Sexism in the punk scene: David Combs (Spoonboy, Max Levine Ensemble) talks

David Combs

Let's get right into it. 

When I was 19 I was walking to the bus station in a part of town I wasn't familiar with when an older man pulled me into an alley and attempted to rape me at knife point. I can only thank fortune that I got away unharmed. If we're talking about sexism, I can only think to start there. Most people don't think sexism matters. Here's why I think it matters. What I experienced for months after that encounter was a visceral fear of men. If I was walking alone, I crossed the street if I saw a man coming down the sidewalk. My heart palpitated if a man pulled me aside at a show. Eventually the fear subsided. 

But I'm lucky. Not only because I got away, but because I was born in a male body. And because I'm comfortable in my male body. It was statistically unlikely that an attempted assault like that would ever happen to me. It's statistically unlikely that it will happen again. It helped me get over my fear to know that. It wouldn't be the case if I was a woman. Almost every woman I have been close with has had an experience of being sexually assaulted or having had someone make an attempt. The statistics say 1 in 3 women is sexually assaulted, and that's only the people who report it. I have a hard time believing it's not a higher percentage. I have a hard time believing that some element of the experience I came close to having hasn't been a reality for the majority of the women I know, women who may not necessarily have been assaulted by strangers, but maybe worse, assaulted by people they trusted. 

I keep this in mind when I hear women's experiences. I keep in mind that most women have to live with the knowledge that at any time they could be the subject of an assault, that they are constantly targets, just for being women. I keep in mind that most women live with a minimal level of distrust for men, and that even the most courageous women have to watch their backs when they walk alone at night. And I keep this in mind when people talk about living in a "post-feminist society," or about how sexism is a thing of the past. Those ideas are wholly unconvincing. As long as rape is a crime that's being committed in extremely disproportionate numbers by men against women, I will not be convinced that everything's ok. Sexism is a disgusting undercurrent in our society and it needs to be fought and challenged. And rape is only one of the many, (albeit probably the ugliest) ways that it rears its head. 

So the question has been brought up: is there sexism in the punk scene? It's not the first time the question's been asked. Twenty years ago, Riot Grrl made it an extremely visible issue. But now as those Bikini Kill records have been historicized as relics isolated in the past, a quick reading of the latest book on Riot Grrl will show that all of the same problems women were fighting against then still exist today. Is there sexism in the punk scene? Of course. Punk is not an impenetrable bubble where upon entrance we shed all the socialized attitudes we grew up with. As long as we live in a sexist patriarchal culture that teaches its children sexist patriarchal attitudes, those attitudes will reappear within punk culture. And it manifests in all sorts of ways: There's the "I wanna kill my ex-girlfriend" songs. There's male band members telling rape jokes. There's women in bands being degraded and objectified, or not being taken seriously as musicians. There's girls at shows being treated like coat hangers. And there's the sad truth that punks rape and are raped. 

But if you really need evidence that there's sexism in punk, look around at the next show you're at. Unless you participate in an unusually egalitarian scene (and that's great if you do), the chances are the majority of the audience will be male, but more importantly, chances are 100% of the performers will be male. The all-male-show is so normalized in punk, and it sends a clear message about whose voice is being heard, who's experience is central. The all-woman-show is far far rarer, and when it does happen, often men in the scene will act defensive and complain they are being excluded, as if they're oblivious to the fact that women are excluded in punk on an almost constant basis. Until the centerpiece of punk culture - the punk show - is occupied by people of all genders, in an egalitarian way, I won't be convinced that there's not sexism in punk. 

So what does this have to do with rape? Try this: in the mind of a rapist, a woman is less than human. Her feelings and experiences are not worth consideration. She's considered a sexual object. She's not taken seriously. Most men aren't rapists, but most men do subscribe to greater or lesser variations of those attitudes. Subtle and less subtle ideas about male superiority are ubiquitous, and that base level of disrespect that men harbor towards women is what makes it possible to live in a world where the majority of women experience sexual assault and harassment, and no one bats an eye. This is called "rape culture." The logic is that women are inferior and thus the pain inflicted by sexist crimes is not given weight. So if women's experiences are not valued in the punk scene, if they are systematically excluded, and women laughed at when they voice their complaints, the punk scene is basically giving a thumbs up to a culture that doesn't value women's experiences. It may not be an active endorsement of rape culture, but it's acceptance through passivity. 

Now, I'd hope it'd be obvious that I'm not equating an all male punk show with rape. I do want to emphasize the emotional gravity that even subtler sexist attitudes hold. But the fact that I'd need to qualify my statement speaks to the overwhelming phenomenon of male defensiveness. When men are told that we're in part responsible for contributing to a sexist culture, we tend to lash out - as if we are being accused of being at fault for our biological make-up. Men tend to bond together and try to tear down whoever is bringing up those criticisms, as if we are each personally under attack. What's important to understand is that culture is built out of a multitude of influences and interactions. A condemnation of a sexist culture is not the same thing as a condemnation of the individuals that participate in it. Recognizing that you were raised in a sexist culture and probably hold sexist attitudes does not make you an asshole, but refusing to acknowledge it does. 

And recognizing that our male dominated culture is fucked up doesn't make you a self-hating man, either. When I first heard Bikini Kill, it was fucking thrilling. Hearing someone lash out against dominant sexist attitudes wasn't exciting in some sort of "oh good for women, they're standing up for themselves," type of way. It was liberating to hear someone take on those traditional expressions of masculinity, because I hated the ways I was expected to act as a man. I hated the toughness and numbness that was expected from men, because I wanted to be able to express my emotions without fear of ridicule. I hated the predatory way that men acted towards women, because I wanted to be free to have meaningful relationships with women. Likewise, I hated the homophobia, because I wanted to have meaningful relationships with the men in my life. I see men around me all the time who refuse to show any signs of vulnerability for fear of appearing feminine, and they tend to cut themselves off emotionally from the world. It's fucking sad. I see men all the time who only view their relationships in terms of conquest, and I can't think of one of them who has a healthy emotional life. Breaking down ideas around male superiority and masculinity is absolutely in mens' best interests. In a punk context, I can say with certainty that the scenes I've visited that were the most gender inclusive have always been the most exciting and thriving music communities. There's nothing to be gained for men in maintaining the boy's club. 

I want to address one common anti-feminist argument: It's the "men have always been sexist, and that's just how things are" argument. There are plenty of examples of non-patriarchal societies that have existed, so for one thing, it's historically inaccurate, but even putting that aside, arguing that doing something for a long time makes it right is a nonsensical way to approach ethics. It's like saying "there's always been murder, so we might as well accept murder as a good and natural part of our lives." I'm sure the same arguments were made to protect slavery. It's also biological essentialism to say that men will always act a certain way based on their gender. So much of our behavior is socialized and the expected traits of masculinity are no exception. There have been cultures where humans have acted in all sort of ways that would seem completely unnatural to us, but those cultures functioned fine on their own terms. If people have lived without concepts that seem essential to our lives, like number systems for example, I think we can do alright without something as banal as patriarchy. 

It's also historically short sighted that so many people hold such defeatist attitudes when it comes to our ability to change the way things are. In the last century and a half we've shed the cultural acceptance of slavery, we've stopped discriminatory voting practices based on race or gender, and we've shed all kinds of official policies that allowed discrimination in the workplace and other public spheres. These are things that we've all, even the most privileged among us, come to tout as hallmarks of progress. There's no reason we shouldn't continue to shed any acceptance of sexism, racism, homophobia, etc. that exists now, just because it might seem less obvious. 

So boys: if you've read this far and you've bought my argument that yes, sexism exists, and yes, it matters, and yes, it even exists in the punk scene, where do you go with it? I can offer some suggestions, but first consider this point from Aaron Scott (of Attica Attica)'s essay on I Live Sweat, "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." That first and most important thing that men can do to combat sexism is to take women seriously when they voice their concerns. We are socialized not to, so it's crucial that we do. And don't try to dictate whether someone else's experience qualifies as oppression. To quote Jen Twigg (of the Ambulars)'s essay from that same website, experiences of sexism are like "a thousand tiny paper cuts… - you wouldn't make a big deal about one on its own, but a thousand of them together are a gaping wound." 

My next strongest suggestion is to not be so afraid of self-criticism. You'll probably find examples of sexism in your day to day behavior. I've found them in mine. I've looked back at things that I've done and realized how they were hurtful or inconsiderate and I've had to suck it up and apologize and change the way I act. Look at yourself and the actions of the men around you. Do you disproportionately talk over, or interrupt women? Are you more likely to make eye contact with men than women in group scenarios? These are the small symptoms that add up. Here's a few more: Do you stop and notice that the way your dancing has all the women in the room backing away from the band? Do you try to prove your coolness or masculinity by one upping other men? Do you notice the women in your scene becoming disinterested when conversation drifts into dick measuring territory, when you're comparing your record collections or gear knowledge? Do you use demeaning sexist language without thinking about it? Do you sexualize women and comment on their appearances or bodies, without thinking about how that makes them feel? I'm going to assume a lot of people reading this probably do. Like I said before, it doesn't make you a bad person. But it does make you a lazy selfish person if you're not willing to recognize and try to change those things. 

Finally, we can do a lot more to encourage women to participate and play music. Supporting women-centered events like CLITfest and Ladyfest are great ways to do this, as well as the various Girl's Rock summer camps that happen all over the country. That doesn't mean we should be trying to dictate or organize these events, but be we should be allies, by offering the women who organize them our support and access to resources. Also, those of us who organize shows or play in bands can do a lot more in thinking about who we choose to book or play music with to keep the all-male-show from happening over and over again. 

I want to finish by recommending a book and two essays that I think should be required reading. I've been distributing pieces of this literature in my records and on tour, because there's only so far someone can go to change people's attitudes by playing songs or writing an essay for a website. We need to be willing to educate ourselves and understand sexism and patriarchy if we're going to fight against it. So here are my recommendations for starters: 

The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love by bell hooks 
Homophobia as Masculinity by Michael Kimmel 
I Want a Twenty-Four Hour Truce During Which There Is No Rape by Andrea Dworkin 

Reprinted with permission from Punknews: