The Austin Music Scene's Spectrum of Sexism
From sexual assault to all-female bills, women musicians face myriad issues in the live music capital
During an overcast morning over coffee last summer, Miranda Fisher sat at a picnic table, visibly working out the best way to articulate her experiences as an Austin musician.
"I'm glad I live here, and I do think it's the best city I've lived in as far as supporting female musicians," says the 29-year-old after a moment. "But being ahead of other places doesn't mean it doesn't have problems."
That seems to be the consensus from her gender. Across six months of interviews with 17 female musicians and countless casual, off-the-record conversations with the women who populate Austin bands, there's a resounding "We can do better" when it comes to representation and support. Fisher then retells her sexual assault by another local musician at Hotel Vegas in 2013.
Both Fisher, bassist for Zoltars and Nike, and the man who assaulted her ran in similar circles, heavily entrenched in local music. She warned mutual friends and informed bookers to try and avoid putting her bands on the same bills as the perpetrator. In June, she called him out by name on Facebook, the first time she'd come forward publicly with the story. In the wake of her disclosure, the accused never denied his behavior and moved out of town.
Often, the repercussions of violence against women play out socially rather than criminally. Jenny Horton, guitarist and singer for queer punk trio Mom Jeans, recounts her experience as victim of a home invasion and rape several years ago. A legally black-and-white situation dragged her through a difficult trial despite a rape kit and witnesses.
"Really, your only recourse is social in a lot of these sexual assault instances, and there's a danger of it bounding back on you," says Horton. "I can see not wanting to say anything at all. Your other option is to go to the police, which, like I said, even in a case like mine, is a fucking nightmare."
Kana Harris, Xetas bassist and Foreign Mothers guitarist, made her own call-out post on social media years ago after being sexually assaulted by someone she had once considered a friend, a fellow musician in a popular local band. Foreign Mothers was new on the scene and Harris felt unsure of who to turn to.
"I said, 'Hey, this person assaulted me. If I come out and say something about it, will you have my back?'" relays Harris.
At the time, she felt a responsibility to stick up for herself and the fledgling band, a trio with two other women. Harris began to encounter backlash. People became defensive about the perpetrator. While he was eventually booted from his band, Foreign Mothers suffered for it, blacklisted from bills Harris is confident they would've been booked on otherwise.
"It was really hard to take that stand and know it would hurt our career," says Harris. "It sucked."
80% Male, 20% Female
SafePlace, local haven for individuals and families affected by violence, offers numbers on sexual assault for Austin's general population: 90% know the person who assaulted them. Every day, two people report being raped or sexually assaulted.
Washington, D.C.'s RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), which primarily pulls from the National Crime Victimization Survey, an annual study conducted by the Justice Department, gives statistics nationwide: One out of every six American women has been the victim of attempted or completed rape in her lifetime. About two out of three sexual assaults go unreported, and three out of four rapes are committed by someone known to the victim.
When victims were asked why they didn't report sexually violent crimes to police from 2005 to 2010, the top three reasons were: 13% of victims believed the police would do nothing to help, 13% believed it was a personal matter, and 20% feared retaliation. Beyond those acts, however, the spectrum of sexism in the Austin music scene broadens considerably.
"Punk is supposed to be a safe space where you can be who you wanna be, but women are still challenged in all of these ways – some of them sexual, some of them emotional, mental, physical," continues Harris. "As a woman, you're doubted in so many ways and it turns into this general harassment."
Katy Potts, frontwoman of arty punk outfit New China, recalls a show where, after stepping into the crowd to perform, she had to fight off a drunk audience member who tried to force a kiss on her. Half of electro duo Holiday Mountain, Laura Patiño retells a moment of being one of the few women at a venue ahead of a show, being grabbed by a forceful stranger, and feeling like the venue wasn't eager to help her. Crowded venues and bars provide a certain amount of anonymity for predators – and murkier circumstances for victims, especially women who are often in the minority as performers in clubs.
Drummer for newer rock & roll duo Hardcore Sex, Bear Ryan has lived locally 20 years. Immersed in music as a photographer before getting onstage herself, she notes an upswing in female musicians in Austin over the last five years. Liz Herrera, of Dikes of Holland, Kay Odyssey, and ¿Qué Pasa?, notes the same increase over the eight years since she moved to town.
In fact, every woman interviewed echoed the same assessment: Female musicians enjoy a stronger presence locally than ever before. Not that statistics reflect this. In 2015, the Austin Music Census, a first-of-its-kind effort to examine the needs, diversity, general numbers, etc., of the expansive local music industry, conducted 20 interviews, eight focus groups, and a widely publicized online questionnaire.
Of the 4,000 music industry respondents, 2,380 individuals identified as working musicians. The gender breakdown of that number came out to 80% male, 20% female, a staggering gap given the nearly even gender split citywide. If 2017 boasts the height of women's involvement in local music, what would the Austin Music Census have found for the gender breakdown in earlier decades?
Horton recalls a man bemoaning the lack of female involvement in the homegrown hardcore punk scene. There's a reason for that, she explained, citing crowds "full of dude jabronis beating each other up at the shows.
"It's not that women don't like [hardcore] or don't feel like doing it," she says. "There are active barriers even the most enlightened, in-touch man can miss because he's not in that skin."
Naturally, Austin's music scene isn't responsible for larger societal issues: the wage gap, rape culture, sexism, rampant gentrification, Donald Trump. It is responsible for how it responds, though. Can it create a safer, more inclusive, diverse scene locally that allows female musicians to flourish in the same way as their male counterparts?
How can we collectively empower and protect? There's a big difference between "PC culture" and everyone having an equal chance to participate in a vibrant, integral part of local life. After all, music remains an outsize draw for the legions moving here to the so-called live music capital, a tangible touchstone of what's still special about Austin.
"Overall, I feel like women are doing the work of being inclusive, of supporting other women, of making sure women feel safe," says Fisher. "But it shouldn't all be on women."
Organizations offering support for all musicians include the SIMS Foundation for mental health and Austin Music People for advocacy and civic engagement. Girls Rock Austin empowers young women specifically (see cover stories "The Girls of Summer," June 29, 2007, and "The Girls of Summer Redux," July 22, 2011). Kara Bowers, a hip-hop mainstay who performs as KB the Boo Bonic, says the Austin Mic Exchange encourages emerging female rappers. Anastasia Smith, whose MC handle is Anya, and guitarist Carol Ann Willhite cite Tamale House for its booking diversity.
The latter applauds Sahara Lounge as well for its progressive bills, and last fall, Harris spearheaded Making Spaces, an ongoing community-based project booking shows with diverse bills.
Cheer Up Charlies comes up often as a safe space: queer-friendly, owners often visible, attentive bar staff, and free shows promoting inclusion. There's a sense that if you see something or say something, someone will help.
"Cheer Ups is the best for being whoever you wanna be," says Patiño, grinning.
Pleasure Venom guitarist Anna Sawyer mentions punk vanguard Beerland.
"They have a safe space sign up near the bar," she points out. "Every time I see that, I'm like, 'Yes.' Because punk shouldn't just be about aggressive dudes."
Potts agrees, saying the sign made her feel welcome when she ventured into the local scene.
"It also made me think, 'Oh, yeah, that happens,'" she admits. "It helped me check myself."
It's worth noting the sign identifying Beerland's no tolerance policy surfaced following a widely shared blog post chronicling an instance of harassment there. A club willing to address something like that set a precedent as a step in the right direction. The simple presence of the words "SAFE SPACE" feels palpable at Beerland, a venue that's banned musicians with abusive reputations and removed unsafe people from shows.
The idea of signage signifying safe haven will inevitably strike people as ineffectual or stating the obvious, but at least venues being vocal about where they stand can help provide victims of sexual assault, racism, or general harassment with agency. Such postings signify the business is on the right side of things should something happen (see sidebar below).
"I wish places would be more vocal about if they're going to do the right thing," says Fisher. "I wish women knew we could count on them to do the right thing."
Once her own story was shared publicly, Fisher was told both Hotel Vegas and Barracuda banned the assaulter, a response that relieved her. She also notes her "honest" reputation – not a big drinker or partier – and knows that makes a difference in how her story is heard. Others have reached out to her with their own stories after she went public with the assault – people who, maybe because they haven't cultivated the same squeaky-clean reputation, wouldn't have been taken as seriously.
Mom Jeans' Horton and bassist Ursula Lucadevjic express a similar sentiment to Fisher's. They're all in agreement with Pleasure Venom frontwoman Audrey Campbell: Just because Austin's liberal doesn't mean it encourages dialogue on sexism and race.
"I don't want to feel alone talking about transgender rights or women's rights, so I'm lucky I have friends who can help me vocalize those things," Lucadevjic says. "I think it's also an education thing. I had to learn about my own privilege and the things that keep me from encountering certain things. Us being vocal is great because it's gonna reach people.
"But just think about how many more people could be reached if other people had this conversation – just a friendly conversation."
Sailor Poon's tongue-in-cheek feminist punk blossomed as its own dialogue, a response to outdated societal expectations of what a "girl band" should be.
"None of us knew how to play our instruments, so we said, 'Let's just give them exactly what they want,'" recounts bassist Mariah Stevens-Ross. "People are gonna see a bunch of girls onstage and think they're not gonna be as adequate or as good as men, so let's just slam on the keyboards and play random shit. Hit them in the face with, 'This is who we are! This is what you expect!'"
Since then, the group's grown a massive following in Austin. Their shows are bonkers, crass and unapologetic. And they own their feminine identities while playing with tired, sexist tropes. They're not the first raucous crew in Austin to say what they're saying, but right now they're among the loudest.
"Sailor Poon also has the thing going for it where we're a lot of young, cute, white, blondie type of women," notes Willhite, guitarist for Sailor Poon at the time of interview. "I think that gives us an immense and really obvious privilege to do a lot of what we're doing, which you couldn't do with the same type of freedom or license or positive reception if you were black or Latina or whatever else."
The band comes up more than once in talking with their peers in the scene. Campbell knows well of what Willhite speaks. She's a big fan of Sailor Poon, but often encounters racism as a black woman fronting a punk band – heckled during shows, constantly challenged about her connection to the music.
"We shouldn't be okay with the scene we have now," says Campbell. "It needs work. That's not diversity to me whenever you can only name a handful of women musicians [of color] and there's still a sea of white men. It's so maddening to me."
When she first moved to town, several black artists she knew were leaving Austin and wished her good luck. Campbell, who has a big smile, loud voice, and self-assured glow, felt confident in taking on the bullshit. When she talks about it now, she's tired.
"People look at me like I'm an outsider," she continues. "I've always said to deny my blackness is to deny me. It's a huge part of who I am, and it's the first thing people see. Then on top of that, I'm also a woman."
Campbell says she's begun talking about founding a group for minorities in the punk scene. The Austin Music Census' race breakdown – 4.4% African-American, 10.4% Hispanic, 1.2% Asian – backs her call for more racial diversity in clubs.
"There shouldn't be a bill without another girl band," she says. "To be inclusive, you have to actively seek out these bands and not be like, 'Ay, we have all bros on this bill.' No, you need to put in a girl, to have that voice there. And whenever you see a bill with all girls, there should be women of color.
"You have to work at diversity, you have to work at inclusivity, to make that a thing here."
Sometimes even the best intentions go awry. Female-fronted bills, "girls' nights," turns out to be a big topic among the musicians interviewed. Once, carefully curated ladies' nights provided a reprieve from a scene rampant with male presence. Now, female-centric bills sometimes double as the only opportunity some acts are offered, perpetuating the idea that women musicians somehow cater to a niche audience.
Turns out that's an idea that extends beyond booking. Local media remains guilty of playing into the "ladies' night" mentality with their coverage, including the Chronicle, which had "women" as an individualized genre as recently as the Best Albums of 2014 critics' poll. Smith, a native Austinite, recounts a stretch of time where she refused to participate in any "ladies' night" bills.
"What I noticed was the people putting the shows together were just lumping us together because we share the same genitalia, which I didn't like," she says. "I wanna be put on a show for my own merit. I want them to listen to me, know who I am, and pair me with acts that reflect my direction and that I can share an audience with."
Paradoxically, Horton and Lucadevjic admit that showing up to a club with only women performing also feels peculiar.
"It can be a really lonely place, and you can wander into the wrong scene where you're not gonna be respected," Horton says.
"It's important to have female-fronted showcases," Stevens-Ross weighs in. "At the same time, female-fronted is not a genre."
"I don't wanna be cornered or put on bills that are like the 'girls' bill or something," says Patiño with a frustrated laugh. "It sounds like we can't handle a normal bill."
¿Qué Pasa? bassist Ali Copeland thoughtfully lists a number of reasons the band might not get booked more.
"Maybe people don't like us very much, maybe they don't think we're very good, maybe they don't see us enough, I don't know," she shrugs. "We don't get asked to play very much, and when we do it's almost always for a touring band with a girl fronting it."
"I don't think people mean to think about it in the way where they're being sexist by putting together a bill of all females," adds her bandmate Herrera. "In their head, it just seems right. But it's not right."
It's a difficult line to toe, making more women visible onstage and having a fair playing field without contributing to the line of thinking that makes women artists the other.
"I'm guilty of creating a bill that was female-fronted," admits Ryan, who booked a "Femme Fatale" show this past fall – although the lineup was made of bands she liked for their music first, not solely because of the participation of women. "On a personal level, I almost instantly became annoyed with it, because what I realized is there shouldn't be anything special about an all-female bill."
She pauses, then adds, "Why are we still even having this conversation?"