Sexism in Local Spaces: You Do It Yourself

By Tanner Bidish, Staff Writer

Content Warning: This piece contains mild language and references experiences dealing with sexual assault.

From its inception, DIY has been fundamentally about empowering the underdog. The scene is designed to give voices to people who don’t have them, to reject power structures and to equalize the playing field (see every major punk movement from the 1970s onward). However, the picturesque DIY landscape these tenants aim to create is hard to come by. Even in spaces that historically are for everybody, people are hypocritically denied equal standing. This happens when a performer can’t prep for their set without being offered unsolicited help or when a show runner is treated without respect by the band they’re booking or when an audience member is asked who at the show they’re dating. This happens a lot, and it mainly happens to women. DIY has a problem of using its alternative roots as a guise to itself as well as ignoring the deep seeded attitude of sexism that runs rampant within.

You don’t have to look far to see sexism in a music scene. Carly Pretzel, an Athens resident, space owner, and show booker has experienced sexism in DIY since she was a teenager in her hometown. “I can’t speak to it currently, but [Akron] was terrible when I first started going to shows there. Women, queer people, POC, were an afterthought consistently in Akron.” The problem was not that there wasn’t a space for non-male people, but that space wasn’t being shared. “It’s a lot of post-grad white dudes hanging out – and they do great work – and I can’t shit on them as of late, because they have made strides, but it doesn’t change the fact that as a teenage girl I didn’t feel safe, welcome or included ever.”

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A typical crowd seen at local show spaces. Photographed by ACRN Visual Media Contributor, Maddi Rotunda.

The experience of sexism ranges from microaggressions, erased visibility, to physical assault. “There was an assumption that if I was at a show I had to be there with a man,” Pretzel says. “There was an assumption that I didn’t know as much as anyone else, not to mention the creepy older post-grad band dudes hitting on teenage girls or going as far to grope or assault.”

But assault isn’t exclusive to Akron. Assault is a worldwide problem which impacts every community.

Pretzel knows this reality first hand. “My freshman year, I was 18 at the time, and I had been drugged and dragged back to my dorm from a house show.” What she remembers is that no one stepped in to intervene. “An entire room of show-goers basically watched the early stages of my own assault happen, and there wasn’t anything done to try and stop it.”

When an assault takes place, it’s a failure of the community in the fact that it did not protect its members. To prevent sex and violent crimes from happening, sexism needs to end.

There’s an obvious toxicity that comes with sexism. The poisons of sexism seep into the basics of who gets to be seen and heard in independent circles. Hazel Andrews Holmes, a Philadelphia native, zine publisher, former booker and band member, knows the difficulties of getting your foot in the door.

“[Sexism]’s not so much in the spaces themselves, but in the larger social conversations around any DIY scene,” Holmes claims. “And that’s a lot more subtle … You go places and it’s really hard to network with people. People don’t talk to you. I’ve heard countless men say, ‘Oh I don’t talk to girls at shows,’ and it’s always kind of ironic because they’re saying it to me.”

In any community, this is detrimental. Without access to connections, a person loses the ability to be in spaces in any capacity.

“You have to get to know people,” Holmes explains. “You have to network to be able to do anything – even if it’s something as simple as starting a band.”

Exclusions force people out of a scene and that’s what leads to communities with an overrepresentation of men. However, because of unfair treatment, non-male people have made efforts to create their own spaces. It’s not out of retaliation to excluded men, but instead, to have a space of that would accept those that aren’t.Steph Knipe, of indie-rock band, Adult Mom, has had experience in regards to creating spaces.

“I started playing at Purchase College. Before me and a couple of other people started to play, it was really dude-heavy – really straight, really white. Mitski and my friends Elaiza (who’s in Crying) and Rachel (of Baby Mollusk) were navigating a space of not being able to play the big shows at Purchase. I kept pushing to run the space that booked shows, and everything flipped. I booked my own feminists festival and all that, but it’s a kind of an uphill battle.”

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Steph Knipe, also known as ‘Adult Mom’ plays a show at Athens venue, Station 116.

Knipe is nonbinary, and because their identity is fundamentally a part of who they are, it shapes not only expectations on them, but also they types of sexism they experience. “I’m still femme, but I’m not a woman, so there’s this whole package of queerphobia and transphobia that exists also and it all kind of intersects.”  This package of expectations affects all aspects of their performance. “When I’m performing [my identity] becomes a huge part of my songwriting and who attends the shows,” they explain.

The tour they’re on now is unique in that they’re playing small and often private spaces. “It’s kind of like intruding on these people’s homes – it’s paralleled with what my queerness feels like: kind of intruding, being forcefully intimate and vulnerable, in a way that I don’t want to be, but it feels good sometimes.”

Identity is inescapable, likewise sharing your identity is as inescapable as sharing your presence. Knipe’s vulnerability is a feeling representative of being out in a space, outnumbered, out of place and out of familiarity or comfort; It’s the feeling that accompanies non-male people in male-dominated spaces. Said spaces can pose a certain male gaze on its non-male members.

“There’s this strange mythology about women and femme people who are playing instruments – A projected fantasy that men accumulate, like ‘you’re gonna be my PJ Harvey or my Joni Mitchell,’ and it’s disgusting – Not to be dramatic, but it’s gross,” Knipe details.

There’s an unavoidable critique on femme people in performance. Knipe feels that the pressure is on you to have to prove yourself as just as good or better than a man. “The thing I’ve learned is: I don’t give a fuck about that at all. I want to be held to the same standard … The dream is to be held to my own standard.”

Similarly, Holmes is partial to spaces and attitudes that are based on equal treatment. She doesn’t think femme people should be coddled or condescended to.

“It’s okay to say a band with female members is not good, or that you don’t like them. That’s good because that’s just treating them like a band, and that’s what should be important – the band and the music, not just who’s in it.”

One way to foster that kind of atmosphere is by having non-male people in DIY leadership positions.

“In regards to Athens, in the past two years, there have been a lot more non-male promoters and bookers. That is so important,” Pretzel explains. “It was so important to see that representation and know I could be respected.”

As a show runner and space owner, Pretzel understands that she’s now in the position her role models were in when she was a freshman. “While I’m not the greatest example, I try to make sure those people realize making sure people are safe and healthy comes first when booking.”

Going back to her own experience with assault, Pretzel notes, “It terrifies me that that could happen to somebody else leaving my [venue]. Especially as a non-dry space, I have to be aware of that constantly.”

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Pretzel’s venue, Shewolf Haus.

What’s important in any show space is for the owner/runner to be visible and easy to be approached. A trust should exist for anybody to speak in confidence with an owner. Pretzel exclaimed that when she went to shows her freshman year, sexist acts or language would happen frequently. Not only did she feel uncomfortable speaking to the person booking, she also didn’t know who that person was.

“I didn’t know a lot of the people who were booking because they did not bother to make their presence known,” Pretzel says. Because of this, she strives for the opposite in her own space. “I try to make it known that anyone is welcome to talk to me at any time, is welcome to stay here, and I try to be alert.”

Sexism is not an argument. There is no “for or against”. Sexism is a fact; It is a fact that women and nonbinary people are treated differently based on gender. It’s an important conversation in DIY because these are communities we create for ourselves, and for many young punks, it’s the first time we have autonomy over the expectations of our social circles. Our societies don’t have to be plagued with the power structures of the world at large. DIY can be different. Sexism does exist within it, but if we’re thoughtful, aware and alert, we can take away the power that sexism has: Listen to other people’s voices, be empathetic and fight sexism.

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