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A Girl In The Pit

Modified from flickr/ Ted Van Pelt

There is a difference between the consensual physical exhaustion of the mosh pit and having your physical being threatened or assaulted.

content warning: sexual assault

Much of my time as a teenager was spent counting down the days until my next concert. I was a five-foot, sixteen-year-old girl, and I spent all my money on floor tickets to watch my pop punk idols thrash around on stage; I maneuvered my way through the masses of sweaty men, hoping to secure a view of the band before the chaos ensued. My mom worried, and most of my friends didn’t get it, but there, with no need to impress the strangers dancing and singing along beside me, was my refuge.

I could lose control and take up space. I didn’t know how to dance and it didn’t matter. I could sweat all my makeup off and it was only proof of how much fun I had. When men pushed me, I could push back harder. I could scream until my voice went out — and I did.

That was where I felt safe — for a while.

As I grew older so did my list of unpleasant experiences and wariness of the men around me. As much as I wanted to cling to the things I loved about live music—the release, the rush, the sense of connection that breathes new life into the intimacy of listening to music—it became harder to ignore the pervasiveness of dangerous male aggression in the spaces I wanted so dearly to call home.

When men pushed me, I could push back harder. Click To Tweet

It was in the pit that a man looked me in the face and told me he hoped I’d get raped.

It was in the pit that a man questioned my belonging, called me “little girl,” and shoved me to the ground.

It was in the pit during a Gaslight Anthem show I’d travelled three hours to see that a man gave me one look, called me a bitch, and punched me in the face. I still remember the fear of his fist coming towards me and the hot tears that slipped out after he was ejected while I tried and failed to look unfazed. (How else would the other men know I actually deserved to be there?)

It was in the pit that I was groped. Time and time and time again.

It’s at shows and bars and DIY venues that I am harassed and interrogated by the self-appointed gatekeepers of punk who are apparently so mired in their imagined 1981 utopia that they can’t fathom a woman wearing a band t-shirt because she genuinely enjoys the music. Where men call me a bitch because I’m there for the show and not for them, or a poser because my interests or image don’t perfectly align with their expectations. Where even self-identified progressive punk bands protect their predatory friends and image rather than use their voice for the good of the community. Where popularity still outshines virtue.

In the poignant memoir Tranny, penned by the frontwoman of Against Me!, Laura Jane Grace, she breaks down the ever present dichotomies of punk politics and her experience navigating the scene as a trans woman. “Show spaces were supposed to be open to everyone regardless of age, race, class, sex, or sexual preference, but for the most part it was just white kids oblivious to the privilege they came from,” she explains. “It also became clear to me that while these were the politics heralded by the scene, often they were not actually practiced.”

For a while, I tried to avoid  these interactions by making myself smaller or dressing the part. I started watching shows from the side of the crowd for fear of getting trapped amongst men who weren’t interested in the ethics of showgoing. I followed the Guidelines of Being a Woman in the Pit: stay near a friend, definitely avoid skirts, move out of the way of men, keep to yourself, watch your drink, and accept the groping as a consequence of crowdsurfing while appearing female or queer, or being anything but a straight, while man. But unsurprisingly, none of these things made the harassment disappear.

It was in the pit that I was groped. Time and time and time again. Click To Tweet

I became hypervigilant and afraid; my refuge was stolen from me by the same power dynamics that threaten women on the streets, at their jobs, and even in their homes. The loss of safe spaces for uninhibited self-expression and catharsis is ultimately a loss of freedom.

One night, sitting outside our favorite dive bar after a show, my friend noted, “you know, a lot of punk dudes are really just bearded frat boys in leather jackets.” I wanted to laugh. And cry.

There’s this idea that being part of a “scene” guarantees acceptance and safety — that a community born out of guitars in basements and dive bars is somehow inherently inclusive, progressive, or just moreso than, say, a frat house. And while it’s true that punk has historically fostered community and solidarity among working class men, it’s also the genre where skinheads and known abusers run free. Even the Riot Grrrl movement failed to resonate with women that weren’t white, cisgender, and middle class.

But the (frequently ignored) reality is that people of color and queer folks have been punk all along.

Punk promises refuge from the oppressive institutions and ideologies that permeate everyday life, yet when its direction is dictated primarily by white cisgender men — as has often been the case — the same power dynamics and hierarchies that undervalue and suppress marginalized people recreate and uphold themselves. As with any subculture, the reluctance or outright refusal to acknowledge and address patterns of misogyny, racism, and transphobia only exacerbates the issue, and marginalized people are left behind, ostracized, or worse.

It's in the pit where men call me a bitch because I’m there for the show and not for them. Click To Tweet

But white men are not the protectors of punk — they just think they are.

Where men can voice their feelings and opinions freely, but women and queers are degraded or silenced, there is no liberation. Where concerned women are dismissed as “bitches” and “feminazis” and people of color are consistently alienated and sexualized, there is no liberation. When cis men get to choose which issues “matter,” the most vulnerable people lose.

I can’t lie and say I wasn’t or am not still attracted to the nihilistic attitude of punk; feeling lost, alone, unheard, and depressed will do that to a person. But I always thought of making music and going to shows as an outlet to express and manage those feelings of cynicism and rage—likely planted by a largely uncompassionate world — not to heighten them. I understood gigs as a space that honors solidarity — a place where I didn’t have to “prove myself.” I understood punk as community and a celebration of difference, not as an expression of self-superiority.

But it seems that I was wrong. At least, in practice. And isn’t that where it really matters?

Bad things happen in the pit. But it’s also where I found refuge as a quietly but deeply lost teenage girl harboring more rage than I knew how to manage. It was where the man who punched me in the face was almost instantly knocked to the ground by a group of men who proceeded to check in with me without commenting on my poor attempt to disguise my tears. The pit is where I desperately scanned the crowd for someone to notice I was being sexually assaulted and silently met eyes with a kind woman who stepped in and flagged down a security guard that fortunately took his job seriously enough to kick the creep out.

White men are not the protectors of punk — they just think they are. Click To Tweet

The pit is where most people understand that when someone falls, you help pick them up.

I don’t think many of us would willingly and repeatedly enter a situation that typically ends in bruised ribs, mysterious cuts and scratches, dehydration, and aching feet if we weren’t at least a little self-destructive, but there is a difference between the consensual physical exhaustion of the mosh pit and having your physical being threatened or assaulted. It seems that with this chosen loss of control—women love to get dirty too—the threat of real danger continues to loom.

Almost ten years later, when men challenge my music knowledge or demand a list of my favorite Dead Kennedys songs, I walk away knowing their insecurity and fragile masculinity are not my problems to manage. But when I go to shows, I’m more withdrawn. Live music is still very much a part of my life, and sometimes I still fight my way toward the stage, but sometimes it feels like I’m pushing through bodies looking for something that just isn’t there. Maybe I’ve outgrown it.

Or maybe I’m just tired.