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PWR BTTM, Sexual Assault & The Scene

Rachel Otwell
PWR BTTM's Ben Hopkins, me & my husband after a show in St. Louis - June 2016

For over a year now, PWR BTTM has been my immediate family's most-listened-to band. I have head banged and twirled around my attic and living room countless times to their debut album with my child. Just Wednesday of this week I bought tickets for us to again see the duo perform in St. Louis over the summer. That will not be happening for us, in light of sexual assault allegations the band has gone public in acknowledging, as of Thursday. The tour might be canceled as the situation develops, but regardless I can't imagine going to see them perform again. 

If you have an eye on contemporary indie music and/or queer culture, then you probably have witnessed the band's steady rise to fame in those worlds, having been acclaimed by such outlets as NPR, NME, Noisey and countless others. Liv Bruce and Ben Hopkins both identify as queer and go by non-gendered pronouns, i.e. "they." Together they have become idols for many queer people and allies who appreciate their unapologetic and eccentric style expressed by both their music and appearances. Their image has been adorned by copious amounts of glitter, outlandish makeup and ripped-up dresses ... and it all felt very liberating, especially for those of us on the outskirts of certain music scenes who therefore don't have more intimate knowledge of the hundreds of other queer indie acts across the country. Before this week, the spotlight PWR BTTM had been thrust into made the band relatively easy to identify and love.

That said, many are claiming that it has been known for months, at least, that Ben Hopkins has shown predatory behavior. Earlier this year, Hopkins addressed a picture that had surfaced of them with a swastika in 2011 - something I had admittedly missed before these other allegations became more public this week. If you want an idea of the entire situation as it stands right now, this is the most comprehensive explanation I've encountered. It's not my job to speculate on whether or not people are guilty of certain crimes until they have been convicted, however the amount of concern I have seen expressed about Hopkins' behavior in particular raises enough questions for me to personally decide to stop supporting the band. Two main opening acts for PWR BTTM's planned upcoming tour have both dropped out, and at least one supporting musician as well. Weeks ago I interviewed the owner of Polyvinyl Records, the DIY record label in Champaign, Illinois that just released the band's sophomore album, Pageant. This was before any of these issues came to light to me, and the interview has yet to air, but there is a certain proximity I feel to this issue, especially as someone who reports on not only art and culture - but also equity, which is why I am taking the time to say the following...

Sexual assault as a problem overall is rampant. Period. We know this, and we as a society have yet to find or adequately support ways to squash it.  We know that the majority of abusers and rapists will never face their crimes in court. As a teenager I regularly attended punk/indie shows in Springfield, and I can say in the local scene at that time (2004 - '06) sexual harassment was normalized. For instance, I knew of multiple adult band members sexually engaging with underage girls. In general, the atmosphere was often sexualized in a way that harbored an environment for abusive behavior to take place. It was nothing new, and it's unfortunately something we have yet to overcome. That's glaringly, and to some perhaps shockingly, obvious - given this development with PWR BTTM, a band that called for the idea of "safe spaces."

My first year of college was spent at Antioch in Yellow Springs, Ohio - considered a sort of leftist progressive community - where as a freshman my orientation included being introduced to the Sexual Offense Prevention Policy (SOPP). The policy has gotten national attention over the decades it's been in place, often in a mocking way - it's been made fun of by SNL for instance. The policy is essentially this: don't touch someone in any way until you have their expressed affirmative consent. Consent can not be given by an inebriated individual.

For students and anyone else on campus - that means, for instance, if you want to give someone a hug, you ask first. If you take someone back to your dorm room after a party and decide to hook up - each person asks for consent every step of the way. The dominant mainstream reaction to this has been that the idea is ridiculous, and that human interaction, especially of the sexual variety, can not be forced to happen in this way. But why not? Why not promote the idea that some of us have sexual abuse in our past and therefore don't want to be touched at certain times or by certain people, or just at all, period. Some of us have no abuse in our past and feel this way regardless. It's a fluid personal preference and the reasoning shouldn't really matter. I only stayed at the school for a year, but the habit of asking people before touching them stayed with me. I admit it's worn off - but I plan on readopting it. It seems like the least I can do to combat a culture that normalizes assault and the encroachment of one's personal space (ie: one's own body), especially against women.

I want to end, for now, by appreciating the fact that in Springfield, the indie scene has been made less of a safe space for predators due to the advent and policies of the Black Sheep venue. While it's likely for the foreseeable future that we all must remain vigilant at all shows and speak up when we see troubling behavior - this is a place that actively tries to create and maintain about as safe a space as one could possibly see. The policy against drug and alcohol use is a part of this - but also the accountability people hold for each other. Questions have been raised and addressed instead of ignored, at least at times. It feels like a step in the right direction - like the Sexual Offense Prevention Policy, it's a vision of what's possible going forward. 

One thing I've been reminded of so far regarding PWR BTTM, no matter how the situation develops, is that creating idols out of artists is dangerous territory. It's something I wrote about after David Bowie's passing, and it's something I think about a lot. This specific development is disturbing, and perhaps most importantly - it's a reminder that sexual assault is a dominant problem, one that will effect virtually all, if not every music scene. It's up to us to hold each other accountable and take action whenever possible. And also, if you want to touch someone but you're not sure whether they're into it, ask. Perhaps just ask anyway.

Rachel Otwell of the Illinois Times is a former NPR Illinois reporter.
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