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Debating How to Fight Festival Rape Culture With White Lung’s Mish Barber-Way

2015 Governors Ball Music Festival - Day 2
White Lung, with Mish Barber-Way in the middle. Photo: Adela Loconte/Getty Images

White Lung are in the thick of festival season. Hot off releasing one of the year’s best albums, Paradise, in April, the Vancouver punk-rockers have been on the road bringing their visceral tales of murderous women to life. Last spring, frontwoman Mish Barber-Way wrote in one of her famously candid columns — her work has appeared in Broadly, Vice, and more — about post-festival trauma: “Thousands of strangers staring from every angle. iPhones and clunky professional cameras pointed up your thighs and into your chin. The thought of beauty on stage comes as an afterthought in the form of digital photographs.” While the band was in town for New York City’s inaugural Panorama Festival, Vulture sought out Barber-Way’s telltale candor, catching up with her to discuss balancing music and journalism, inhabiting murderesses, and why ending festival rape culture feels so hopeless.

You wrote Paradise from the perspectives of troubled, tragic women. Do you have to get into character when you perform those songs?
In a sense, yes. Because I don’t play an instrument and I’m just standing there, the only thing I have is my entertainment factor. If I kept my arms at my side and just stood there like a big dull dud, no one would have any fun watching me. So getting into that headspace of each song, I feel like I’m performing a little play.  

In addition to being a musician, you’re a journalist who’s written extensively about sexual health and rights. There’s been an uptick in reported rapes and sexual assaults at music festivals — this year, especially. Is fan safety something that weighs on you when you’re performing, or even walking around as a spectator?
There’s a lot of realities of life that we tend to neglect and sensationalize. The world is a mean and dark place just as much as it’s good and beautiful. That’s why we learn self-defense and have weapons. There’s gonna be psychos that do malicious things and commit crimes anywhere you go. That being said, I don’t like this rhetoric that blankets every man in this world as someone to fear or look out for. I don’t think that’s true or fair and it creates a bigger divide between people. Of course I’m thinking about people’s safety, but I would hope that they’re thinking about their own safety as well, and taking personal responsibility for whatever they can do to make themselves feel safe. But there are certain things and people you can’t avoid. Obviously, psychopaths exists. You have to live defensively toward a lot of things, and you can’t expect the world to change to suit your needs. It’s not going to. I wish it would, but it’s just not.

Should festivals be doing more to protect fans, especially young women?
What can they do? What would you suggest?

Hire more women. Have enough resources available on-site where sexual assaults can be reported and survivors can get proper care. Have more security embedded in the crowds and not just at the front barriers — though, of course, that creates its own sets of problems. 
Yeah, then you’re killing a lot of the freedom of being in the pit and in that wildness. I know what you’re saying and I’ve been at festivals before where you’re in the crowd and some person keeps humping against you, whether they’re doing it on purpose or not, and it’s irritating. But you tell them to fuck off and you move.

I also think bystanders need to hold themselves accountable. If you see someone being assaulted, the instinct shouldn’t be to act like it doesn’t concern you.
For sure. But you have to think of it this way, too: You’re putting a bunch of drunk people who are excited, their adrenaline’s rising, and their emotions are going crazy — and probably a lot of them are on drugs — in one space. Chaos will ensue. That’s kind of a part of it. That’s separate from what you’re talking about, but I’m just saying that that environment in itself is chaotic. It’s an unsafe, claustrophobic environment where people are bumping into each other. You’re not supposed to have that many people jammed into a space together. It’s a very unnatural thing. It can be amazing, joyful, and great. But there will be people that take advantage of the chaos and get away with it. You just have to be wary of that.

I hear you.
I’m curious to hear ideas how it could be fixed. I just think, realistically, the chaos of that environment is the main thing you have to look at. With moshing and stuff like that, it’s super annoying when people are throwing their big giant bodies at you and you’re trying to watch. But they have every right to do that just as much as you have a right to not want them to do that. Now what you’re referring to is a 
very different thing. There’s no right to take advantage of someone or assault them. But that environment breeds insanity. Has there been a big problem at festivals of late?

In just a single weekend in July more than 40 sexual assaults — including five rapes — were reported between two festivals in Sweden.
Oh no
. When people are sick-minded like that, that’s a breeding ground for them to go and do something and think they can get away with it. I don’t know how you stop people who are sick without rewiring their brain. I think of it this way: Are those people committing those assaults because they’re at a festival or would they have done that to some girl on the street, at a bar, or somewhere else? I don’t think it’s as much about the festival, they’re gonna do that. If you have the inclination in your brain to do that, then you’re a loser and a pile of shit. And hopefully you’ll be caught and punished.

What inspires you to write about sexual politics? Few women are exploring the taboos you cover at Broadly. I’d never even heard of anal weed lube until I read your latest testimonial.
Laughs.] Now that I’ve been writing about sex and relationships for a very long time, I’m constantly reading. I try to write about things that interest me and things that are funny. It’s good to make sex a bit comical and fun. I like anything from trying out anal weed lube to writing a full-fledged report on beastiality. I’m open to it all. If it’s weird and interesting, I’m always into it.

How do you balance writing your columns and writing an album?
When I’m home, I work in my office all week. I get up really early, I’ll write from like 7 a.m. to 1 p.m., take a break, then write a bit more. But when we’re working on an album, I don’t write as much. I’ll try to keep regular deadlines. On the road, it’s the same thing. And there’s tons of time in the van when you’re sitting there doing nothing.

Do you read the comments?
I learned my lesson about that a very long time ago. I’m kind of the school that ignorance is bliss and what I don’t know can’t hurt me. To see some idiotic moron that’s too pathetic and cowardly to write me an email or call me up and give me a critique of my work, I don’t really have any interest in what “ilikebigtits75” has to say about my article. I’m happy to engage, but I’m not gonna lower myself to the dead depths of the comment thread. No thanks.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

White Lung on Ending Music-Festival Rape Culture