How the Women of the Warped Tour Are Pushing Back Against Sexual Harassment

Photos courtesy Lucy Westcott
Photos courtesy Lucy Westcott

Ask any woman who has attended a punk rock show and she'll likely have a story about being sexually harassed — or worse.

My most sinister memory is from 2010, as I waited for Converge to play in Brighton, UK. Standing alone, I felt a cold can press against my back as a man whispered in my ear, "Where's your boyfriend?" When I turned around, he looked away and pretended like nothing happened. Friends recall being groped in the mosh pit — or being thrown out of it — while others remember a hand slide up their legs while crowd-surfing.

Sexual violence at concerts and music festivals is not a new phenomenon — and statistics show it's a global problem. Earlier this week, Sweden's Bråvalla music festival, the country's biggest, announced that next year it will be women-only after multiple reports of sexual assaults this year. According to a study, one quarter of all sexual assaults reported to an Ottawa hospital in 2013 occurred at mass gatherings like festivals.

Feminist punk band War on Women (pictured above) is pushing back. For the 2017 Vans Warped Tour, the annual US-wide alternative music festival, the group co-created an initiative called Safer Scenes to teach bystander intervention tactics meant to combat sexual violence at shows. Strategies such as distracting a perpetrator or calmly going to get help let members of the public safely intervene in a potentially troubling situation instead of doing nothing.

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Kira-Lynn Ferderber, a Canadian rapper and educator, has been involved in bystander intervention training for nearly 15 years. She was invited to join Warped Tour by Shawna Potter, War on Women's frontwoman, and runs the Safer Scenes tent with a few volunteers at every show. While most incidents of sexual violence are committed by someone known to the victim, Ferderber says music festivals are unique because harassers are usually strangers. Large crowds, unfamiliar settings, and drugs and alcohol can let people feel like they can get away with something, she says.

"You want to catch them before they learn that racism is OK or sexism is OK. That's the opposite of punk."

"My approach is not to end festivals or say they're too dangerous, or to say 'don't go,' 'girls stay home,'" she tells POPSUGAR on the War on Women's tour bus at the Camden, NJ, stop of the tour. "It's about engaging all the other people who are at a festival who are not about to commit sexual violence and aren't in immediate danger."

"The first thing we have to overcome is this bystander apathy, to engage people and have them feel empowered to act," she says. "Then we have to give them some ideas." Those include "safe, realistic, and effective" actions like walking up to someone and asking how their night is going, or helping someone in trouble find their friends or security.

Outside the US, initiatives like Girls Against in the UK, Good Night Out, an international campaign, and Noise Against Sexual Assault in Toronto, Canada, are also working to end sexual violence at festivals, shows, or even at the pub.

"We want all the [Warped Tour] attendees to know how to intervene when they see something happening," says Potter. For many teens at Warped Tour, it's their first-ever show and an important milestone in their lives. Potter continues: "You want to teach them young. You want to catch them before they learn that racism is OK or sexism is OK. That's the opposite of punk."

Photos courtesy Lucy Westcott

Volunteer Autumn Lavis (left)chats with Kira-Lynn Ferderber at the Safer Scenes tent at Warped Tour's Camden, NJ, stop on July 7.

Back at the Safer Scenes tent, the air thick with the smell of sunscreen, groups of teen girls and couples browse Safer Scene's resources. The "Punk Is Pro-Choice" sticker is popular, and information sheets from the United Nations on how to help refugees are also on offer. Small booklets from the ACLU explain what to do if you're stopped by police or immigration officers.

As Municipal Waste plays their not-so-subtly-titled song "I Want to Kill Donald Trump" near the tent, Ayden, 7, listens as his aunt gently explains the meaning of consent. She uses a pin with the acronym "FRIES" (freely given, reversible, informed, enthusiastic, specific). Autumn Lavis, 23, a Safer Scenes volunteer, explains that because punk is supposed to be antioppression of all kinds, those within the scene are often blind to — or disbelieving of — elements of misogyny, racism, and xenophobia within it. "That's why [sexual violence is] able to exist in this world. A lot of people think that it wouldn't happen here, and that's how it does."

"Talking about sexually assaulting teenage girls isn't some weird, alt, cool idea."

For Lavis, being involved in Safer Scenes is deeply personal. For two years, she was in a relationship with Jake Mcelfresh, a musician who performed under the moniker Front Porch Step. In 2014, multiple teenage girls started sharing stories online of inappropriate relationships with Mcelfresh; many claimed they received explicit photos or messages from him. While Mcelfresh was never criminally charged, he was removed from the 2015 Warped Tour over the allegations.

"If I can be a part of the solution and prevent people from going through that, then I'll do it," says Lavis. "What happened there is why I'm here."

Photos courtesy Lucy Westcott

"I'm A Fucking Feminist": Shawna Potter, frontwoman of feminist punk band War of Women, performs at the Vans Warped Tour in Camden, NJ, July 7

Late last month, Safer Scenes unexpectedly found itself in the middle of an episode of punk-rock misogyny in action. Leonard Graves Phillips, frontman of veteran California band The Dickies, verbally abused a member of Safer Scenes from the stage after he spotted her holding a sign that read: "Teen girls deserve respect, not gross jokes from disgusting old men! Punk shouldn't be predatory!" (The band's routine often includes Phillips maneuvering a penis puppet and declaring: "You're a great-looking bunch of kids. We'd love to go down on each and every one of you, but we just don't have the time.") Phillips told the woman, "I have fucked farm animals that were prettier than you, you fucking hog," and led an audience chant of: "Blow me!"

The Dickies incident led to Safer Scenes being branded as "politically correct" and accused by (mainly right-leaning) blogs of trying to censor free speech, something Ferderber denies.

"Talking about sexually assaulting teenage girls isn't some weird, alt, cool idea . . . It's violent. It's oppressive. But of course [misogyny] exists in punk, because it exists everywhere."

For the women who visit the Safer Scenes tent in Camden, what they learn could mean a future lifeline. Lindsey Kinard, 22, says that as a queer woman, "feeling comfortable at a show for individuals like me is very important." Bands like War on Women are also doing a lot to combat the idea that punk "is a straight, male-dominated space. That leads to a lot of intentional and accidental exclusion," says Kinard.

Melanie Becker, 21, says that while she's never been harassed at a show, she and her friends were trailed by a car full of men shouting for their numbers on the way in to Warped Tour. "You feel like you're going to be in danger if you say, 'Hey, fuck off,'" says one of her friends. Becker says initiatives like Safer Scenes could combat that fear.

"The first way to stop this is for everyone to take a stand rather than just one person."