Last year, Emily Mills was waiting to go onstage at the Crystal Corner Bar with her punk duo Damsel Trash when a stranger sidled up to her.
“I was looking at my phone. Someone came up behind me and kissed my neck,” says Mills, who founded the band with former Madison musician Meghan Rose. “At first, I figured this must be someone that I know. But it wasn’t. It was just some guy who was drunk or something and thought he was being cute. I nearly throttled him.”
Mills, who is also the editor of the local LGBT magazine Our Lives, posted about the experience on social media. That caught the attention of Scott Gordon, editor of the music and culture website Tone Madison.
“Over time, I would hear dribs and drabs about women getting persistent, unwanted advances from men at shows,” says Gordon. “Harassment [at music shows] affects a lot of people. It’s something that you often hear about in the form of anecdote that rarely gets elevated to a larger conversation.”
In the months that followed, Mills and Gordon began collaborating on an effort to improve the local music scene for women and “other marginalized people.” In October, Tone Madison launched Consent, Amplified — a project that seeks to address harassment and spark discussion on how to create safer, more inclusive spaces. One facet of the endeavor is a survey where people can confidentially share incidents they’ve witnessed or experienced at shows in Madison. So far, there have been more than two dozen submissions.
“The uptight Midwest demeanor coupled with the wildness of drink[ing] and music often brings out a suppressed savagery in men that’s very distressing and oppressive,” one person shared in the survey.
On Nov. 15, Tone Madison hosted a panel discussion and Q&A under the Consent, Amplified umbrella at the Arts + Literature Laboratory. Mills moderated the talk and invited four panelists from the Madison music community: independent promoters Lili Luxe and Sarah Akawa; Dana Pellebon, co-owner of the Frequency; and Martha White, a local actor who works at the Cardinal Bar.
At the event, Mills asked why strangers think it’s acceptable to touch another person without consent. She said tattoos and “for some reason black women’s hair” are often taken as an invitation to invade personal space.
“I don’t care who you are...don’t touch people,” said Mills. “How hard is that?”
The discussion also hit on creating environments that are inclusive to people of color and the queer community. Pellebon, who is black, puts the onus on people who aren’t being harassed to drive change.
“It is not my responsibility to dismantle the system that was designed to oppress me,” said Pellebon. “It is your responsibility, as a person of privilege, to help others that do not have those same advantages. And if you are not doing that — in every aspect of your existence — then you have a problem.”
A podcast of the Consent, Amplified panel discussion is available at tonemadison.com. Tone Madison plans to follow up on ideas discussed at the talk. Gordon says the group is working on facilitating workshops for musicians, venue owners, bartenders and others in the music community on how to create spaces where harassment isn’t tolerated. The outlet is also keeping its survey open to continue compiling firsthand accounts of harassment.
“We want to turn this into ongoing action. There are some very tangible ideas out there on how to create safe environments. There’s an opportunity to share knowledge and information. We are definitely going to figure out how to do that in the near future,” says Mills. “A lot of this is just refusing to put up with it anymore.”