Punk, Sexism, and How Men Can Help

Aaron Scott, aka Attica! Attica! (Photo by Joe Zwielich)

I am a straight male who loves punk music. By pure chance of my sexuality and gender, I am a person of immense privilege. I am also a member of the demographic that comprises the majority of the punk scene. I’m writing this in the hope that fellow members of our demographic will take a deeper consideration of our role in sexism within the scene. While we supposedly value ideals of inclusiveness and egalitarianism, we fall woefully short in practice. And we, as males who love punk music, can and should take an active part in dismantling sexist norms and coming closer to realizing those ideals.

As you are undoubtedly aware, a significant majority of the songwriters and performers in punk are male. The male voice and experience is exaggerated by the heavy disproportion of male lyricists and singers. This is similar to most other male-dominated spaces in our society where males create, frame, and bolster the normative views of the scene at large. Because of this, a male can comfortably express misogynist viewpoints (whether in song, in conversation, or in action) because he knows he’ll be insulated from reprisal. I experienced this firsthand when I began writing songs as a teenager. Ignorant lyrics that I wrote expressing hostility towards females received only one kind of feedback from the boys around me: praise. When surrounded by dominant male culture, a valid emotion such as “I’m sad that she broke up with me” can easily be turned into lyrics that both demean her and fantasize about violence against her without controversy. These lyrics are paired with punk music, recorded and replayed, performed repeatedly, and memorized and passionately regurgitated at shows to the point that they become part of our common vernacular. Considering this environment, a female must be truly audacious to contribute her voice to the scene.

I don’t want to accuse the punk scene of being more sexist than any other male-dominated sector of American culture. But I do want to hold it accountable for being pathetically average in its sexism. I was attracted to punk not just because the music kicked ass, but also because the culture provided an alternative to all the bullshit of the mainstream. That alternative included a proactive interest in being inclusive and minimizing oppressive behavior. I think the punk scene excels at that inclusiveness in some ways, and yet it still feels like a bunch of straight white males who could give a damn about whether anyone else really feels welcome. We’ve had decades to build upon the energy of punk’s emergence and create a culture that is more just, fair, and respectful than the patriarchal institutions that we escaped. But what I see in punk is a replication of many mainstream male-dominant attitudes and behaviors that are protected under the false banner of a post-sexist haven for all.

We, as the dominant gender, have some serious work to do to make the punk scene a place where females feel empowered to operate with the same agency as males. How do I know this? Because the women I know in the scene tell me so. A few women have already said as much on this blog, and the resulting denigration and dismissal of their ideas and experiences has been a classic exercise in male entitlement: Even after hearing direct testimonials from women who were brave enough to say what was on their minds, we insisted that they must be wrong. Whether our egos would be too bruised to acknowledge the validity of their statements, or we’re just too stubborn to be convinced, either way we’re more interested in maintaining the foundations of our privilege than relinquishing the slightest amount of power to the women around us.

Most males I’ve met in the scene over the years certainly have no problem with women playing punk music or coming to shows to enjoy it. But this passive and unsophisticated sense of egalitarianism retains sexist elements. Most of us have made no effort whatsoever to foster an environment that encourages female participation. This apathy towards creating an inclusive environment is what I find most disconcerting (read: most fucked up) about the present state of the scene. We don’t care who is playing, as long as they rock. We don’t care whether the women feel safe at the show; we’re fine with the fact that they are simply allowed to be there. And when someone asks us to be more considerate with our language, to remove certain types of jokes from our socializing, and to expand our understanding of women beyond the beer commercial dichotomy of fantasy-sex-objects/emasculating-girlfriends, we shrug our shoulders and say, “Why should I?” Or we point to those females in the scene who don’t seem to think it’s such a big deal and say, “They don’t have a problem with it, so I guess I’ll keep doing what I’m doing.”

We can be so much better than that. We don’t have to cling to the self-involved, insecure, ready-to-fight masculinity of old. We don’t have to talk the most, listen the least, and insist on rating each woman we encounter by her attractiveness. I know we don’t have to be like this because I see a new kind of masculinity in the men I admire in this scene. These men actively work to build friendships with women. They write songs that reveal their sensitivity and they are considerate with their words. They explore topics beyond beer, breakups, and videogames. They dance the way their bodies want to move, without fear of judgment from other males who only honor moshing and spinkicks. They ask questions and they listen to the answers. They are brave enough to defy the longstanding unwritten codes of male behavior, even if it means challenging another male’s oppressive behavior. They are thoughtful enough to consider the welfare of other people within the scene and seek to be allies with those who endure this oppression. And they are strong enough to acknowledge that it’s unjust to leave the work of dismantling sexism to women. We’ve created an environment where it is uncomfortable for females to express themselves, and if we demand that only females speak up about it, we’ve successfully orchestrated a catch-22 that only the most courageous of females will violate. Because we had the power to create such impossible circumstances for females, we also have the power to undo it. More significantly, it is our responsibility to undo it.

I don’t intend to make this sound like a burden. In fact, it’s an opportunity for us all to have a more rich and diverse experience within the scene. I can testify that the tours I’ve been on with women have been some of the best. This mixed gender experience was completely different (and actually far more pleasant and interesting) than tours with an all-male echo chamber. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed being in bands with women, and found that our difference of perspectives was fertile ground for building understanding and writing better music and lyrics. And I’ve become a more reflective and aware person as a result of talking with women who love punk as much as I do but who have experienced it differently.

If you need suggestions for how to make women feel welcome, then I suggest you ask the females in your local scene. They probably have some pretty specific ideas. To that end, I agree with what Katie from P.S. Elliot said in her essay: we’re trying to start a dialogue. And even though I’m saying this on the internet, I believe that truly courageous and effective discussions don’t happen online. That’s why they need to take place in our local scenes, and we males need to make it clear that we are open to the conversation by either starting it or continuing it.

Additionally, it is incumbent upon us to use our influence to increase the visibility and support for females in our scene. We need to book more bands that have female members, invite more females to start bands with us, and make sure females know about shows and feel truly invited. We need to sign more bands and artists that espouse the female perspective, and we need to try harder to check out new bands that don’t echo the textbook male perspective. We need to interview more females in bands, and expand the focus of the interviews beyond female-specific matters. We need to solicit more record reviews, essays, and stories from females, and not just when the subject at hand is a female band. When we write lyrics from our perspective, we need to make a greater effort to mine our creativity and thoughtfulness to express our emotions in ways that don’t implicitly or explicitly perpetuate hostile attitudes towards women. And we need to make flyers, album art, and advertisements that depict women in more diverse and respectful ways than exclusively as a means to sell a product.

If you’re reading this and my suggestions sound like too much work, or you think this isn’t important enough to put effort into, then you are experiencing the lavish pleasure of privilege. Unfortunately, the females in our scene don’t get to choose whether they have to deal with this shit. And therefore, neither should we. It’s time to get to work, start some conversations, and take some real action.

Postscript: I’m aware that many of the elements of privilege and oppression that I speak to in this essay are present and equally troubling when it comes to matters of race, sexual identity, ability, and so on.  These issues have parallels to each other, but I think they are complex enough on their own respective terms that they warrant their own discussion.

Aaron Scott is a musician from Portland, OR.  He plays folk punk under the name Attica! Attica!.  You can submit stories to his blog about house shows here: Please Don’t Hang Out In Front of the House

This piece is reprinted with permission from ILiveSweat.tumblr.com.