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The PWR BTTM Problem And The Search For Safe Spaces

“The people who abuse, they don’t look or act a certain way”

by Paula Mejia

For the past couple of years, the queer punk band PWR BTTM seemed inimitable, and unstoppable. They prided themselves on their wild live performances and their music, which was imbued with a personal, political bent and had fans and critics alike swooning. But last month, allegations surfaced online that accused one of the band’s members, Ben Hopkins, of multiple counts of sexual assault. One person allegedly assaulted by Hopkins came forward in an interview with Jezebel, detailing not just the traumatic event itself, which reportedly happened several months ago, but also an unsuccessful attempt to address the issue with Hopkins’ bandmate, Liv Bruce. The two statements the band has released about the allegations—one claiming that this was the first that they’d heard of the incident, and one contesting the Jezebel report—have been criticized for not fully accepting accountability for the situation at hand.

For many fans, friends, and even some of PWR BTTM’s own touring members, the allegations against Hopkins came as a jarring and unexpected shock. (It did to this reporter, too, who profiled the band for NYLON’s June/July 2017 print issue a month before the sexual allegations news broke). The news especially hit a deep nerve within the community that had grown out of PWR BTTM’s fan base, including their many young, queer fans and those involved in socially and politically active local DIY communities working vehemently to fight against intolerance, abuse, sexism, homophobia, ableism, and other injustices. Despite the initial bow, the backlash against PWR BTTM following the allegations was swift, with their management and label cutting ties with them, their music being dropped from streaming services (it was announced today that PWR BTTM's debut album, Ugly Cherries, is back on streaming), and their extensive tour being canceled within 48 hours of the news breaking in a private Facebook group.

“PWR BTTM's audience doesn’t have very much tolerance [for sexual assault allegations], because we know what it’s like to be hurt and abused and live in a world that isn’t accepting of us,” says Autumn Lavis, the outreach coordinator at Safer Scene, an organization that helps DIY scenes provide safe spaces, through advocacy, accountability, and action. “And they’re very quick to reject that.” Lavis says that her involvement with Safer Scene, and with music politics at large, stemmed from a personal experience with abuse. She previously dated Jake McElfresh, of Front Porch Step, who was accused of engaging in inappropriate sexual conduct with minors. “It really opened my eyes to how often people in positions of power take advantage of others and get away with it,” Lavis says. “And I genuinely feel like the entire purpose of me going through what I did was to help bring light to these situations.” 

What makes the PWR BTTM situation particularly knotty is the fact that the alleged abuse came from within a series of designated safe spaces that had been carved out by the band and its community, spaces that were designed explicitly to prevent abuse. On tour, the band rallied for gender-neutral bathrooms at venues and often kicked off live performances by announcing that the show—and especially the mosh pit—was a safe space, so jerks could take a hike. But the mere acknowledgment of something as a safe space isn’t enough and doesn’t account for the possibility that abuse might be coming from the very person up on stage denouncing these injustices. “It really upsets me when bands say that their shows are ‘safe spaces’ and then don't extrapolate on what that means for fans who may experience harassment or violence,” says Sadie Dupuis, a Philadelphia-based musician who records under Sad13 and Speedy Ortiz. “A person alone cannot be a ‘safe space,’ and neither can a band.” 

Yet a shift seems to be happening within venues designated as safe spaces, and their commitment to fostering an inclusive environment by and for the community, including a heightened attention to both improving venue safety and fostering ongoing cultural conversations about intersectional politics. It’s also reflective of a less utopian, more pragmatic approach to giving people, particularly queer youth, the tools to protect themselves, know their rights, and learn to stand up for themselves and support each other.

“To me, a safer space is a community-focused place that has prioritized equal rights for its attendees and participants and is actively invested in combatting racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, gentrification, and other forms of social and physical violence,” Dupuis says. “Sometimes that means having a set of guidelines posted so that folks attending and participating in the space know to treat each other with care and respect. Sometimes that involves a committee dedicated to instituting and handling violations of these policies. Proactivity is key, which I think is inherent in the title 'safer,' which implies that we're always working toward making a space better for everyone.”

It’s worth mentioning, too, that safer spaces have taken up the mantle where other institutions, like schools and churches, haven’t exactly succeeded for many. Queer sex education, for instance, is not taught in schools. And when answers can’t be found at school or at home, turning to pop culture is a natural next step, especially for young people seeking guidance. In operating as a meeting place, a welcoming space for expression and educational tool, a safe space is fundamentally flawed and privy to many of the same injustices, and that reality needs to be accounted for—there's no use pretending safe spaces exist in a vacuum where no harm is possible. That kind of idealistic thinking can cause more harm than good.

Still, what does it mean to make a space safe, or even just safer, when harm is coming from within? There’s not a clear answer. But a starting point is in making sure that any change within safer spaces comes from the community, via foundational and policy levels alike. Though the load will be heavy, it must be lifted by bands, venues, bookers, and local legislators all working together; fans need to be involved, too. “Community is integral to safer space policies; it needs to be an open dialogue between those who've found themselves in power and those who utilize a space's resources, and it needs to be built on trust and in supporting survivors,” Dupuis says. 

There are several practical ways that venues can help, starting with clear anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies. “Even something as simple as putting up the gender-neutral signs can make a big, huge difference,” Lavis says. Making resources known is a positive step, as well. Dupuis’s band, Speedy Ortiz, began implementing a “safe space hotline” at their shows, which is intended to be a way for fans to feel supported if they have a question, feel uncomfortable, or are actively experiencing abusive behavior at a show; bands like Modern Baseball have also adopted the practice. All bands can and should take up part of the weight of making spaces safe and know that resources are there should they need help, especially when reflecting on times they might personally have potentially caused harm. Punk Talks, for instance, is an organization that provides therapy to musicians. 

Restorative justice techniques, such as bystander intervention training, can also go a long way. Lavis is currently on the road with Warped Tour with the Safer Scenes 2017 tent, an initiative she’s running with Kira Ferderber and the band War on Women, that both raises awareness and teaches people skills to help both prevent and better respond to all forms of harassment. Community resources, such as the nonprofit organization A Voice for the Innocent and RAINN, are also pivotal to grappling with and moving past sexual violence.

Lavis also hopes to start working toward implementing some of these best practices on the policy side, such as requiring venue staff and security to be trained in assault and bystander intervention training, as well as making spaces accessible to all. “Disability accessibility, that’s super overlooked, not just wheelchair access but seating for those who can’t sit for long periods of time,” Lavis says. “Making sure that your show doesn’t have lights that can cause seizures. I think that many safe spaces have yet to enforce these things, and if your show is only for able-bodied people, you can’t really call it inclusive.” 

The biggest change, though, has to come from everyone committing to accountability, even when it hurts the most—including holding peers, friends, and, especially, idols accountable for their actions too. “I feel like if anything, the PWR BTTM situation is a great example of how anyone is capable of anything, and we need to hold them accountable for that,” Lavis says. “A big lesson that can be learned from this is that there shouldn’t be a pedestal so high that we fear taking it down. Because, like, you wouldn’t expect PWR BTTM, who are really involved in the queer and trans community, to do these things. The people who abuse, they don’t look or act a certain way. They’re not the creepy guy in the alleyway. They’re your friends, they’re your family members—they can be strangers, too—but they’re often your idols. And I think it’s because those people are elevated in that position is why they’re able to take advantage of people, they almost feel as if they’re untouchable.”