Trigger warning for sexual assault.
When I was fourteen, I started going to rock-n-roll shows. Sometimes dragging my older brother along, sometimes with my friends, and sometimes with whatever useless idiot I was dating at the time. They were loud, violent, glorious, intense. The distorted guitars, the grunge, the angst, the anger, the rage–it shattered something I desperately needed broken. In the dirty, smoky, crowded rooms with the lights flashing and the bass rolling through me, it felt like living. It felt important and necessary in a way I still can’t explain. In my converse and flannel, my hair sweaty and sticking to my face, I broke through the quiet, awkward thing I was and emerged on the other side someone braver, reckless even. Every generation has stories like these, every coming-of-age tale starts with this. Maybe not everyone’s starts with Gwar and Marilyn Manson, but I was a child of the 90s, so mine did.
But what I knew, and every girl who went to these shows knew, is that such freedom and abandonment came at a price. We knew at some point in the night, maybe multiple times over the course of the show, someone would grab our ass, our breasts, and yes, even our pussy. We would push and shove, knock those stray hands away, but inside we knew, at least I quietly assumed at the time, it was something we had to put up with. To exist in male spaces meant putting up with male nastiness. This was the message we had heard all our lives. If some man grabs your pussy at a rock-n-roll show, well, you shouldn’t have been there in the first place. That’s not where nice girls go.
You will recognize this as “rape culture,” but I didn’t know that term at the time. We didn’t have a language for it yet. I only knew that my body did not always belong to me, and at any moment it could shift into the collective entertainment of the objectifying male gaze. But when I look back at it now, I know I did have a right to stand in those smoky clubs and listen to rock-n-roll, to sway and dance, and jump and scream without being the victim of sexual assault. Those men were not entitled to my body just because I wanted to go to a show and listen to music. And yet, when it happened, it was a secret shame, something I felt on some level, was my fault. I’ve never talked about this, actually. Never told my brother when it happened, never told my boyfriends, and definitely never told my parents. It would have meant the end of the music, to that catharsis I so desperately needed in those formative years.
The tapes brought me back. I know it’s peak white feminism to speak out now after so many awful things that man has said about Muslims, about Mexicans, about veterans. But the tapes reminded me of another story. Not just a story of pussy grabbing, but a story when someone spoke out against it.
It was 1995 and I was at the Sunken Gardens amphitheater in San Antonio. I had saved up all my money for the show, and I was stoked. White Zombie was headlining and Melvin and Babes in Toyland were opening. I could barely breathe in the press of people in the crowd, but when Babes in Toyland came on, I was transcended. I had never seen an all-girl band before, and the echoes of their female voices as they ricocheted across the stone walls burned through me, igniting some incredible inner-fire. I was moshing and jumping with my friends, high as kites and getting even higher with each song. And then suddenly–the music stopped.
The mic screeched with feedback, and one of the band members (it must have been Maureen Herman because she had dark hair) screamed across the crowd. “Did you just grab her? Did you just fucking grab her?”
It was too faraway to hear the response, but she started screaming back. “Fuck you! Fucking apologize! You don’t fucking grab her!”
The other women gathered behind their band mate, frowning. There was a rumble of thick male voices, a lot of back and forth. Finally, the lead singer flipped the bird, and one by one, they left the stage.
The crowd grew quiet. No one knew what was happening. My friends and I stared at each other, trying to understand, to make sense of what we had just seen. Hushed whispers swept through the vast amphitheater and made our way to us. Apparently, Maureen Herman had seen a man sexually assault a girl. She told him to apologize and he refused, so they just…stopped the show. Think about that for a second. Babes in Toyland would rather not play at all than play in an unsafe space for women. What if all musicians did that? What if everyone made that promise–that we will not carry on with “business as usual” if this space is unsafe?
I think that night I experienced a profound shift in my post-adolescent self, a revelation that somehow the violence enacted on my person had nothing to do with the music I listened to, but with the assholes who dared to perpetuate it unchecked. But Babes in Toyland, in their own way, checked it. They stopped the show.
That memory came back to me this weekend in a rush as I saw women tweet by the millions, the millions, about their experiences with sexual assault. I wanted to share this story because this is where I see myself and my sisters now. I’m not fourteen anymore, and I’m not ashamed. Fuck rape culture. It’s time to stop the show. It’s time to speak up, to call out, to name names. And it’s time for men, our comrades in struggle, to do the same.