinks sexual assault is a problem in the music industry as a whole as well as the local music scene.

She said the issue isn’t acknowledged by the larger music industry and added to that is a lack of data anywhere regarding sexual assault in the music industry. Lack of funding to research this topic is also an issue and most of the studies taking place are being done by grassroots organizations such as Calling All Crows.

“The only information and numbers that we have [about sexual assault in the music industry] is from a 500 person survey done in the Chicago area,” Ritz Sullivan said.

In response to the lack of data surrounding sexual assault and harassment in the music industry, Calling All Crows has started the #HereForTheMusic campaign, which is a national survey for artists, managers, music fans, venues, festivals, and music industry press to ask whether they’ve experienced predatory behavior at live music shows and how venues and festivals can improve their policies and respond to incidents.

Northampton Police Chief Jody Kasper said in the past she worked as a sexual assault investigator and couldn’t recall any cases occurring at a music venue, but didn’t rule out the possibility of sexual assault happening at music venues in Northampton that were unreported.

Sexual assault is one of most widely underreported crimes due to the personal nature of the crime and the stigma surrounding sexual assault in general, Kasper said.

“We know that the numbers that we have and how many we’ve investigated are certainly in no way the representation of the numbers that occur in our community,” she said.

The National Victimization Survey for 2016 from the Bureau of Justice Statistics backs up what Kasper said, stating that nationwide only 23 percent of incidents of rape or sexual assault were reported to police that year.

According to data from the Northampton Police Department, there were 41 reports of sex crimes in 2015, 46 in 2016, and 66 in 2017. Northampton has an estimated population of 28,593 people according to U.S Census data from July 1, 2017.

Kasper said she doesn’t know what would account for the bump in reported sex crimes from 2016 to 2017, but said that typically the number of reported cases fluctuates throughout the years.

Consequences for speaking out

Drew, the journalist with Live Music News and Review, said she’s fed up with sexual harassment and assault in the local music scene having experienced multiple incidents of harassment at different venues throughout the Pioneer Valley.

“I will go to bat for any woman who feels victimized because I’ve been in that situation and never want to feel like it again,” she said, adding that she has intervened in situations where women have been harassed. “I will defend anyone who has felt like that. I promise you that if you go to any show [anywhere] tonight, there will be someone who will be harassed in some way.”

At the same time, she said that there can be consequences for victims of sexual assault speaking out against their attackers.

Drew said a local musician sexually harassed her and five of her friends by starting with the same pick up line and then cornering them. He then proceeded to pin them up against a wall, she said. After she and other women told him to stop, he continued to sexually harass them. She declined to name the musician or the band that he’s in for fear of being ostracized by her peers.

“When one of the people who he did it to decided to make a stink out of it, she was absolutely turned against because people thought that she was making it up even though there was corroborating evidence. The other women didn’t want to sully their names by saying, ‘Oh yeah, he did that to me too,’” Drew said.

When she was 19 years old, Drew was sexually assaulted by the owner of a live music and sound production company for whom she worked.

“I was almost raped by him and had to force him off of me,” she said. ‘It was just totally inappropriate behavior … I wasn’t the only one who he sunk his claws into.”

After the incident, she said she felt ostracized by her friend group and the Greenfield pop punk music scene. She was viewed by others as being a “temptress.”

“I unfortunately felt like I lost that group of friends even though I was the victim in the situation … I had my partner at the time help me best he could, but I felt like everyone took the side of the abusers or stayed neutral, which can be like an even worse option when you’re in the position that I was in,” Drew said. “I ended up hitting rock bottom a few years later in a different way, which caused me to reevaluate my coping techniques.”

She spent most of her college years away from Greenfield at Smith College in Northampton and part of what helped her heal through her trauma was following one of her favorite bands, progressive rock band Rush, on tour. During the course of eight years, she saw Rush 71 times and become a widely known fan of the band within Rush fan circles.

She said her abuser continues to work within the music scene in the Pioneer Valley.

“I’m fearful about naming names because I’m trying to keep a fairly low profile about my experience with it unless it’s on my own terms,” Drew said. “If I were to name names, the blow back would come on me.”

Despite her experiences, Drew said she still feels safe attending local shows.

“The music scene is thriving in the Pioneer Valley and I’m psyched that I’m a part of it,” she said. “It seems like every single night [in Western Massachusetts], there’s a show to go see. Not many people have that kind of community. As sexual harassment in the Valley and elsewhere is an ongoing thing, I’m certainly wary of potential harassment, but I’m also totally fearless.”

Chased away from Western Mass

Phoebe, 25, left Springfield several years ago for Atlanta, Georgia, on a one-way bus after being shunned by the rap/producing scene in the city. She received threats of violence after she spoke up about being raped by her former boyfriend, who was also a local rap artist. Phoebe’s name was changed to protect her identity and she declined to name her rapist for fear of retaliation.

“I left Springfield with $45 and a bus ticket and I had to essentially start over because I was very concerned that I wasn’t going to live to see the end of that year,” she said. “It’s weird how people can take art and turn it into this whole entire violent unfortunate system.”

Before she left, she spent several months mostly staying inside except to go to work, for fear of being assaulted by her abuser or his friends in the rap scene in Springfield.

“I changed all of my schedules, but he would have people looking for me. I’d be walking down the street from my friend’s house who lived a couple blocks over and there’d be cars that would stop when they saw me and then loop back around to find me and yell out their cars and throw things at me,” she said.

As a black woman, Phoebe said she notices a disconnect and hypocrisy from black male musicians who speak out against violence influenced by white supremacy but don’t speak out against acts of sexual violence against women.

“Even though male violence is an issue, I don’t want to give the impression that black men, who primarily the people who I was dealing with, were uniquely violent,” she said.

The music scene is supposed to be a place where people feel safe to express their artistic ideas, but for women that dream isn’t always the reality, Phoebe said. Fear of being banned from shows by producers, and performing is another fear many female rap artists face in Springfield, she said.

“There’s everyone in Western Mass and then there’s Springfield, so when you’re trying to perform outside of Springfield, even in Springfield, you have to have that network and those connections,” Phoebe said. “And not only is the sexual violence keeping people from being able to build those networks, it’s actively being denied to people.”

Still avoiding her attacker

More than a year and a half ago, Emily, the Easthampton singer-songwriter, said she was on a date at a bar with another musician she had just played a concert with. She said she barely remembered being at the bar with her date after having about three drinks that night.

She said her date raped her in his car and she can remember “him being inside me” while she started to have a panic attack.

“I woke up the next day and felt disgusting, not really hungover; just vile. My roommate in the morning asked me if I was okay. I guess I came home sobbing and barely able to walk,” she said.

Emily declined to name her assailant but said he continues to play shows in the Pioneer Valley and she gets nervous seeing his name on lineups and hearing about people praising his work.

She said she was already in therapy before she was raped, and it took several months to even tell her therapist. She feared backlash if she spoke up, she said. It took her a year and a half to tell three of her friends in the local music scene. When she did speak to her friends, it helped her, but she’s still on edge about backlash that could impact her music career.

“I’m mostly just trying to plan what I do music wise if that does happen,” Emily said.

Emily said that despite her experiences she feels mostly safe going to shows as long as she is among friends. It took her a long time to attend shows again and ended up limiting her options of where she performed or saw shows.

In the punk and metal scenes, she said she’s heard of men who’ve groped women being banned by local music venues.

“The Pioneer Valley scene is unique in that there is a lot of mutual support between audience and musicians … I’ve heard that the love in the Pioneer Valley metal scene in particular is unique and people really love playing out here because of how supportive everyone is,” she said.

#MeToo missing from the music scene

On a national level, despite the highly publicized cases of men in the movie industry felled by allegations of sexual assault and misconduct, relatively few in the music industry have been affected.

Like Hollywood, the music industry has historically been and continues to be a boys’ club. In popular music, 83 percent of artists were men in 2017, a six-year low for female artists in popular content, according to a University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism study.

At a recent South by Southwest (SXSW) panel discussion on Sexual Misconduct in the Music Industry Uproxx editorial director of music Caitlin White lamented, “I don’t think #MeToo has touched the music industry yet.”

Montreal based singer-songwriter Peggy Hogan agreed: “Overall, I think the music industry hasn’t found the right man to out yet [for the problem to become more public], and that’s a strange feeling.”

But contrary to Hogan’s assertion, there have been a number of superstar musicians who have been linked to and accused of sexual improprieties.

Stories of coercion, assault, and, rape are de rigueur in music lore. From Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page’s statutory rape of 14-year-old Lori Mattix in the 1970s to Kesha’s failed attempt to bring her alleged rapist and manager (Dr. Luke) to justice, the known and alleged crimes of these perpetrators have gone unchecked.

Perhaps one of the most highly publicized cases is the rape of Jackie Fuchs aka Jackie Fox of the 1970s female teen rock group The Runaways. It took Fuchs 40 years to render her first hand account of being raped by then-manager Kim Fowley at a New Years Eve party in a room full of witnesses.

Supporting young female musicians

June Millington, 70, of Goshen was — like Fuchs — a young rocker during the 1970s. As a founder of the seminal all-female band Fanny, Millington saw first-hand the dangers of being a woman in a male dominated industry.

Millington is the co-founder and artistic director for the Institute for the Musical Arts (IMA) in Goshen, a teaching, performing, and recording institute with a nonprofit mission to support women and girls in the music industry. Part of IMA’s mission has been to teach women and girls how to navigate predatory behavior in the music industry.

She said part of being a performer is being open to meeting people and currying favors, which can be difficult for women to navigate, especially for younger female musicians.

“I needed to ask for advice and for help because information was not available to girls in 1961; not only did you not have any role models, but there was no place safe,” Millington said.

She said she learned quickly that when she approached male musicians asking about guitar licks or chord progressions, most men assumed that she wanted to have sex with them.

“I will say that I was never raped, but I did develop a way to deal with the danger and I did do that on my own probably because I’m biracial and I’m so sensitive to racism. I already had my antennae up anyway,” said Millington who is Filipino-American.

She said she’s unsure whether sexism and sexual assault are as commonplace today in the music industry as they were in the 1960s. Last year, while performing a gig in New York, a man touched her breast and she’s unsure whether he sexually assaulted her or it was an accident.

“At that time I was 69. I mean, dude, really?” Millington said. “But I didn’t ask and I was thinking about that. Was that an accident? These are the types of things that women can do — just be a lot more clear about the boundaries and say it out loud. You don’t necessarily have to be too aggressive when you ask; just ask. I mean, ‘What are your intentions here?’ And don’t just take it. Women have to hold the line and talk to each other.”

She said she tells young female musicians at IMA that oftentimes they might be in danger of sexual assault by people close to them. In her experience, one of the pitfalls that comes with fame is with musicians becoming too trusting of the people who pay them compliments.

“Don’t worry about what people are thinking about you,” she said. “Because once you do that, you fall into these traps where you can walk into a room of danger and you don’t even know it because somebody is saying something nice about you. It’s our job as performers to actually wake up more. I tell them that all the time, ‘Wake up! Wake up! Don’t fall asleep to this because it’s really important. You have to stay awake to this. You have to talk to each other. You have to say something.’”

Sexual harassment policies

Some music venue managers/owners and DIY house show organizers in the Pioneer Valley have sexual harassment or assault policies in place and try to keep a vigilant eye out for warning signs, but several victims and advocates said they aren’t prevalent enough.

Emily said she’s never seen any notices about sexual harassment at any music venues in the Pioneer Valley.

Putnam said his band is frequently on tour and most of the time venues policies surrounding sexual harassment or assault aren’t publicly displayed or discussed by venue management.

Ritz Sullivan said she doesn’t think most venues have clear policies in place.

“We see that reporting rape and reporting assault all around, it doesn’t happen because the system is screwed up and victim blaming,”  Ritz Sullivan said. “In the music industry, it’s more of the same. It’s people not wanting to come forward or not knowing how to. I know I’ve been out at shows [locally] and seen people being harrassed and I go up and try to intervene, but other than that who do I go to? Whose the point person? Every now and then you can find a security person who is not a trained individual.”

Due to the secrecy surrounding underground DIY house venues, it’s uncertain whether many spaces have formally written policies, but for Tony “Tonez” Hall, a member of folk punk band Flame N’ Peach & The Liberated Waffles who also booked 30 to 40 person shows at a DIY house venue in Amherst, it was important to let people know that the house was safe for people to ask for help.

“Our verbal commitment to each other is that we will observe events and people who are participating in them and act accordingly, especially as the person who is facilitating the concert,” said Hall, who identifies with the pronoun “they.”

Hall said they haven’t heard about incidents taking place during concerts at the DIY space in Amherst, but immediately decided to uninvite a band they declined to name when a victim of sexual assault reached out online and told them a band member was her assailant.

Steve Goldsher, owner of Hawks & Reed Performing Arts Center in Greenfield said his venue has a “zero tolerance policy” for sexual harassment or assault taking place at his club.

He said if a musician who performs at his venue were accused of sexual assault, he would contact the booking agent as well as the police.

“If a musician comes here and rapes somebody, they’re going to be charged,” Goldsher said. “It’s not going to be a free ride; not forgiven because [they’re a musician].”

Jeremy Goldsher, Goldsher’s son who is a manager at Hawks & Reed, said if they were informed about an alleged sexual assault by a musician, they would be “seriously considered for a future ban at the bare minimum.”

He said although his staff is diligent about noticing warning signs, he believes concertgoers need to be active as well in addressing incidents of alleged sexual harassment or assault to staff members at Hawks & Reed.

“We can try to be proactive as possible, but in a 400-person show, if someone has something occur and they don’t come to us it immediately starts to limit some of their options, so we just highly encourage people to come speak to anyone on staff,” Jeremy Goldsher said.

Michelle Durant, a security staff member at Hawks & Reed, said there have only been a handful of times during the past several years she’s worked at the venue where she’s felt there have been incidents that could have led to sexual harassment or assault.

“One time I noticed a guy and his ex-girlfriend were starting to talk, but he kind of cornered her,” Durant said. “I immediately went right up and said, ‘She wants to leave.’ Then, I got one of the other security people to talk to him. We’re pretty tight as a security group; keeping eyes out, letting people know if we kind of see something — those warning signs that you might be able to see.”

Drew said she thinks most of the time bartenders at local venues notice when there’s red flag behavior and are part of addressing an incident if it arises. However, in her experience she’s found that venues are more reactive than proactive when it comes to sexual harassment or assault.

Donald Robert Jr., manager at the Waterfront Tavern in Holyoke since 2015, said it’s not too often that sexual harassment will occur at the club, about once a month every few months, but there are protocols in place to deal with incidents.

“If it’s verbal or if a male customer is being way into the personal space of a female customer, we’ll give them a warning and ask them to back off. We’ll discuss it with the female customer first to make sure they’re okay with that. If they do it a second time, we ask them to leave. Being in this industry, I have had incidents where a guy grabs a woman’s butt unwarranted, and we just go up and we get him out of the place as soon as possible,” Robert said.

Countering sexual violence and harassment

For some musicians, the way to counter sexual assault and harassment is through openly discussing predatory behavior and playing a more active role in addressing it.

Putnam said musicians have power and a platform while performing onstage and Bella’s Bartok members have called out predatory behavior from the stage at their past shows. Before most shows, members of Bella’s Bartok make sure to be in communication with friends in the audience to look for warning signs of sexual harassment or assault.

If someone in the crowd notices an instance of sexual assault, they’ll signal that information to members of the band onstage, he said. The band members will then point to that person and tell them to stop.

“No one will know if we have some plants in the audience who will give us a holler. And then we hit the microphone and go, ‘What the hell!’” Putnam said.

Millington said she thinks men in the music scene need to take more of an active role in defending women from sexual predators.

“Right now, it’s sort of socially sanctioned to behave in a slightly predatory manner. It’s unspoken. You can make all these comments and that’s unsavory. I believe that men have to say something,” she said.

Drew said she thinks men need to “step up” in regards to openly discussing sexual harassment or assault as well as intervening in situations if someone is in danger.

“There’s so much going on in the world and the music scene is one of the things that’s nearest and dearest to my heart where I want to see us be the best that we can be. That does involve having a hard conversation. Again, that’s why I’m nervous about putting my name to this, but I want to because I want this to be said. This has to stop. I am so done with this prevalence of toxic masculinity.”

For Phoebe, part of the solution is to educate people about sexual harassment and assault as well as factors that contribute to these problems such as toxic masculinity. However, she’s uncertain if education alone would protect people.

“In the meantime, I definitely think there should be more spaces that uplift women, gay people, and people with disabilities,” she said.

Hall said they think musicians have a responsibility to engage with difficult topics such as sexual assault.

“I think artists need to be socially engaged in critical social issues — talking about real problems, not just when they’re on the stage,” they said. “That extends to talking to journalists, but also using their own platforms to not just promote ourselves, but to at least create dialogue.”

Ritz Sullivan plans to organize a campaign in the Pioneer Valley through Calling All Crows to teach venue staff, musicians, and music fans about bystander training.

The goal is to counter what social psychologists call the bystander effect. The bystander effect is a social psychological phenomenon in which individuals are discouraged to offer help to a victim when other people are present. The greater the number of bystanders, the less likely it is the victim will receive any help.

University of Massachusetts Amherst professor emeritus Dr. Susan Krauss Whitbourne says “diffusion of responsibility” explains the bystander effect.

“The theory states that people ask themselves: ‘Why should I help when there’s someone else who could do it?’ Responsibility for helping diffuses or spreads,” Whitbourne said.

Information about calling All Crows bystander trainings can be found on the organization’s website and the Survivor Arts Collective in Easthampton also provides training.

“A lot of people don’t say anything because they don’t know how to or they don’t want to make anyone upset,” she said. “We come together and we train folks and let them know that there is no perfect way to intervene. You’re not going to put on a superhero cape and fly in and come in with the best defense. You can distract and delegate. There are so many different skills that you can use to assist with removing a person from a potentially harmful situation.”

She said part of the breaking the cycle of sexual assault is through talking about it and then following through with action.

“You can’t just talk about things and expect them to change, you also have to be active. That’s the push with the bystander training … That’s where we feel we’re going to see change happen,” Ritz Sullivan said.

Chris Goudreau can be reached at cgoudreau@valleyadvocate.com. Gina Beavers contributed to this article.

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