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Reckoning with Sexual Harassment in Hamilton's Music Community

Blog/NewsNovember 27th 2019
Alex Ramsay

​[tw: discussion of sexual harassment]

Heather* remembers that she began seeing live music in Hamilton in the early 2000s, while a student at McMaster University. New to the city, she started  to become friends with various members of the music scene.

She was soon drawn further into the community by an older man who was highly active in the music scene at the time. He befriended her just as she began to frequent local shows. Heather says he made her feel like a member of the music community and would often encourage her to come to more events. “He would make you feel special,” she says. 

As they became better friends, he would occasionally come to her home in the middle of the night, unannounced, and pressure her for sexual favours. “I was never dating him but he definitely tried to sexually manipulate me,” she says. Their friendship ended when he harassed her online. His behaviour caught her completely off guard at the time. Looking back, she says that “it’s become something of an open secret that he’s done those kinds of things to lots of girls.”

She was soon drawn further into the community by an older man who was highly active in the music scene at the time. He befriended her just as she began to frequent local shows.

In the wake of the #MeToo movement, the pervasiveness of sexual assault and harassment in the music industry has come to the forefront of public consciousness. Experiences like Heather’s are all too common in music communities, even in relatively insular ones like Hamilton’s. Only in recent years have musicians and fans alike begun to reckon with possible solutions to addressing rampant situations of abuse and harassment.

Known for decades as a scrappy, working-class industrial city, Hamilton began (somewhat controversially) to be branded as a welcoming city for young musicians after the turn of the century. Venues like This Ain’t Hollywood, The Underground, The Raven and other DIY spaces (Strangebarn, White House, HAVN) have helped cultivate a tight-knit community of musicians, venue owners, promoters and fans over the years.

It’s no secret that clubs and bars are often a breeding ground for sexual assault. Reports from both the Toronto and Vancouver police have showed an overall higher rate of sex crimes in their club and entertainment districts. These numbers are merely a glimpse of the whole picture, as around 83% of sexual assaults go unreported to police, with women as well as trans and nonbinary folks are disproportionately targeted. With sexual harassment being as common as it is, venue owners and members of the music scene now must contend with ways to create a safer community on their own terms.

Experiences like Heather’s are all too common in music communities, even in relatively insular ones like Hamilton’s.

“Everyone should feel safe going to shows,” said Hamilton-based musician Linnea Siggelkow (a.k.a. Ellis) in an email. “And if they are made to feel unsafe in any way, there should be a designated person available to remove anyone who is making a space unsafe.”

Safer Gigs, a non-profit harm reduction organization in Hamilton, was created with this exact goal in mind. Co-founders Vince Soliveri and Jessie Goyette say they set out to provide education and resources - including condoms, naloxone kits, and literature on sexual harassment - at events in order to facilitate participation in making event spaces safer.

Everyone should feel safe going to shows. And if they're made to feel unsafe in any way, there should be a designated person available to remove anyone who is making a space unsafe.

“We’re just trying to meet people where they’re at,” says Goyette. “We want to make sure when people go to shows and events, they’re leaving at least in the same condition that they walked in the door. I think that should be standard, but unfortunately it isn’t.”

Superficially, the pair would seem like an odd match for this sort of endeavor. Soliveri has been playing in various punk bands since he was in high school; Goyette has recently opened a Dolly Parton-inspired vintage store for plus-sized fashion, decked out with vivid pink walls and framed Playboy magazines. However, a shared devotion to creating a welcoming music scene and a shared interest in harm reduction led them to the creation of Safer Gigs. “I wasn’t familiar with the music industry at the time we started, I was just someone who went to shows and began to think of ways to address the problems that we kept on seeing,” says Goyette.

Goyette is adamant that the organization is only a small solution to much more endemic problems of rape culture and misogyny. With Safer Gigs, they primarily hope to generate solutions from within the community rather than to police them. “The goal is for Safer Gigs to not need to exist,” she says. “We want people to listen to what we are saying and come up with ideas for themselves.”

...A shared devotion to creating a welcoming music scene and a shared interest in harm reduction led them to the creation of Safer Gigs.

She adds that she recognizes the inherent difficulty that often comes with attempting to address this sort of behavior in a constructive fashion. “Historically, men have never been accountable and owned up for the harm that they’ve caused until a woman comes forward and accuses them publicly,” she says.

The overall lack of personal accountability and justice when it comes to abuse is a cornerstone of the discussion surrounding the outing of abusers. Once someone’s past or current abusive behavior is brought to light, what are we to do with them when the law so often fails survivors?

“Forgiveness is up to the person who was hurt,” Heather says. “Whatever consequences people get for their actions, that’s fine by me,” she adds with a shrug.

For Goyette, the closest thing to a solution is personal accountability and for allies to believe survivors. In her words, “we should be in a state of being constantly reflective and aware of our own behaviour.”  She pauses to think for a moment before saying: “You need to be the kind of person who takes ownership of your own actions.”

*name has been changed.

Alex Ramsay is a freelance writer currently completing a bachelor's degree in journalism at Toronto's Ryerson University. He works at Ryerson University's campus radio station, CJRU 1280AM, and helps program the Art Gallery of Hamilton's World Film Festival as part of the Close-Up Film Committee.