War on Women’s Shawna Potter talks her new book, safer spaces and making music venues more conducive to combating sexual assault and harassment
Potter authored her very first book, Making Spaces Safer: A Pocket Guide as an attempt to help the music venues her band plays work to make their music-listening environments more conducive to combating sexual assault and harassment.
War on Women is a harcore punk band. That may or may not be your thing, but what should be your thing is a little thing Aretha Franklin sang a song about once — something called respect. If you boil down the #metoo and feminist movements of recent years to their simplest form, it’s about just that. Respect toward women. Respect toward transgender people. Respect toward gay people. Respect toward everybody, really.
It’s a concept that’s much simpler on paper than in practice, but Shawna Potter, lead singer of War on Women, is here to help you with that. Potter authored her first book, Making Spaces Safer: A Pocket Guide, as an attempt to help the music venues her band plays work to make their music-listening environments more conducive to combating sexual assault and harassment. You’ll have the opportunity to ask her questions about it Thursday evening at 6 p.m., where she’s slated to host a chat about her new book at the Wooden Shoe bookstore on the 700 block of South Street (later that night, War on Women headlines the First Unitarian Church in Center City). But before she does that, we asked her some questions of our own.
First off, can you tell me a little bit about why you decided to write your book, Making Spaces Safer: A Pocket Guide?
Well, one reason was just that it seemed efficient. I do training locally and on the road with my band War on Women and I realized I was having the same conversations with people everywhere I went so it made sense to kind of all put it in one book, in one place, so that everyone anywhere with access to that book could be on the same page about where to start.
What are safe spaces and why are they important?
I choose to use the term “safer spaces” because no one can ever be 100 percent responsible for the actions of others. And so the point is that people have a lot of power. They have a lot that they can do to prepare and plan and try to make a space more welcoming for everyone. We can’t control or predict everything that will ever happen, but we really do have so much power when we rent a space or represent a space and that’s what I want people to know. I want them to know that there’s probably more that they could be doing than they have been. And it doesn’t mean by acknowledging the fact that people experience violence and harassment, that doesn’t mean that it’s your fault if they do. Silence is not helping the situation. So we need to talk about the fact that these realities exist for people and folks need to do what they can — what’s in their power — to make leisure time more leisurely for people who normally experience violence. So that’s what this book is all about. It’s “here are the actual things you can do right now to make people’s experiences better and allow them to feel safer.” Even if [a bad thing] goes down, you’re going to respond in the correct way to make them feel better about the situation and help them process it a little more quickly.
Can you give some examples of what those actual things you can do are?
Yeah. So the book goes into — it kind of breaks it up into the things you can do before, during and after someone complains about harassment. There’s a lot of proactive stuff that you can do, and most of that is just based off signage. Just literally telling people what your policies are, what you stand for, what you’re about, who do you tell if something goes down that isn’t quite right, making it known that you’re a welcoming space, and letting people know what accommodations you actually have for marginalized communities.
So if you’re cool with trans folks using whatever bathroom they feel comfortable with, put a sign on the bathroom door letting everyone know that that’s cool with you. Or that it’s a non-gender specific bathroom or whatever. If you have accommodations for people with light sensitivities or food allergies or whatever, just put up a sign, let it be known. Put it on your website. Do what you can to let people know in advance. Not only does that tell people who could be potential victims in your space, it also lets potential harassers know what you’re willing to put up with and what you’re not.
And then there’s what you do when someone is harassed. In the book, I go through the steps you take, but mostly, it’s about active listening, believing the victim, and helping them to get through this moment without judgment or coming down like some sort of cop or judge. It’s not about the facts only. It’s about “hey someone’s uncomfortable. What can I do right now to make them feel more comfortable?”’ And taking the initiative and working with them on that. So, believing them, using active listening skills, using grounding techniques if they’re in crisis, if they’re really upset and then giving them some options and leaving the power with them to decide what’s best for them in that moment. And then afterwards, the talk in my pocket guide is kind of just about accountability and some other little extra information.
I have a few more broad questions that I wanted to get your opinion on. Is that OK?
Are you familiar with the accusations of some members of the Orwells being sexual predators?
Oh yeah. I saw some random tweets. I might not have put it together that that’s what was going on, but OK yeah, so continue.
So in instances like these where a band writes great music that a lot of people love, can people be able to still be adamantly against sexual harassment but still enjoy the music? In other words, do you think that people should be able to separate the art from the artist in instances where the artist unfortunately turns out to be a bad person?
I think, honestly, it always comes down to money. You vote with your dollar, and in this capitalist society, where you spend your money really has the most influence no matter what you say you’re about or do. So if you find out that someone is known to harm other people or abuse them or is a serial harasser or rapist even, one: you can’t unknow that. So don’t sweep it under the rug. Don’t forget about it. And just know that if you still give that person your money, you’re basically supporting their behavior.
It becomes more complicated when it comes down to streaming songs and artists getting, like, a penny for every stream and not really making money off of stuff like that, but to buy their records, to go to their shows, to give the ads on their YouTube page hits, even streaming their songs. In the end, if you’re giving someone money, you’re supporting them, whether you say you’re against their behavior or not.
So now if the song comes on at the club, and I’m dancing and it’s got a good beat, like, yeah. I have been known to dance to a problematic song without giving them money. And some folks even go as far to tell DJs at clubs like “hey, don’t play this song anymore. This dude keeps women trapped in a basement”- talking about R. Kelly. So we all can love things that are problematic, but to give them our money equals very clear support, and that’s the problem.
OK, so it sounds like you’re saying you can listen to the music, but don’t buy tickets to their shows and don’t buy the T-shirts and whatnot. Right?
Yeah, I get it. Like, for me, I still listen to Michael Jackson all the time. He’s one of my favorite artists of all time. But I haven’t bought anything new. I haven’t bought any merch. I don’t wear a shirt with his face on it. You know? Like, I already had the music by the time I was old enough and conscious enough to realize what was going on before his death. I already owned what I owned so to listen to it doesn’t give him — or his kids, unfortunately — but it doesn’t give him any more money, even when he was still alive. In another situation, another artist, they might have disappointed me that I couldn’t bear to listen to their music. And that is of course totally fine and valid to to just set it aside and say f*** that. So, not everyone is going to be hit really hard or personally deceived, but I think the most important thing is just to not keep giving money to artists who are doing bad things.
Do you think there’s a cultural bias in the liberal/progressive world of indie or punk or hardcore where it’s perhaps perceived that sexual assault or harassment is less common within the community than it really is?
I think everyone would like to believe the best about themselves. And it’s always easy to blame other people with different ideologies, maybe, and assume that well, they’re worse than me because I’m right. I think that’s pretty common and not specific to the liberals or the left. But I do think that any culture — I think that sexism is so pervasive that we don’t even know all the time when it is there right in front of us, existing. I don’t even think most people comprehend how it seeps into everything and it causes so much silence around gender-based violence and it prevents people from seeing women and trans or non-binary folks as less than. I don’t even think we get it fully, yet. But we’re on our way. But it’s an everywhere problem. It’s an every-genre-of-music problem. It’s an every artform problem, it’s an every business problem.
This is a worldwide issue. It might manifest in different ways depending on what community you’re in, but the underlying foundation of “women are less-than; we do not care about them,” — that’s always there. And so however it’s manifesting in your communities, that’s where you can attack it or deal with it. And so for music, yeah, don’t give people money. Don’t go to their shows. Buy media from people who do stand up for what you care about. Who do stand up for women. That are made up of non-cisgender white men. Does that make sense? Support bands that aren’t just cisgender white men is what I’m saying.
Can you give us some suggestions? What bands should I be listening to that aren’t cisgender white men?
Yeah, so Downtown Boys is a good one. I’m into Speedy Ortiz right now and Snail Mail and, let’s see, who else have I been listening to? I can probably message you some more. I’d be happy to message you some more. It’s hard for me to think right now about that.
Just about all of those bands sound very different from War on Women musically. It sounds like you listen to a lot more than just hardcore.
Oh yeah, for sure.
Also you mentioned Michael Jackson, so…
So I think everyone in our band has a really diverse musical taste and it’s one of the reasons that we’re able to write songs I think that sound cookie-cutter. We want our music to be interesting and to be appealing to fans of traditional hardcore punk, but fans of other genres as well. I also think the days of people only liking one genre of music are over. It’s not — like, I feel like when I was young, like in high school, if someone identified as a punk and they liked some pop song, you would make fun of them and I just don’t think that’s a thing anymore. I don’t think anyone gives a s*** anymore and that’s great, honestly.
So back on the subject of artists you like who turn out to be bad people, if you’re somebody who’s been accused or even convicted of sexual assault or harassment, should you go away forever? Or is there a way to find redemption through art? Is it possible for them to win people like you back over and prove that they learned their lesson?
Yeah, but their goal should not be to win me back or to win the audience back. Because if that’s what they’re setting out to do, they’ve already failed because their goals should actually be to provide — I don’t actually know how to pronounce this word because I’ve only seen it in print, but — recompense. You know? Like a form of compensation. Their goal should be to figure out what the f*** they did, figure out how to never do it again, figure out how to provide recompense to the victim or victims. Sometimes that’s monetary, sometimes that’s just an apology and then if someone has a public persona, like a lot of artists do obviously, some sort of public apology from the heart that’s genuine that shows work [went into it].
Those are all the goals and if it so happens that people recognize the work you’ve put in and you’ve become a better person and they see that and they come back around to you, great. But if the point is for you to f***ing do stand up again and get resounding applause and for everyone to just forget what you did for years and years, then you haven’t learned a damn thing and there’s no reason for any of us to trust you ever again, or be alone in a room with you.
Can you think of any specific person who did that?
I mean, that’s f***ing Louis C.K. right now.
Really? You think he redeemed himself?
No! I’m saying he hasn’t.
Oh, what I meant was somebody who has redeemed himself.
Um. [long pause] I think it says something that I can’t think of someone very quickly.
Right. I mean, neither can I.
Yeah. I think I’d be interested to know if Al Franken has done anything in private as far as talking to the victim of the profane photograph and have you done any counseling or taken any classes or donated money or something? Maybe one day we’ll hear about the fact that he has, but I can’t think of anything.
It’s certainly possible that society doesn’t want to let somebody be redeemed, but, frankly, we love underdog stories so much that in a way that I think we’re too quick to let people bounce back because it’s just easier — it’s easier to just cancel someone forever or to just say f*** it I’ll keep watching their stuff, I’ll keep listening to their stuff than to keep track of OK, how much time has passed, how much work have they done? Is it enough? That’s a lot of work for an audience to do. So, of course it’s hard. But for anything to change, it’s honestly the people closest to the abusers who have to help keep them accountable until they can keep themselves accountable.
Speaking of Al Franken, I do have one political question on here.
Do you think the arts and music communities have become more motivated to combat sexual harassment and assault in the wake of Trump’s election? Do you think people would still be as motivated to combat these issues were he not elected?
I don’t know. They might now be. There is certainly something about Trump putting it all out there, so to speak, where you kind of can’t help but decide how you feel about it, right? Like, you have to pick a side because he’s being pretty open and honest about how sexist he is, whether he thinks he is or not. So yeah, he’s kind of forced a lot of people’s hands for a lot of issues and a lot of things.
So, you know, that’s sort of the silver lining of some bad situations, but I do think that since our band started, when we started we were the only people who were talking about street harassment, you know? And that might not be true. People have been singing and talking about it forever, but now I feel like it is a thing that, like, we have more males in our audience and we have more people just putting it out there and being honest and demanding that things change, and I think that’s a beautiful thing.
Last question, and it’s related to your music.
War on Women’s new album is called Capture the Flag. I understand there’s a song on the album called “Capture the Flag,” but other than that reason, is there a sort of hidden feminist message behind that? Where does that come from?
The song kind of spells it out a little bit, but it’s sort of based on the idea that there are some people in positions of power who think that our lives are a f***ing game who are playing with us. They’re toying with us. They don’t care about the fact that the decisions they make that benefit them and their friends are extremely instrumental and sometimes deadly to the people who actually live here. So they are playing a game of capture the flag and then it’s on us — the people, we the people — to try and reclaim it and get it back and define what this country could actually be and not some bag of bulls***, but actually a place with diverse experiences and opinions that’s looking out for the greater good when everyone has a seat at the table and a voice to speak with.
I think that’s all the questions I had unless there’s anything you’d like to throw in that we didn’t talk about.
I think the only thing that I’d throw in is the idea that in my pocket guide, while sometimes my answers in interviews might sound vague, the pocket guide has very specific, very actionable things that people can do today to make their space safer and more welcoming for everyone. It is not a theoretical book about “oh, are safer spaces good or bad? What does it mean?” It’s like “here’s your to do list.” I’ve made it easy for people to get the work done and put in the effort with as little judgment in my voice as possible. There’s no reason to shame anyone who hasn’t done this stuff yet. And even people who do care and do do their best, they’re still going to be a couple things in there that maybe they haven’t thought of. So yeah, it’s just a very easy to read, actionable guide and I’m proud of it and I want everyone to buy it.
Making Spaces Safer: A Pocket Guide will be available for purchase at both the book talk and that night’s show.
This interview was lightly edited for brevity and clarity.