Columbus' music community wrestles with allegations of sexual assault in the local scene

Andy Downing, Columbus Alive

On April 6, shortly after 8 p.m., Ace of Cups updated the Facebook event page for a late-April concert headlined by Nashville rock band Bully, announcing local quartet Boxing would serve as the opening act.

Four hours later, the first comment appeared under the post: "Get boxing off the bill. I can't support a band with a sexual predator."

By early the next afternoon, a half-dozen posts expressing similar sentiments had been left on the event page, generating numerous comments and drawing a response from booking agent Archie Fox Creative Group, which wrote, "We have been receiving passionate correspondence on all sides of the issue. We take the safety of our customers seriously and have forwarded your concerns to the headlining band's reps."

Later in the day, just before 5 p.m., Ace of Cups officially dropped Boxing from the lineup and Bully singer and guitarist Alicia Bognanno issued a statement.

"Though we have no information and were completely unaware about the events involving Boxing band it is clear people are uncomfortable with them opening the show," she wrote (Bognanno did not respond to repeated requests for additional comment). "Bully shows should absolutely be a safe place for everybody, no questions asked. With that being said Boxing band will no longer be playing the show and we apologize for any confusion / concern regarding the show."

The next day, Boxing singer Nic Wade posted a message on the band's Facebook site where he denied any wrongdoing and expressed a need to take a hiatus from the group. (Boxing's Facebook profile has since been deleted, and band members declined to comment for this article.)

"As the person at the center of these [sexual assault] allegations, I have maintained my innocence throughout and continue to do so now," Wade wrote. "Now, with the negative attention being directed at my bandmates, our promoters and other bands we work with, it has become necessary for me to take some time to seek legal advice, try to resolve this situation responsibly and do everything in my power to clear my own name."

This incident, as well as Dayton band Good English recently losing all of its tour dates (including planned stops at Ace of Cups and Rumba Café) as a result of the backlash it faced when a letter drummer Leslie Rasmussen wrote in defense of convicted Stanford rapist Brock Turner surfaced in early June, has reignited the discussion surrounding sexual assault within the music scene and the complex questions venue owners, promoters and musicians are forced to confront when these situations arise.

"[The Boxing case] was very disturbing to me," said Ace of Cups owner Marcy Mays, seated alongside business partner Bobby Miller, who books shows at the venue under the Archie Fox umbrella, for an early June interview. "We didn't know anyone involved in this personally. I didn't know any of the people who were making the claims, the people denying the claims [or] anyone in the bands, and suddenly we're put in this position where it's our responsibility to do something about it. I felt like, 'What do you want us to do?' There were never any charges; he wasn't convicted of anything. I'm not comfortable being the judge and jury.

"It is my job to be a human being and to be compassionate and make this as safe a place as we can for most people, but it would take a lot of resources for us to investigate every single band, every claim, every crew member [and] every vendor. We would all be working full time running background checks."

Cory Hajde, cofounder of booking company BravoArtist, expressed similar sentiments in an early June interview. "It's such a hard thing to observe as a booker because you want to make sure people feel safe coming to your show, but it's also hard to separate what's hearsay and what's an actual fact," he said.

Though these types of incidents are nothing new - from R&B singer R. Kelly's decades-spanning history of alleged sex crimes through Kesha's more recent lawsuit against Dr. Luke, which claimed the producer "sexually, physically, verbally and emotionally abused [the pop star] to the point where [she] nearly lost her life" - discussion of sexual assault has intensified in recent years, owing to everything from the rising influence of social media, which provides an expanded outlet for previously marginalized voices, to increased participation among women and non-binary groups in the once male-dominated scene.

"The conversations aren't covering anything new; this has been happening for a very long time," said musician and activist Emily Holzer. "But the music scene has been so male-centric, and now voices are being given to people who didn't have them before. They have that platform to put a spotlight on those issues."

'What fascinates me is where people draw the line'

In 2014, the Columbus-based Fashion Meets Music Festival received criticism for selecting R. Kelly to headline its inaugural event - a decision that might have been met with less resistance had the festival taken place prior to the December 2013 publication of a much-circulatedVillage Voice article that recapped the long history of charges against the singer in graphic detail (Kelly's headlining turn at the 2013 Pitchfork Music Festival, for example, went virtually unchallenged in the media). Amid artist complaints - locals Damn the Witch Siren and Saintseneca both penned open letters expressing dissatisfaction with the Kelly selection before removing themselves from the lineup - and the withdrawal of sponsor WCBE 90.5 FM, FMMF and Kelly mutually decided to cancel his appearance in the weeks leading up to the festival.

More often than not, however, accusations of sexual assault are met with few repercussions - particularly when the alleged offender is part of a local scene and not a high-profile target like Kelly.

"When it's a huge black celebrity it's a lot easier than someone's local, white, guitar-playing buddy. 'R. Kelly? No way! But my friend? He didn't do that,'" said singer, songwriter and guitarist Lydia Loveless. "Everyone knows survivors of sexual assault, but no one wants to believe they know a rapist, or even just a forceful dude. They're like, 'No way would my friend do that.' I've seen it happen to a lot of people, and it's unfortunate."

"What fascinates me is where people draw the line," said musician Bob Brinkman of Bridesmaid. "With Good English, it's easy to say, 'Screw you, get lost.' When it's somebody you look in the face, somebody you see in your bar, somebody you're sitting next to, it becomes really hard for people to say the same thing."

According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, one in five women will be raped at some point in their lives, while 43.3 percent of heterosexual women report an act of sexual violence other than rape (these numbers rise to 46.4 percent for lesbians and 74.9 percent for bisexuals). Most sexual assaults, an estimated 63 percent, are never reported to the police.

"Most people don't report it because they don't feel it will be worth it, I guess, and because you don't want to believe it was something that happened to you," said Jennifer (not her real name), who spoke anonymously about her 2013 assault at the hands of a musician. "I said nothing because I didn't want to alienate myself and isolate myself. Nobody wants to deal with this, so you put it on the backburner and say, 'I'll worry about it in the future when I can.' … I didn't have the capacity to deal with it, and then when you finally come to - 'OK, I'm ready to deal with this' - nobody wants to believe you because you waited and didn't blast it out on Facebook."

Additional difficulties arise when the assault is perpetrated by someone who is part of the music scene, owing to the person's elevated standing in the community (Jennifer noted the difficulty of knowing her alleged attacker regularly receives applause from an audience) and the person's presence at events and establishments both might have frequented in the past.

"People will be like, 'Oh, that band is great.' And you're like, 'Nooo,'" said musician and activist Kathryn Keister of Plastic Heap. "If you're assaulted by somebody in a band, it's not only that they took that sense of emotional safety and the feeling of security in your body, but it's like, 'Oh, you also took my social life and my friends and my creative outlet and what I do to relax.'"

Activists and survivors alike stressed the need to start by believing victims when they come forward with a claim. "The most important thing we can do when someone is vulnerable enough to trust us and share that they experienced sexual violence, is we acknowledge how difficult that is and say, 'I believe you,'" said Susan Wismar, prevention education coordinator for the Sexual Assault Response Network of Central Ohio (SARNCO).

"It's such a relief to hear those words ['I believe you']," said Jennifer. "It's like, 'I don't have to carry this alone anymore and this happened.' It's validating. When someone says they believe you, it's the key to unlocking everything. You want someone to listen so your voice gets louder."

While some might argue this concept appears to run counter to a key tenet of the U.S. justice system - that the accused is innocent until proven guilty - Wismar noted the affirmation has nothing to do with the offender. "If starting with believing would also have to imply you would then have to go beat the perpetrator up to teach them a lesson … that would be damaging," she said.

This concept is the basis for SARNCO's recent "Start by Believing" campaign, which is geared toward the criminal justice system's response to women who charge violence. "We don't start out with skepticism when someone says, 'Someone broke into my house last night.' 'Did they really, though?'" Wismar said. "It's treating rape like everything else, without bias. 'OK, someone called me and told me their house was broken into. I'm starting with the assumption that's true and seeing where [the case] goes from there.'"

The statistics support the approach, as well. Though firm data is difficult to come by, the most commonly accepted numbers posit that 2 to 8 percent of rape allegations are false, as presented in the 2010 academic study "False Allegations of Sexual Assault: An Analysis of Ten Years of Reported Cases."

In the middle of a controversy

In 2012, Mickey Mocnik, guitarist for now-defunct punk trio Nervosas, found herself in the middle of a controversy when she defended a former friend who was called out in the local music scene for sexual assault. Initially, the friend defended himself against the charges, arguing that he and the victim were both drunk and even going so far as to suggest he was the one who was taken advantage of, according to Mocnik. And the guitarist believed him, even calling the victim a liar to her face. A few weeks later, the friend admitted to the assault.

"The person he assaulted never forgave me and told me never to speak to them again - and rightfully so," said Mocnik, who has since become a vocal advocate for survivors of sexual assault.

In the months that followed, the members of Nervosas were labeled rape apologists, a charge that was repeated on message boards, blogs and Tumblr accounts. Shows were threatened with cancelation, and the bandmates were often forced to engage promoters in order to quell lingering suspicions.

"We were on the ball in talking to people and not being reactionary, like, 'Hey, let's talk about what happened, and once you hear us out you can decide whether to book the show or not,'" Mocnik said. "We don't consider ourselves rape apologists or dangerous in any way, and we never wanted to scare people or make them feel unsafe, or like we didn't support them. Being on that other side is disturbing. It almost makes me sick thinking about it, like, 'How did it get to that point?'"

The following year, in 2013, the musician found herself on the other side of the issue, when she was sexually assaulted by a touring musician in town from a neighboring city.

"After it happened, all I remember is being so scared and not having any shoes and running out of the hotel," said Mocnik. "I was too scared to take the elevator and I took the stairs barefoot out to my car. … I was like, 'What just happened to me?' I knew what it would take to confront this and I never did anything. I buried it.

"I realized from that point on I should always stand with every survivor, because that's such a fucked up thing to go through, especially when you don't have resources at hand. I wasn't covered by insurance. I couldn't speak to a therapist. I couldn't tell my parents. I couldn't even talk to people in Columbus who had experienced this because they all viewed me as someone who didn't support survivors of sexual assault."

'We need to have a conversation before we start a witch hunt'

Indie rock trio Good English recently experienced similar backlash. A character statement penned by drummer Leslie Rasmussen and presented during the sentencing of convicted rapist Brock Turner (the two are childhood friends), surfaced online in early June, setting off a social media firestorm that resulted in the band losing all of its scheduled tour dates and deleting its entire online presence, including profiles on Facebook, Bandcamp, Twitter and Instagram. The backlash was further fueled by the timing of the letter's release. Rasmussen's submission to the trial judge appeared on the internet just days after BuzzFeed posted an open letter from the rape survivor to Turner, and it's likely some read the drummer's character defense as a counterpoint, when it was actually written months prior to the viral post.

In the letter, Rasmussen directed blame at both the victim and alcohol ("I don't think it's fair to base the fate of the next ten + years of his life on the decision of a girl who doesn't remember anything but the amount she drank to press charges against him"), while deflecting it from Turner, describing the Stanford student as well-liked. "He always had that huge, loving smile on his face," she wrote. A subsequent apology on Good English's Facebook page placed further blame on alcohol, citing "students' excessive enthusiasm for binge drinking."

In a third statement, Rasmussen finally acknowledged the "severity of Brock's crime and the suffering and pain that his victim endured." "I fully understand the outrage over Brock's sentencing and my statement. … I am only 20 years old, and it has never been more clear to me that I still have much to learn," she wrote on Facebook.

In a Facebook message toAlive, Rasmussen declined further comment, writing, "The things I have learned are enormously transformative, but I'm definitely not ready to articulate them verbally or through writing. I may never be able to, and I hope you can understand."

Opinions about Good English's apparent dissolution were mixed.

Lydia Loveless expressed little sympathy for the band's situation. "I don't think people like that deserve to have a platform any more than somebody who raped someone does," she said. "It's hard enough to be a female musician with all the bullshit you go through and the constant harassment and people grabbing your ass when you're trying to get paid. Really, do we need a bunch of female artists standing behind a brutal rape?"

Others, like Marcy Mays, attempted to take in the view from Rasmussen's vantage point.

"I took a few minutes last night, and I tried to pick a friend of mine who was the friendliest, most clean-cut and thought, 'What if that person was [Brock Turner]?' And I was able to feel compassion for this woman writing this letter, who was in total denial that her friend had done this horrible thing," Mays said. "I'm not going to say I can't relate to that. I was trying to look at it from her perspective, and then I started thinking about her bandmates, and I feel really bad for them. This is their life, too. At what point do your actions stop trickling down and becoming everybody's business? Does that punishment have its intended outcome? Or does it drive her further into a corner?"

"We need to have a conversation before we start a witch hunt. And people love witch hunts," said activist Marritt Vaessin, who used to run the Safer Spaces project, which worked with individuals, groups and venues on ways to respond to situations involving harassment. "It's really easy to write someone off. Black and white is really easy. But to understand someone - that doesn't defend what they did - but to understand where a person is coming from, or at least give it context, allows for a much deeper understanding of what's going on. It's important to give people the opportunity to grow and learn. … If you allow them to grow, they're going to become better people and allies, and they're going to help continue that conversation and see situations and step in."

The increased discussion surrounding sexual assault has already impacted the music scene in distinct ways. Mays said it will change Ace of Cups' approach to booking, and Bobby Miller said it's caused him to do more research prior to signing a contract with a band.

"Even the national acts we're booking, I'll do more research on them," agreed Cory Hajde, who first experienced public blowback when BravoArtist booked and subsequently canceled a March 2015 Woodlands Tavern show with Front Porch Step, a.k.a. Ohio-based singer and songwriter Jake McElfresh, who was accused of engaging in inappropriate text message relationships with at least half a dozen teenage girls. "That whole situation was crazy. Woodlands' Facebook page got like 60 messages, like, 'We're going to trash your venue' and 'We're never coming to your venue again.'"

Nearly everyone interviewed expressed a degree of sympathy with venue owners and promoters tasked with making these difficult decisions. "I know people feel the victim should immediately be believed and you should immediately cut ties, but when you're running a business you can't have a trigger finger," Loveless said.

"It doesn't have to be a personal indictment [of the band], and more information doesn't need to be known about the actual situation to put [the concert] on hold," SARNCO's Wismar said. "What it says is, 'I won't treat an accusation or a report of sexual violence as not my problem.' Will our culture's only response to sexual violence be through the justice system, which only a tiny fraction of sexual violence cases go through? We are allowed to have a higher standard than the law."