Sexual Harassment in the Trad World

I have spent the last ten or so years of my professional life working in the traditional music world as a performer, educator and composer. Right now, this scene is having its #metoo moment with the hashtags #itendsnow and #misefosta. This is predicated on the valiant work of groups such as the BIT Collective, Fair Plé and protestations from 2016 and 2017 around the blatant sexism in our world.

My first awareness of a public outcry highlighting the preference for ‘masculine’ music by the industry and the lack of opportunity for female musicians was in 2016. BBC Radio 2 Instrumentalist of the Year Rachel Newton argued on social media that she felt “overwhelmed by the amount of all-male and more importantly very masculine bands… dominating the Scottish traditional music scene”.

What ensued were a series of touching moments of solidarity on the one hand, and some quite stunning sexism on the other. Senior men in this world openly wondered to The Guardian whether men were more attracted to making “pounding music” due to their innate desire to hunt, and this could be an explanation as to why male acts dominate headlining spots. There were also discussions to whether women would mind having the image of being a performer who sweated on stage (which, if I am honest, had not been a complex I had considered adopting). And then there was the comment of how men relied on women in bands to temper the “social and moral decorum” of male musicians on the road – meaning the extreme drinking culture of professional music in the Celtic World. And it is to this “social and moral decorum” that the female members of this profession have turned to recently, and they certainly don’t mean the drink culture. They mean to address the endemic sexual abuse patterns which accompany the sexism already made public in 2017.

I grew up in the folk music scene and I am incredibly fortunate to get to work in this world, with varied and interesting projects. Traditional music is part of me, and I am part of it. Yet, I have always stayed away to a certain extent – living in Edinburgh (the hub of the scene is in Glasgow) and always keeping one foot in the world of academia. Undoubtedly this is partially due to my interest in pursuing my studies and my love for the capital city. But there is something more to it than that, and I am only just beginning to unpack this. My reluctance to be fully present in the traditional music world stems from my first foray into the profession when I first played at Celtic Connections when I was 15.

It was my first time at the festival, and I was playing in the opening concert. It was one of the memories which will never leave me, an incredible experience as a young musician to play on that stage with those musicians. It is still one of my musical highlights. However, there was also a dark side to it. There were rumours about certain musicians and how they had girls (teenagers) in their hotel rooms. I thought at first that these were the rumours of over-excited teenagers with a crush, and maybe they were. But my suspicions were raised given that it also seemed to be normal for one musician in particular to flirt with me in the place that we all hung out – the pub. He was in his fifties. A 20-something supervisor started a relationship with one of the girls (who was in school), and I didn’t even think that this was at all strange. There were protestations by the pros on the gig when they realised that I was ‘only’ 15. Although I looked old for my age, it cannot be denied that a 15-year-old rarely looks old enough for a 50-year-old to proposition. I remember going to buy some clothes in the sales and, knowing that I could garner attention according to what I chose, I decided to get clothes which would cover me up. Maybe all 15-year-olds think this way? I had never before had this feeling of being watched in a sexual manner with my schoolteachers, or with my lecturers as an undergraduate. I have never felt at risk at academic conferences, where there is also a hedonistic drinking culture with a wide age-range and power imbalances embodied by a competitive professional field. But in the Scottish traditional music scene, this culture is an accepted norm.

My story is not unique, and quite frankly, not even remarkable. The other horror stories I have heard have been eye-watering. Yet – I will not name who did this to me the first time as a minor, and precious few have been willing to put their career, their friendship groups and (dare I say it) their membership of this community/ professional group at risk in their discussions of this reckoning. I get it. Too much is at stake – this isn’t just a job, this is a way of life. Traditional music is part of us, and we are part of traditional music.

As a young woman, I went to Edinburgh University and studied History – I had decided that I didn’t want to be in the cultural sector after all. Music kept on pulling me back in though, so I went to Newcastle and did my masters in Folk Music. There I entered a relationship with a woman, who I have been with since. After my masters, we chose to move to Edinburgh – not to Glasgow. Among the unconscious reasons for keeping away from the national hub, I am now beginning to realise, was an attempt to keep away from a social and professional scene which I identified with making me feel uncomfortable. I now know that it is very possible to have a life in the Glasgow music scene which isn’t defined by this feeling. However, at a time when I was making the big decision of where to base myself, it made more sense to me to stay a little bit distant. I was just a little scared, I think. So, at 22 I became a full-time musician – a little older, a little more experienced and no longer someone ‘on the market’ and my life of being an object of prey was pretty much over. I kept my distance and became a spectator of the behaviour. And now I am beginning to ask myself if my silent spectatorship makes me complicit.

I have observed very questionable behaviour by men to young women. One instance comes readily to mind. I once had to leave a session because I was so nauseated by the way that around 5 men (all over 40 and all powerful) were fawning over a girl of around 19. I didn’t know the girl, and she seemed not to notice what was going on. I really hope she didn’t notice what was going on, but somehow I doubt that she was so unaware. Oh – why didn’t I say something?! We know now that many women just tried to ignore it and pretend nothing was happening as a coping mechanism.

We also know that some women have reacted to this ‘attention’ in a manner which appeared to be positive. I certainly laughed and smiled when I was young for a lack of knowledge on how to deal with it in another manner. Many young women – who, let’s remember, are also incredibly gifted artists – have found that they were expected to flirt with men twice or three times their age as a form of networking instead of being judged for their professional value. Was their apparent willingness to participate in this culture a genuine response? The emerging answer to this on social media in the last couple of weeks is a resounding No.

Coping mechanisms differ from person to person. I originally laughed it off, and subconsciously stayed at a slight distance. Others have tried to ignore it, others left the scene in its entirety, others have become teachers. They were part of traditional music, and traditional music was part of them, but no longer. But of course, many have remained in the profession, and have continued to either be the subjects of abuse or have had to watch it happen to others. Isn’t it hugely problematic that there is an expectation that it is the women who need make these decisions? I am beginning to wonder how much talent we have lost with young women leaving to have a more comfortable existence.

What is the solution? How is a safe environment created?

My first instinct is that we need to acknowledge the situation. But this only goes so far. There has been disappointment by many who have had to watch their abusers share statements of solidarity with the emerging #misefosta and #itendsnow posts. If we are being generous to those at fault here, then they are just clueless. But, more cynically, their words can be perceived as little more than performative allyship or – dare I say it – a PR stunt. Clearly, there must be a movement away from networking in pubs. How this happens, I don’t exactly know. There are professional organisations such as Fèisean nan Gàidheal, Hands up for Trad and the Trad Music Forum do fill the gap to a certain extent, though not enough people engage with these with these professional opportunities (and I criticise myself here). Finally – there should be consequences. These should be social and professional. Not all men are predators in the music scene (far from it!) and they need to be part of the solution by calling out their colleagues when they see problematic and illegal behaviour. It has been suggested in the past couple of weeks that people should consider leaving bands which have known predators among their members. These are personal decisions, and I am thankful that I don’t have to worry about removing someone from my immediate professional and social sphere. But one thing is clear. Women contemplate leaving the scene regularly due to the disgraceful habits of prying men. In doing so they risk the loss of a prospective career, an artistic practice, a social circle, and part of their identity as traditional musicians. The burden of leaving should be passed onto the men who should know a lot better. I wonder whether the prospect of losing everything might help them to behave a little better.


Comments (10)

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  1. John B Dick says:

    Sex might the only genuinly traditional element.

    Certainly there is almost nothing about the music that is more traditional than the mid-20th C.

    1. Agammemnonandonandonandon says:

      What an appropriate name you have. And what a lame comment.

  2. Wul says:

    “What is the solution? How is a safe environment created?”

    A swift and powerful slap to the chops and a strong ” Eff off ya dirty auld bastard!” may make an impression. Sorry, this kind of lecherous behaviour makes me angry and nauseous. It’s not up to women to stop this, is it?

    It will end when other men call it out and tackle it head on; no jokes, no allowances, no banter to soften the message. If you sing songs about the poor, oppressed workers & peasants and then visit sexual and power-based oppression on women you are a rank hypocrite and general scum bag. If these pot-bellied, over-the-hill lotharios were cleared out it would leave room for younger artists.

    1. Rona Wilkie says:

      I think that men play such a large role in the solution here. Not only do they have to examine their own behaviour but they have to keep their friends and colleagues in check. And, as I said above, remove then from their circle if needs be.

      1. Wul says:

        Totally agree Rona. We men need to own and deal with this sh*t.

        It is not easy to do and has real costs. My son was let go from his part-time job mainly because he did not join in with colleagues who spent their down-time ogling and making sexual remarks about female customers and colleagues. His refusal to participate in this “just having a laugh” made his workmates feel like the sad, sexist, inadequate men that they are.

  3. Christine Hanson says:

    “I wonder whether the prospect of losing everything might help them to behave a little better”

    Sadly, this doesn’t even enter into the thinking of a predator. They don’t care. The main reason for this is because they are very often narcissists.
    It’s a complex subject, but their perspective about what is right or wrong is very different from a person who isn’t disordered. Predators are entitled – the ‘rules’ simply don’t apply to them.
    Offering more performance opportunities to women is definitely a step in the right direction. However, this doesn’t really help to solve the underlying problem.
    What will empower young female musicians over the long-term is knowledge. Knowledge that will help them to clearly recognise a predatory and dysfunctional dynamic, in addition to understanding the specific criteria that will help them identify a predatory narcissist. The more females who are armed with this awareness, the less powerful the predator will be. In turn, the more accountable we all must become.
    This results in less trauma, fewer lost professional opportunities due to being bullied or maligned, more art from women, and more women creating and performing within the Traditional Music scene.
    I have experienced this kind of harassment as a younger musician. It’s like a kick to the soul.
    I’ve also had wonderful musical experiences with a number of men on the scene who have been incredibly supportive and respectful. Admittedly, it was a difficult journey in learning who is genuine. Thank you Rona for showing up!
    Christine Hanson

    1. Liza Mulholland says:

      Great piece, Rona. Well done in articulating thoughts and experiences similar to those of many female musicians. You’re absolutely right, Christine. Predators are often narcissists…they have no empathy, are completely self-centred and usually continue their behaviour regardless. It’s really important that young women in trad (who may initially even feel flattered that some prominent middle-aged musician in a position to advance their career, is lavishing his attention on them) are equipped with the knowledge to identify predatory harassment, and the confidence and ability to deal with unwanted advances or pressure. Maybe music educational institutions and other organisations need to develop something of this in their curriculum and conditions of employment – codes of conduct, psychology of power, and understanding of dysfunctional dynamics, what constitutes harassment / unacceptable behaviour, etc. And perhaps funding bodies need to do similar, look very carefully at who they’re giving money to and why (I, for one, know of an individual who grossly mis-used public funds to enable his ‘activities’). Complaints should be submitted to those organisations who employ or fund known predators, as well as to likes of MU etc. In a music world where most of us are freelancers, it’s not easy for young women to even know who to complain to but we need to start somewhere.

  4. David Macdonald says:

    Totally agree that we men have a critical role in calling out predatory behaviour every time we see it. Excellent article

  5. chris says:

    Name names! Do it!

  6. Orgelet says:

    What the flip does the Guardian know about Scottish folk music? It only caught up with Scottish devolution in 2014. Not an authority on Scottish anything.

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