Kathleen Hanna Saved My Life

“I’ll resist with every inch and every breath, I’ll resist this psychic death.”

I fell in love with punk rock when I was thirteen and I had a very brutal and jarring entrance into the scene. I was protesting the war in the Middle East and going to anti-fur rallies and fighting for reproductive justice, but in the punk rock scene, as I experienced it, being political wasn’t considered “punk.” The Clash, one of my favorite bands, incorporated elements of rockabilly, reggae, ska, and funk into their music. Much of their music was charged with a leftist political ideology. They pioneered the advocacy of radical politics in punk rock. But then I wasn’t considered punk because I was “too political;” I was not accepted by the punk rock community. Something happened, something changed in those years between the Clash and me.  See there were currents running within Punk — it’s not that punk was dead or anything, it just seemed to have forgotten who it was.

I wasn’t a “real punk rocker” because I was obsessed with Kathleen Hanna and riot grrrl bands. Male punks told me that those chicks couldn’t play their instruments and that those bands were worthless. Punk rock women have even outright laughed in my face when I have attempted to discuss feminism, or riot grrrl music. Feminist was a dirty word in venues. The majority of the women I met in the punk rock scene would sneer at the word "feminist" -- to them, feminists were lesbian man-haters, or were gross for not shaving their legs -- feminists weren’t “real women.”

I never felt welcome in the Chicago punk rock community. I had a small group of grrrlfriends, but within the larger community, I felt ostracized and targeted — a target for constant ridicule, abuse and violence. If the boys weren’t hitting on me, they were harassing and teasing me. There were (and still are) the silliest “street gangs” made up of suburban punk rock males who could act extremely elitist, sexist, racist, homophobic and who were constantly policing others at shows and parties. Two examples of these punk rock street gangs are the 77s and Rogue City Rockers. If you weren’t a part of their crew, you could be targeted. Of course, grrrrls and women were not allowed in these crews. It was like we were wearing targets as patches on the backs of our jackets.

Female punks were there to be fucked, and that was it. I have experienced sexual harassment and violence from several male punks since I became a part of that community. When I was only fifteen, a friend of mine was having a house party because her parents were out of town. One of the punk rock gangs crashed the party, which we feared would happen.  One of the members was pissing me off, so I told him “Fuck the 77s!” I was slapped in the face, fucking assaulted. This was typical behavior for the 77s street gang. I think that because sexism is so engrained into our punk rock subculture, that I am having a difficult time identifying other instances. It’s just part of the ripped-up fabric. Unfortunately, misogyny has existed throughout my whole experience in this community.

When I called out male misbehavior, sexism, even sexual and domestic violence, I became a man-hater to them. Male punks were able to avoid any responsibility or accountability because “I just hated dudes.”  I have encountered far too many rape apologists in the punk rock community across the United States. When I called out punks for the violence inflicted on me, no one believed me. I traveled to another city to see the band, the Vibrators, play a show. I was extremely intoxicated after the show and blacked out at a party. I came to and was being raped. This rapist was well known throughout the Midwest, everyone knew this guy and wanted him at their parties. No one believed that he could do that. I blamed myself for a long time because I was so inebriated, that maybe if I hadn’t been so drunk, it wouldn’t have happened. Now I know it’s not my fault. I couldn’t give consent if I was black-out drunk.

I felt isolated and marginalized by other punk rock women I met, and felt completely excluded and harassed by male punks. The thing about punk rock is a lot of it pretends to be egalitarian and different from society, but the scene I was in, it very much replicated mainstream values, including gender roles.

In many cultures, attributes of coolness, toughness and aggressiveness imply masculinity and manhood. Punk rock replicates these attributes. I argue that this model of manhood crosses boundaries of race and class. I have seen these characteristics in the male punks in Chicagoland. The history of our subculture is dominated by male punk rock bands. Since the scene replicated the same values as mainstream society, how were female punks supposed to act? As Lauraine Leblanc discusses in her book Pretty in Punk, men set the standard:

Punk’s reflexive reversal of the structural features of the mainstream scene does not extend to the reversal of gender norms….male punks are very active in creating and maintain the masculinity of the punk subculture throughout their interactions with punk girls.

A perfect site for punk men to police punk women is in the pit. Somehow the equation becomes the more overly violent you are, the more equality you create.

I have lost count of how many times I have been molested in a mosh pit.  Everyone is moving so fast, it is almost impossible to find out who is groping you. One time, I went to a punk rock show at the Metro on the North side of the city.  It was August and sweltering hot inside the venue. I decided to take off my shirt, like a majority of the male punks there, and headed into the pit. That was one of the last times I took off my shirt at a show because I was groped by several different men in the pit that night and was so disgusted, that I told myself I “shouldn’t” do that anymore. I “shouldn’t have done it” — like it was my fault. A friend of mine confided in me that she loves stage diving, but has been felt up so many times that she won’t do it anymore. Punk rock misogyny is limiting her autonomy. She had to quit doing something she loved because of sexual violence in our community.

Despite some negative experiences, I cannot stay out of the pit. It gives me a sense of freedom, feels good to push people around and let go of some of that angry energy. It makes me feel alive. That is, unless no one is pushing you back. Some male punks are scared to push you back because you’re a woman, or they don’t shove you because you’re so frail and delicate. I have had countless female friends jump into the pit and start pushing men full force, receiving no reaction. Some male punks would even move out of their way! Then there are the male punks who will beat the shit out of you in the pit because they can. We have to fight ten times harder in a pit, just because we’re female. Over the years, I have developed a “Fuck them, I am going to take up this space because I want to see this band play and I don’t care if I get trampled in this pit,” kind of attitude, but it does still bother me. This year, a friend and I went to a music fest in Washington, D.C. The fest was held at a historically significant venue in the scene, St. Stephens’s church, which had been hosting shows since the 1980s. My friend and I were stoked to be there, she jumped into the pit, pushing guys repeatedly and no one pushed her back. No one would engage with her. She also happened to be the only female punk in the pit. It made me sad -- and angry.

I have loved drums since seeing Animal from “The Muppets” and “Sesame Street.”  I loved how chaotic he was, and how fast he could play. A few years ago, I was dating a fabulous drummer. I was too self-conscious to play in front of him, or anyone really. I didn’t know what I was doing.  If I was going to play drums, I would have to become the best damn drummer alive, because otherwise people would say “just another shitty girl drummer.” I would play before he would get home from work. He was always encouraging me, but I was too intimidated and insecure to push through, and follow my dream.

I honestly do not think I would have survived adolescence without discovering riot grrrl music. Riot grrrl served as a space for women to express themselves the same way that men had been doing in the scene for decades. These female bands wrote songs about rape, homophobia, racism, patriarchy, sexuality, domestic abuse, and female empowerment. Listening to riot grrrl helped me identify and understand my own anger, and disgust. It helped me envision a better world, and a better punk rock scene where my voice would matter and be valued. Bikini Kill, my all-time favorite riot grrrl band and personal savior, encouraged grrrls to the front of the audience at their shows.

I want to end this piece on sexism by paying tribute to all the important female musicians who have impacted and changed my life. Without them, I don’t know where I would be; I really don’t. They encouraged me to be whoever the fuck I want to be and if someone doesn’t like it, then they can go fuck themselves! Kathleen Hanna and Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, Beyond Pink, Debbie Harry of Blondie, Patti Smith, Joan Jett and the Runaways, Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex, Exene Cervenka of X, Lydia Lunch, Poison Ivy of The Cramps, and last but certainly not least, Wendy O’ Williams of The Plasmatics! These punk rock sheroes taught me to stand up, and fight back! I can’t end this without thanking them all for saving my life.

Liz Sheridan is a feminist activist and recent Gender Studies graduate of the University of Illinois-Chicago. She has worked with the women of Sarah’s Circle and is an organizer with SlutWalk Chicago.