Liberal snowflakes crave safe spaces, so the friends of Fox would have viewers believe, but Shawna Potter, of feminist punk band War on Women, has something less eye-roll-inducing but maybe more radical in mind. There’s no such thing as a safe space, she says, but all our spaces could, and should, be safer.

Music venues, in particular, could do more to keep their more vulnerable patrons — women, people of color, those with visible disabilities, to name a few — from the kinds of verbal and physical harassment and assault that, for too long, has been considered an inevitability of the concert-going experience. For years, Potter has run workshops about how to combat sexual violence at shows, with specific, clear guidance for everyone from venue owners to bartenders to allies in the crowd. She’s put her counsel, broken down into actionable bullet points, into Making Spaces Safer: A Pocket Guide. An expanded edition is in the works and is due out next year.

Tell me about the workshops you’ve been doing that built up to this guide.

I’ve been doing these workshops since 2013. And it just started out of an awareness that there’s a need for people to know what to do in these situations in venues of all kinds. We can talk about bystander intervention in truly public spaces where everyone is a stranger, and we have laws and policies in place for workplaces and schools. But there’s all this middle ground where maybe you have a little bit of authority. You maybe work for a place, you have some responsibility, but there’s no HR to turn to, because you’re dealing with two customers. What do you do?


We realized we had a lot of information to give folks. To give people leisure time that’s actually leisure time – to relax and not have to worry about being relaxed. And I say “we” because I started the program with a couple fellow activists, but early on, they left to do other things. Since 2014, I’ve been doing this by myself.

This idea of “leisure time that’s actually leisure time” makes me think of how rare that is for women and other marginalized people. I’m thinking a bit about something you wrote in Vice: “It’s sad that women go into a public spaces assuming and expecting to be harassed or assaulted and using so much mental energy to safety plan, instead of just having a good time.”

Right! So you have to make that decision before you leave a house. But then also, when it inevitably happens — when someone says something or does something to make you uncomfortable — you have to decide, am I going to stick it out, knowing this person is around? Or am I just going to leave?  That’s what these workshops were meant to give people to do. Give people another choice. What if you could tell the person running this event what’s going on, and they could take care of it?

“There’s always something you can do a little better. And that’s great. That’s an opportunity. That’s not a burden; and it doesn’t mean that you suck because you haven’t done it yet.”

It’s something that shouldn’t be radical but I think still is, to a lot of people: this idea that you are entitled to go to a public event and expect to not be harassed or groped or whatever. That as a woman or gender-non-conforming person, you don’t have to just say to yourself, “well, guess I better brace myself for some creeps at this concert, as there are always creeps at concerts.”


You might have just stolen a line from the full-length version I’m writing now! I say, it’s not radical to have people not be harassed in your space. You don’t have to be an activist to want everyone to have a good time. That’s not that big a deal! And people that are harassed that don’t want to be, we’re not overreacting when we ask for a venue’s help. Frankly we’ve been under-reacting.

War on Women. CREDIT: Eden KittiverWar on Women. CREDIT: Eden Kittiver


How has the reaction to your work here evolved since you started these workshops in 2014? I’d think that just in the past year there’s been a real heightened awareness of and fluency in a lot of the issues you describe.

I think you’re absolutely right, and I think Me Too had a big part in that, when that hit mainstream. But as an anti-street-harassment activist, I know people have been doing this work for years, way before I came on the scene. So these kinds of things have been addressed by women and people that care about women since forever.

There were, what, in the early 1900s, that women carried — they had a few extra hat pins so they could stick what they used to call mashers, what they used to call harassers. Poke these guys on the trolley! Get them out of personal space! They would literally stick them with pins. So people have cared and wanted to exist in public space without being harassed for who they are, for things they can’t change, for a long time.

“People that are harassed that don’t want to be, we’re not overreacting when we ask for a venue’s help. Frankly, we’ve been under-reacting.”

My personal concentration is on women, but it’s true for people of color, immigrants, people who wear a hijab, people who have visible disabilities. We’re tired of one, just being constantly reminded of our identities. Like, I know, I’m a woman, I get it. Leave me alone. And also, we just want to relax. We want to go about our day in public spaces, like everyone else gets to. And usually everyone else is white, cisgender, straight-presenting men.


In your guide you say that step one is “believe the victim.” I think in our society we struggle with this idea of, in a court of law, the rights of the accused are sacrosanct. But out in the world — where you are trying to protect people who are vulnerable — there is this different standard of, believe the person who says they were victimized, and believe them immediately. How do you grapple with those two truths? How do you hold them both in your head at the same time?

But we do that all the time, so why should this be different? I live in the same society as everyone else that constantly victim-blames and dismisses victims and ignores them, or hopes that they’re quiet so we don’t have to deal with the problem. Even I have to remember, you know what? It doesn’t matter if what this person is saying is 100% factually true, because frankly, there is no absolute truth when it comes to someone feeling uncomfortable.

If you said you’re made to feel uncomfortable because you were harassed, that is your truth, and it should matter to me as someone running a venue that you feel safe. I don’t need to know every single fact and detail and your history and the harasser’s history. I don’t need all of that to put everyone at ease and have a good time.

Because of course it’s possible that someone who harassed did so accidentally or without malice, because they’re living in the same society, where men are taught to pursue, or white people are taught to center their own thoughts and feelings and aren’t aware of cultural norms for black folks or people of color. So it’s very possible that we’re just going to say something dumb sometimes, even if we don’t mean it. But that doesn’t mean it’s not harassment to the other person. It’s still worth providing that teaching opportunity.

Let that harasser save face, give them the benefit of the doubt, but let them know they can’t do that here. I want to make sure that this person who is harassed all the time can feel safe in those spaces.

You talk about all the types of spaces where your guide can be applied — everywhere from the library to a concert — but some spaces, like the Warped Tour, seem so big that this advice is difficult to apply. The idea of finding the right authority figure and then getting back to the harasser when you’re in a massive crowd at Coachella or something, that seems daunting to me.

The full-length version will address larger spaces, like festivals. I don’t claim to be an expert when it comes to very big gatherings. But many of the same principles apply to small or large: Obvious signage, letting people know what your policies are and where you stand, making it easy for people to know where to go or who to talk to if something does happen. I ask people, if they’re renting local security hires for the day, in the book I say: You’re paying a lot of money to one company to provide security for you. I actually don’t think it’s that big a deal to forward them a bullet-pointed list about how to talk to victims that doesn’t re-traumatize them. They should be able to talk to a victim like a normal, nice, empathetic human being, and direct them to where they need to go.

It’s all about using the power you have. The power that these larger gatherings have is different than smaller venues; but there’s still so much more that people can do. There’s always something to do. That’s the purpose of this book. There’s always something you can do a little better. And that’s great. That’s an opportunity. That’s not a burden; and it doesn’t mean that you suck because you haven’t done it yet.

It’s interesting that you start the guide by saying, flat-out, there is no such thing as a safe space. But you don’t agree with using that as a copout — to say, well, there’s nothing we can do! You use it as an introduction to say, okay, but how do we get as close to that as reasonably possible?

Yes, yes, because we can always get safer. But safe as an absolute, no, of course not. Because anyone working at a venue is not personally responsible for the actions of someone that walks in. Someone is a total jerk, or they bring a gun, or they’re groping everyone, of course it’s not your fault that that person entered your space. But now they’re here, and you have to do deal with it.

As you say, people bring violence into these spaces and that is only so preventable — but other types of violence, like bringing a gun or a bomb, do lead to more prevention. Like after Manchester, you see venues that don’t let you bring bags into their spaces, or they at least have bag checks. So certain types of violence, like gun violence, are seen as urgent and everyone reacts to them pretty swiftly. But this type of violence — harassment and sexual assault — is probably much more pervasive, but the reaction is really slow in coming.

Yeah, as for bringing a gun, there’s plenty of preventative things venues can do, and they’re doing it! Someone brings a gun to a concert, and then everyone starts to create these policies for that. Just like they have policies in place for a fire or a tornado. They have a defibrillator. Some venues are getting Narcan to prevent overdoses.

But this seemingly small, innocent but actually just very common and pervasive harassment that’s going on, that’s happening way more, statistically, that any other issues. It’s just so normalized that people don’t see it as urgent. But I look at it as the super big foundation that allows for more serious and violent things to occur. And if we fuck with that foundation — if we hack it to bits — everything else on top of it is less stable, and it’s more easy to dismantle all of it.

“There’s always something you can do a little better. And that’s great. That’s an opportunity. That’s not a burden; and it doesn’t mean that you suck because you haven’t done it yet.”

I think of harassment as a gateway behavior towards violence, hate crimes, sexual assault, rape, murder. When harassment is okay — and I’m talking gender-based, racial, xenophobic, transphobic — and normal, between strangers in the street, then of course people are going to push the boundaries of what else is acceptable, when no one cares and no one will notice. If we make that unacceptable, it’s easy to say that these other crimes are not acceptable.

And a very big and efficient way to do that is to do it in spaces where someone has a little bit of control, a little bit of responsibility, and where people want to be and gather and spend their money. If you put a line in the sand of, this is what’s okay and this is what’s not, you’re showing an example of how a community could be, and that can carry out to the streets, to all the other spaces you go.

What’s going to be in the full-length version that you don’t get to cover in the pcoket guide?

I’m including ways that people can interact and flirt that are healthy and not seen as harassment. I’m including a big chapter on what to do if you are someone who is being harassed, how you can resopnd and ask for help around you. And a big chapter on different versions of alternative justice, to sort of answer, what happens after everyone is called out? What happens after we say, okay, this abuse is not cool — then what? And I think that’s absolutely been the hardest chapter for me to write, because right now is when mainstream society is asking those questions. I don’t think there’s necessarily an easy, go-to answer, but I think that’s just reflective of, each instance of harassment or violence is nuanced enough that they all deserve a nuanced approach. So there’s not one solution, but I hope in that chapter to present many solutions that people can start to get familiar with.

To your point about, “what happens next after everyone gets called out,” it does feel like people are asking that question in really telling ways. Louis C.K. is the example that comes most readily to mind. People ask me a lot, as if I am some pop culture parole officer, when he should be “allowed” to do comedy again, or not be judged for his actions. And — I mean, first of all, he could’ve gone to prison because what he did is a Class 1 Misdemeanor, so he’s already averted some serious consequences for his violence.

But also, it’s just revealing and disappointing that this conversation gets centered on the abuser and their career, like that is the primary concern. And it’s not about what they’re doing to correct for their behavior, to make it up to their victims, to change the system that allowed their abuse to flourish.

Or help everybody else’s career that he stalled because they couldn’t get past his dick! It’s ridiculous. And I know people want an easy answer. They want a to do list. and luckily, I am able to give them that when it comes to making their space safer. All the proactive stuff, I’ve made it easy as pie. But after really intense harm has been caused, there isn’t necessarily a to do list. But certainly, if there were one, it would be to sincerely apologize publicly, and then make amends. Atone! Do the work. Frankly, I do go into that in the book: How to apologize in a way that is actually helpful and how to atone. How to provide recompense.

Louis C.K. performs on stage as The New York Comedy Festival and The Bob Woodruff Foundation present the 10th Annual Stand Up for Heroes event at The Theater at Madison Square Garden on November 1, 2016 in New York City. CREDIT: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for The Bob Woodruff Foundation Louis C.K. forces audience to watch him without their consent

It’s amazing how many of these men are so bad at apologizing! I’ve been thinking a lot about why that is the case. Is it because, when you’re a little kid, you are really only told to “say you’re sorry” to make the whole problem go away — to just say it, but not think about it? And it’s more about getting caught and getting over it than it is about really apologizing.

It’s just to say that you said sorry, and you don’t have to do anything or make up for it. Yes. I think that’s a big one. I think men are not asked often enough to apologize for things they’ve done — or are not made aware, because the people they harm know it’s not worth it, to beg for that apology that will be half-assed and empty. And of course, we can’t ignore the fact that all these dudes are lawyered up, and I’m sure their lawyers are like, ADMIT TO NOTHING. And that is valid in our current justice system, right? That’s an obvious part of the system we have that is supposedly there to provide justice, but it doesn’t, and it’s also super-racist, and it’s for profit. So it’s not actually doing anything to prevent harm or make up for harm that has been caused. While a lawyer might say, don’t say anything, that is not going to get us to where we need to be if we actually want this violence to stop.

From left: Kevin Spacey, George H. W. Bush, Harvey Weinstein, James Toback, Mark Halperin. (CREDIT: AP Photo/Art by Diana Ofosu) Terrible men, terrible apologies

Is there anything else about your pocket guide that’s especially significant to you?

It is important to me to recognize that people have been doing this work for a long time. Bystander intervention, the women’s lib movement, civil rights movement, gay pride — this pocket guide is decades in the making, thanks to everyone that’s come before me.

What it really concentrates on is specifically the things I tell venues when I train them to be safer spaces. So it’s based on the principles that were already there before I came onto the scene, but the tactics used and the concerns venues always have and the questions people have, that’s all stuff I figured out on the spot after doing this for years and realizing the common themes that would come up in every workshop. That’s what is unique about this guide. So props to everyone that’s done this work. I’m just very grateful for all the work that’s been done before me.

[War On Women’s latest record, “Capture The Flag,” is available at Bandcamp.]


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