What Happens When A Community Tries To Address Its Own Sexual Harassment Issues

Apr 23, 2018
Originally published on April 23, 2018 8:28 pm
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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

We're going to hear a story now about what's known as call-out culture about someone who was accused publicly on social media of harassment and emotional abuse. The accusations were made a couple of years ago from members of this person's own community.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The experience is at the center of the latest episode of the NPR podcast Invisibilia. The show is about hidden forces that shape our lives, and it's wrapping up its fourth season. Hanna Rosin explores the consequences of calling someone out this way.

CHANG: There is graphic language in this story and content that may not be suitable for some listeners. Hanna also uses first names and initials to protect the privacy of the voices you will hear. Hanna takes it from here.

HANNA ROSIN, BYLINE: Emily loved being part of the hardcore music scene in Richmond, Va., even when she got hit at shows.

EMILY: Yeah. Yeah. There is, like, always the blow to the stomach that you don't expect from, like, a flying foot.

ROSIN: She'd been a hardcore punk since she was 13, and all her friends were in the scene. She loved the music, how powerful it sounded.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #1: (Singing, unintelligible).

ROSIN: There was just one problem. Back in 2006, when she first moved to Richmond, the scene was totally dominated by a crude kind of sexism.

EMILY: Even when there were girls at shows and they were, like, really into the music and moshing, they'd get crucified on the Internet, crucified in person.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #2: (Screaming).

ROSIN: And then there was what happened in real life - guys taking advantage of women. Once Emily invited a guy to stay over, and even when she said she wanted to go to sleep, he kept touching her where she didn't want to be touched.

Did you have a sense that there just would - like, that guys would do that and there wouldn't be any consequences for that?

EMILY: Yeah. Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROSIN: But then a few years ago, Emily and other people who felt left out, sidelined or hurt got hold of a new weapon to fight back.

EMILY: Call-out.

ROSIN: Call-outs - posts on Tumblr or Twitter or Facebook naming names, calling out abuse and harm done. The idea was society had failed to deal with certain transgressions, so the hardcore community would police and punish its own. Emily first became aware of call-outs when several women accused a big-deal West Coast band guy of assaulting them. The guy's band broke up, and he disappeared from the scene.

Was that the first time you - it ever occurred to you that a guy with power could be taken down?

EMILY: Yeah. Yeah. It felt good. Like, it felt like that's what he deserves.

ROSIN: It gave her a kind of courage. In 2015, Emily became one of the only female lead singers in the Richmond hardcore scene. And she began writing lyrics about what made her angry.

EMILY: The music is for chicks and all the bull [expletive] we deal with on a daily basis - sexual harassment, abuse...

I'm singing about chicks being empowered. And I felt good about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HARD FEELINGS")

EMILY: (Singing) I walk alone, no one in sight.

ROSIN: And then one night in October 2016, Emily was about to go to bed when...

(SOUNDBITE OF CELLPHONE ALERTS)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yo, Emily, [expletive] your band. [Expletive] You. I hope to God that all of you question your friendship with that scum.

ROSIN: Emily was being called out. And it had to do with things she did mostly as a teenager, including to this woman.

J: Every time I would see a picture of her or see something about her band, it really just [expletive] me off.

ROSIN: This is J, who we're calling by her first initial. J had also been part of the Richmond scene, and she'd been watching Emily's rise as a feminist voice. And it made her mad because back when they were both in high school, Emily hung with some sexist hardcore trolls. And she herself was a serious bully to girls - publicly shamed them for their bodies, for hooking up, deeply humiliating them. We even heard about unrelenting abuse aimed at a specific person that went on for years, but the survivor didn't want to share their story. With J, Emily was involved in posting a nude photo of her online. Here's J remembering the day she saw it.

J: Just immediately having this panic rise up in me. And there was Emily right after posting, like, the crying laughter emojis. She's thrilled that this just happened to me. She's so happy.

ROSIN: Emily had never apologized to J or to anyone else she'd bullied, so J decided to finally let the world know about Emily's past as a girl hater. She made a Facebook post, and the comments piled on.

(SOUNDBITE OF CELLPHONE ALERTS)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Emily's a pseudo-feminist with a track record of putting women down - completely disgusting. Are her friends going to say something? As a member of this safe space, I want to know.

(SOUNDBITE OF CELLPHONE ALERTS)

ROSIN: Sometimes a person who's called out tries to deny it or make excuses. And Emily could have done that. It'd been more than a decade, and she was now nearly 30. But she didn't. She owned up to J's accusations.

EMILY: I just was a high school bully, like, a slut shamer. Like, it's just - I was just a mean person.

ROSIN: And she wrote a long apology to J, which J accepted.

J: That was the first time that I felt like, oh, wow, Emily has a heart (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROSIN: But it didn't end there. Emily was ostracized from the scene. And a year and a half later, she's still in limbo.

EMILY: I'm not allowed to come to shows anymore. I'm not allowed to participate in anything, not allowed to make music anymore. I mean, it's entirely my life. Like, it's been that way since I was 12 or 13. Like, this is everything to me. And it's all just, like, done and over.

ROSIN: Friends, even good friends, they kept their distance, unfriended Emily, didn't say hi on the street, didn't invite her to shows.

Do you think the community is safer without you?

EMILY: I don't know. That's a crazy question. That, like, cuts deep hearing you say that. I don't know. I guess some people think so.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROSIN: So what Emily went through, did it make her lose faith in call-out culture, in her community's attempt to deal with abuse and misogyny on their own? I asked her that question. And while she wavered for a moment, she still believes. If you could choose the world after call-out culture or before, like, which world would you choose to live in knowing everything you know about it?

EMILY: Wow. I want girls to feel safe and, like, not just girls but, like, anyone that's, like, outnumbered and not normally welcome to, like, the outside world of punk. Like, that's why we're all here, because we're not welcome. I want everyone to feel safe and welcome. So if that's the price of call-out culture then, yeah, I prefer that world.

ROSIN: Hanna Rosin, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.