Words by Ed King
I first wrote this back in March, a few days after Shrove Tuesday, in response to stories of sexual assault and misconduct that I had heard about that week. It was born out of frustration – I write to clear my head.
Then more stories came my way, and more, until there were so many that these words weren’t enough. Something needed to happen. So we talked to each other at Birmingham Review, we talked to local musicians and promoters. Then we talked to West Midlands Police, the Rape & Sexual Violence project (RSVP), and some local venues that could help us formulate a plan of action.
NOT NORMAL – NOT OK is our joint response, ‘a campaign to encourage safety and respect within live music venues, and to combat the culture of sexual assault and aggression – from dance floor to dressing room.’
N.B. If you have been affected by sexual assault, misconduct, or any of the issues raised in this article, you can find details for West Midlands Police and RSVP – a regional support agency trained to deal with sexual violence – by clicking here.
The ‘message from West Midlands Police’ mentioned towards the end of this article can now be found on the NOT NORMAL – NOT OK website, click here.
“Yeah, they’re alright… just be careful if you’re alone with them.”
I was told this in passing, at the tail end of a conversation with a local band about local band stuff. It wasn’t prompted, they weren’t in distress; we weren’t talking about #MeToo, Operation Yewtree or institutionalised abuse in Westminster. We were just talking. And this chilling seed fell into the conversation with an almost as frightening acceptance that it was just ‘one of those things’. That it was normal. Or even worse, that it was OK.
Incredulous, then angry, then curious, I begin to pick at the scab. The story unfolds. It had been at a gig, and after the show the person in question had groped one of the band members – which falls under sexual assault in a court of law. And the feelings left by this situation, to group of friends who just wanted to perform their music on stage, are clear. They felt mistreated, angry and threatened.
This all came at the end of a troubling week too, where a promoter of a popular music venue had posted an absurdly misogynistic comment about the girls that attend their events and pancakes. You can imagine the metaphor. Or hopefully you can’t, because you really don’t want to. But it’s childish, aggressive, potentially incendiary, and beyond sexist at all points on the social spectrum. And now it’s in the public domain as a badge of what this promoter (and this club) feels is either funny or acceptable. Again, of what is normal or OK.
The silver lining from this poorly chosen ‘joke’ was the immediate outcry from many other people via the drum banging platforms of social media. I saw it because someone had reposted it in disgust, asking for some solidarity and shaming of the original author – a backlash that was far more erudite than the disturbed playground rhetoric that spurned it. The promoter in question claimed it was “a joke” that had been “taken out of context”. The public domain told them this wasn’t good enough and everything fell silent.
Then by the end of the week I am hearing about a case of sexual assault. And the more I asked around the more stories came back from our live music scene, in a frightening deluge of stories about sexual harassment, coercion, abuse, and assault happening in venues across Birmingham – from dressing room to dance floor, immediate and widespread.
I know many venue operators and promoters that are committed to the care of everyone in their building – whether they are performing, attending, or working there. And I’d be happier to see support networks in place than a campaign of naming and shaming. But the rules of engagement are quite simple and perhaps some people need a reminder:
No one, of any gender, should ever be objectified, coerced or abused. And no one in a position of power should ever use that power as a bargaining chip for sexual conduct. No one. Ever. At all. Told you it was simple.
So, what do we do? Firstly, I believe we all need to recognise our roles in this – overt and aggressive, or silent and tacit. The fact this problem exists means that none of us are without blame. And that includes me. I don’t want to believe this is a side of people I know, work alongside, or share common interests with. From the fact that it turns my stomach to think it’s happening in Birmingham venues to the cold reality that I need some of these people to support my own endeavours – put quite simply, it would be both personally and professionally easier for me to say nothing at all. I’m not proud of that last sentence but it’s a brutal truth I must own.
I’m not a huge fan of campaigning either, with self-aggrandising so often masquerading as a good cause these days. But maybe here, though, there’s a place for something we can all get behind – a vehicle to promulgate a message and provide support to those who need it, emotional, legal and otherwise. And to educate; to remind people of what is acceptable and what isn’t. A campaign of compassion and care, but also one to redefine what is ‘normal’ or ‘OK’ for those who seem to have forgotten their meanings.
So, this is what we’re doing. Birmingham Review has joined up with West Midlands Police and some key figures in our local entertainment industry to see how we can help shake a little sense into some, and support some others. We will keep you fully updated with this campaign through the Birmingham Review website and social media, and there is a message from West Midlands Police at the bottom of this editorial (this message can now be found on the NOT NORMAL – NOT OK website).
Because after all the bile that’s been seeping into my system after a week of words I never thought I’d be hearing – about a scene and city I love, and the people I love within both – I can land on at least one thing with absolute certainly. I never want to hear them again. Perhaps three things.
Ed King is Editor-in-Chief of Review Publishing, which publishes Birmingham Review and other titles.
NOT NORMAL – NOT OK is a campaign to encourage safety and respect within live music venues, and to combat the culture of sexual assault and aggression – from dance floor to dressing room.
To sign up to NOT NORMAL – NOT OK, click here. To know more about the NOT NORMAL – NOT OK sticker campaign, click here.