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Sexual misconduct in the Australian jazz scene needs to be discussed

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It's been difficult for women to make it in a male-dominated arena such as music with sexual misconduct and misogyny to deal with (Image via needpix.com)

Misogyny and sexual harassment are a problem within the Australian jazz scene, similar to that of the world's most powerful political figures, writes Carla Bennett.

THE AUSTRALIAN JAZZ SCENE has a lot to be proud of. Our musicians are amongst the finest in the world, we have a myriad of live music venues to boast of as well as a plethora of musical opportunities afforded to young Australians both at school and at a tertiary level.

But beyond its shiny surface, this niche corner of the Australian arts landscape has done a better job than one might realise of disassociating itself from the real and severe violence that permeates it at every level. In recent years, Jazz musicians throughout the industry have been consistently ineffective at delivering a safe workplace for all their colleagues, with violent crimes against women still more prevalent than ever.

Here, one can find an unlikely parallel: November 2020 will see the world's last, free superpower elect or re-elect one of two alleged sex offenders to the highest office in the country, demonstrating again the vast indifference that permeates Western society towards violent crimes against women.

I hear a lot of rhetoric bouncing around my little Left-leaning echo-chamber, appalled by the decision Americans will be forced into by the end of the year, with both major candidates facing accusations of sexual assault. But this decision being forced upon American voters is one that is simply a product of a society whose indifference towards women's safety has turned to outright disdain.

When I say my “Left-leaning echo-chamber”, I suppose what I really mean is my social media, where, like most young people, I get my news. It's comprised of a handful of Leftie news publications, meme pages, people I've worked with, studied with but predominantly musicians I've known and music that I've loved. Truthfully, it's unusual to see discussions about something I don't agree with, as I'm sure is true for many since our social media is our safest space to hear our own opinions echoed back at us.

Given this, it's popular to believe that at least in our little political and social bubbles, such a tolerance for men accused of sex crimes is renounced — “at least no one I know would vote for them”, that sort of thing. But even for voters willing to be appalled by a presidential candidate's indiscretions, the topic of sexual assault and clear lines between right and wrong become blurrier as the men assaulting women become more familiar to the victims themselves.

Good art should transcend political triviality and yet still be political. It may be naïve of me, but I still think of jazz as the genre of the oppressed. Though since its conception it has been appropriated at every turn by white men, jazz is an art form that, in its many varieties, was invented and elevated by minorities.

Every April on International Jazz Day and at every jazz festival and function, the genre is championed for its ability to lend a voice to the disenfranchised. As such, its musicians are typically those who are quick to spot systemic oppression and crave social change in every pocket of our society; that is, they are people whose politics echo my own and bounce around my social media bubble.

So why is it that the same musicians who are supposed to understand the nature of oppression, consistently fail to recognise it when it takes the form of violent crimes against women being committed by men from one end of the industry to the other?

To be clear, I am not attempting to describe the nuances of equal opportunity for women in music. It is no secret that music (jazz in particular) is a male-dominated field and women are under-represented at every level. That discussion is an important one but not one that I feel I have any authority to participate in.

I'm talking of the very literal violence against women that pervades the genre at every level and goes unacknowledged by the vast majority of musicians. I'm not interested in talking about specific instances of violence. I have known women raped, stalked, groped, assaulted and blackmailed by men in the industry — but their stories are not mine to tell and are actually unrelated to the larger issue.

The high prevalence of violent crimes against women is, of course, inexcusable, but what is consistently more disheartening is the instinctive reaction that men continue to demonstrate: protect the accused and disbelieve and discredit the accusers.

Though this practice in itself is not at all revolutionary, it is the modus operandi of political operatives to go to lengths to discredit those who make criminal accusations and defend the character of the accused. It is the substance of every political scandal in recent history: Bill Clinton, Brett Kavanaugh, Joe Biden and Donald Trump — the list goes on.

But these have all been American scandals and the values of those defending the American president would not usually appear to align at all with the values of performing artists in Australia.

So why is it that the same tactics of chauvinism and misogyny have been allowed to manifest unchecked in my little social media bubble? The uncomfortable truth that I am learning is that at every point on the political spectrum, men find themselves motivated by a subversive indifference to female safety and wellbeing. Quite simply, men don't really care if women are the victims of institutionalised violence. Our safety is not a priority to them and that is demonstrated over and over through a reluctance to listen and believe that institutionalised violence even exists.

Moreover, what should not be forgotten is that mass indifference to a man's violent crimes against a woman is mass indifference to violence against all women and telling of the underlying contempt felt towards the victims of sexual assault in every crevice of Western society.

Perhaps at one point, men fought these allegations with the shame that they attached to victimhood in order to silence frightened accusers. But for musicians well versed in the historical implications of weaponising shame, what presents to me is a growing paradox in which men don't actually care about the truth and, in fact, would rather not know it. It's become typical to hear “two sides to every story” and “no one really knows for sure what happened” chanted with the same cadence of Donald Rumsfeld's known unknowns or Trump's more recent “fake news”.

It has been repeated to the point of cliché and yet continually falls on deaf ears that there is simply no logical reason for a woman to invent her attack. But we are all subject to a patriarchal society where, realistically, men are the only ones with any agency to make effective change. It is clear that if a man of import says otherwise, a woman's credibility can be brought under scrutiny and her assault labelled as fiction. This is as true of American politics as it is of Australian jazz.

It’s easy to forget amidst the racism, cartoonish idiocy and slowly eroding democracy that the Trump era has also brought with it a free pass for all men who assault women, whether they share his politics or not. No musician who jumps to the defence of a man accused of a sex crime is any better than a Trump or Biden voter come election time who justifies violent behaviour as being “locker room talk”.

It is, of course, hypocritical, but more than that, it perpetuates the subversive misogyny that exists in our little corner of the performing arts landscape. Mass indifference, which is no different to mass contempt, carries with it a message to all women that their safety just doesn't matter.

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