Mosh politics

Leaving women estranged by way of violence and intimidation is a stain on the live music scene.

“We’ll grab a spot front left” reads a text from a mate – my phone screen obnoxiously bright amid the dimly lit venue. Soundcheck has begun, defibrillating the crowd. Front left – a strategic spot to claim in the mosh. It allows you to inconspicuously work your way up the side of the crowd and gradually slink towards the front – trying not to spill your overpriced bourbon and coke.

Sydney’s live music scene has been responsible for the majority of my good nights out. My stamina and my bank account are easily dissolved by clubbing – so my choice of nightlife rotates between a humble pub or a local gig, always followed by a kebab. In non-COVID pre-apocalyptic times, a good portion of my spendings went to gig tickets. 

Some of my nights though, despite the novelty of dressing up, being with my friends, and seeing a band I love, have been tarnished at the hands of power imbalances in the mosh pit. It is not uncommon for people to take advantage of the cramped environment to grope or harass others under the guise that it was an ‘accident’. Fight or flight impulses are stifled by the densely packed space which limits your physical options. Security is usually stationed at the perimeter of the mosh pit and can be completely oblivious to attacks that may occur.

A recent gig compelled me to consider if these patterns of behaviour contributed to something larger. I saw women in the crowd become completely sidelined as the mosh pit became volatile, monopolised by a boys club. It seems unfair that discrepancies in physical ability determine how much people enjoy themselves. 

Despite being separated in the crowd, my mate and I left the gig with the same sentiment of lingering disappointment. On a brisk stroll back from Marrickville to Newtown, we mulled over the circumstances that left us devoid of a good time. Considering that everyone was there for the same reason, we were embittered that others felt entitled to have a better time than everyone else.

It’s experiences like these, leaving gigs bruised and bewildered, which prompted me to investigate how common these experiences are for women attending live music. In a scene which is, at times, already pretentious and somewhat ‘gatekeepy’ – I wondered if this behaviour toward women contributed to a culture that alienates them from this world altogether. 

I surveyed the USYD Women’s Collective Facebook Group which received some saddening, yet unsurprising, responses.

The first staggering result was that 81.3% of participants in the survey responded ‘yes’ to having been harassed or assaulted in a mosh pit. It seemed to match the anecdotal evidence shared in my group of friends – many having been groped or had strangers make sexual advances in a gig setting. The data seemed reflective of broader attitudes towards women which had pervaded into the spaces of arts and music.

Following the coverage of Chanel Contos and Brittany Higgins’ experiences, there was a 61% spike in the reporting of sexual assault. It became clear that many women were living with the burden of assault and feeling jaded by the futility of the system. It spoke to the reality that sexual assault has become a common experience, yet is inconspicuous and still goes unreported.

Optional questions in the survey warranted longer responses. The long-response question which garnered the most answers was:

Do you feel like you can’t enjoy yourself as much in a mosh pit compared to cis men? Why or why not?

Responses included:

Yes because mosh pits give men the opportunity to harass and pass it off as an accident due to how crowded the area is

I get knocked to the ground, men can get aggressive and are unaware of their space/strength

Yes, because I am worried that I will 1. Be assaulted in the mosh 2. Men tend to get very aggressive

I love moshing! But how can I enjoy myself when I am resisting being squashed by men.The risk of losing your friends, being elbowed in the face or being sexually assaulted is too high to succumb to the mosh pit as men do…

Yes because some men sexualise everything

Unfortunately, yes. Obviously there are exceptions and you do get good crowds but you can tell when a crowd “turns” (usually when drunk cis men dominate) and it begins to feel unsafe.

The answers unveil a suite of similar experiences. There is consensus that moshing isn’t the issue. Rather, it is the prospect of being hurt, assaulted, or simply being unable to enjoy the music that they had paid to see.

There is a difference between a playful mosh and a negligent one. I don’t mind leaving a mosh pit with a few bruises. They can be residual markings of a hyped-up crowd. But there is a grave distinction between this kind of environment, where the intensity doesn’t transgress into volatility, and one that endangers others by way of wilful ignorance, or intentional predatory behaviour.

Some participants who hadn’t experienced assault in a mosh pit stated that they were “lucky enough” to have not. The results left me frustrated. Not experiencing assault in a mosh pit should be the bare minimum, rather than shapeshifting into a matter of “luck,” removing the accountability of perpetrators.

I also posed the question, “Do you think physical build and ability determine whether you can have fun in a mosh pit?” Giving participants the option to answer with Yes, No, or Other. Two people undertaking the survey mentioned that attending a gig with a male partner has a tangible influence over their enjoyment.

I found this point particularly interesting. Speaking about it with a friend, she told me, “Yeah, it’s almost as though you have a shield.” She explained that she felt as though predators would feel intimidated to cross any boundary if you are with a partner. 

Another response stated, “I think build and ability do play into [the ability to have fun in a mosh pit] but I also think that cis men are socialised to be less respectful of women’s personal space… Like it’s their behaviour more than their physicality.”

However, to truly combat an issue which is indicative of broader attitudes towards women, it calls for both accountability and a cultural shift. Staff and venues have attempted to mitigate the mistreatment of women at gigs, but it will never be enough. Unfortunately, women are continually alienated by being made to feel unsafe in the Aussie music scene, showing negligence on account of different venues and organisers, and most significantly, the broader social patterns that allow for this behaviour to proliferate.

Leaving women estranged by way of violence and intimidation is a stain on an otherwise unified scene. There is an undeniable sense of community when everyone has rocked up to see the same band. More often than not, fellow gig-goers are easy to talk to. There’s instant common ground between yourself and everyone else at the venue. A mosh pit and a few drinks make for good insulation on a cold winter’s night, but this experience is tarnished for so many.