PHOTO: SUZY HARRISON | WORDS: AMY ALBINSON
‘There is a ton of power in having a microphone!’ exclaims Shawna Potter, frontwoman of feminist hardcore punk group War on Women. ‘Tell people what you believe in with the power of a PA behind you’. With their politically charged music tackling themes of rape culture, transphobia, toxic relationships, gun violence, sexism and harassment, it is obvious what she believes in as she takes her message off stage in the form of Safe Space workshops and now, most recently, a book. ‘Making Spaces Safer: A Pocket Guide’ educates on how to improve the spaces you inhabit. It is bystanders being active that is crucial, she explains, ‘I want everyone to be convinced of the need for intervention and their power to do so’.
‘I want everyone to be convinced of the need for intervention and their power to do so’.
If the term is unfamiliar, a ‘Safer Space’ is ‘a place where people feel free to be themselves, without fear of harassment or violence’ she divulges, and this does not just pertain to music venues. ‘While my world is certainly in music, not once did I think this is an issue specific to venues, bars, and clubs. Identity-based harassment can and does happen anywhere’. Her focus, when training venues and shops in how to respond, ‘was more on teaching people, employees, managers, and volunteers just how much power they have to make sure everyone in their space has a good time’.
Now in the midst of festival season, there is a statistic that keeps cropping up that in the UK 30% of female festival-goers have experienced some form of unwanted sexual behaviour. On this, she muses, ‘I actually wonder if it’s low if it is under-reported? In general, people tend to do what they think they can get away with. In larger spaces it seems easier to get lost in the crowd after harassing or touching someone without their consent. That’s why bystanders are so important!’ Her enthusiasm comes across as a call to arms in itself as she continues, ‘it’s up to us as the bystanders, the rest of the audience, to step in when we see something off. There are more of us anyway, so we have a collective power to make sure no sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic, anti-Semitic, Islamaphobic, sizeist, classist, ageist, or ableist shit gets a pass’.
“IT’S up to us as the bystanders, the rest of the audience, to step in when we see something off.”
Whilst in the past few years festivals have begun to acknowledge the issue of harassment they still continue to book artists with a history of causing harm. This, Shawna believes, assists in normalising abusive behaviour. ‘No need for a “second chance” without a couple of years of therapy under their belt,’ she remarks, ‘6 months of people “talking shit” about them on twitter is not a punishment or consequence. How about we give a platform to the women, trans- & gender-nonconforming folks, and people of colour that have been denied opportunities in music? What about all the people who gave up because they couldn’t take the relentless harassment? I want to hear more from them, I don’t want to miss out on their art, their music, their point of view’. To her, ‘Call-Out’ culture, is just one tool in a toolbox but hopes ‘I have added some more tools to be used by writing this book.’ Whilst clearly knowledgeable on the topic, she makes a point on insisting that she is not personally affected by every issue that affects women the world over. ‘I do try to vary my topics and work to shed light on issues but without speaking for anyone,’ she explains, furthering the idea that this is a discussion we all should be involved in – with our own individual experiences.
So what can a festival do to offer a safer experience for music fans? ‘TALK ABOUT IT, TALK ABOUT IT, TALK ABOUT IT!’ she shouts. ‘Put all your policies on your website, share it on social media, make it really obvious in advance what you’re about and where people can turn for help. Then make it obvious at the festival itself. Signs everywhere, a specific space to give complaints and people trained to handle them appropriately, no victim-blaming, and don’t be afraid to kick people out if they are being rude to people, and,’ she adds, ‘don’t be afraid to not book bands with members credibly accused of sexual assault and rape!’
“Don’t put people in a position to guess whether or not you will have their back if something happens…”
It’s clear we all have a part to play in creating safer communities and taking an active role is so important. On her top three pieces of advice for anyone who wants to help but doesn’t know how –
‘Believe victims,’ she pleads. ‘Know that believing someone is important if we want to help them, and it doesn’t necessarily cast judgement on the person(s) they are alleging caused them harm. It just means we have to take them at their word that they are uncomfortable in order to help them feel more comfortable. It also means you don’t have to memorize every single type of harassment that exists, you can just believe people when they tell you about their experiences.’
Then – ‘Be proactive. Be the first person to check on someone being targeted. Be the first person to tell someone what they said is racist or transphobic and they should knock it off. Keep an eye on someone until you know that they are safe and with friends, don’t wait. Don’t wonder later if they made it home ok. Know that you have done everything you can to shut down and interrupt harassment and violence.’ And finally, ‘whatever your vibe – make it obvious. Communicate, put up signs, let people know who works there. These things go a long way in lifting the silence that normally surrounds identity-based harassment and violence. Don’t put people in a position to guess whether or not you will have their back if something happens. Let everyone know you don’t tolerate harassment and they can come to you for help.’
With all that said, War on Women are on the road with Cave In in October. Go listen to their music, read ‘Making Spaces Safer’, and for God’s sake – look after each other!
Making Spaces Safer: A Guide to Giving Harassment the Boot Wherever You Work, Play is out now.