Saint Agnes' Kitty: "Choose to challenge the people you love, choose the difficult conversation, and we can create something beautiful"

The theme for this year's International Women's Day is Choose To Challenge. Here, Saint Agnes' Kitty discusses why it's important to challenge those you love, even if it feels difficult or easier to ignore it. (Trigger warning: Sexual assault.)

Saint Agnes' Kitty: "Choose to challenge the people you love, choose the difficult conversation, and we can create something beautiful"

It's easy to think of a problem in society as an end-of-level, big boss enemy to be defeated, but it’s not really like that. A culture is a collection of thousands of acts, incidents and moments. Challenging bad behaviour as we see and experience it will change our culture. It’s easy to take on a stranger: you see some shithead online trolling, you write a message that sums up why they’re wrong, you hit enter and it’s done. But how many times have you seen one side of an online argument learn from the experience and change their point of view? It’s shouting into the void; briefly satisfying but ultimately pointless. But do you know who does listen? Friends, family, bandmates, and people close to you. Choosing to challenge a friend takes guts, but it has real value, I know this because I did it and it was a turning point in my attitude and in our friendship.

My band Saint Agnes were living in that naive and magical time before you have to start answering to people (other than your bank balance) about how much money you’re losing on tour. We were making music and booking shows across the UK and Europe with nothing but adventure as a goal. Taking any gig offered, you find yourself playing shows in warehouses, on beaches, in major cities and tiny out-the-way villages. One time we played a back garden in the most rural Italian setting because a group of teenagers in the area, starved of any music scene, figured out they could club together, raise a couple of hundred Euros and have touring bands play a crazy private party (more people should do this, it is awesome).

We were on the home straight with a few more club shows to go, and one of these was in Belgium at a tiny venue above a bar. The gig had all the promise of being one of my favourite kinds: a low-key, sweatbox punk show with inadequate PA, no monitoring, broken air-con, and people really up for having a party. You know the kind. And it was just that, until the last song.

I jumped into the small (but committed) mosh-pit and was enjoying throwing myself around, losing myself amongst the like-minded. At some point I clocked a very big bloke, obviously drunk, who gave off an odd vibe; an uncanny feeling that he was looking at me too hard. I decided to wrap up my stint in the pit and turned to head back to the stage to finish the show when I felt arms wrap round my waist. I was grabbed abruptly from behind and pulled back purposefully into the man’s crotch, held there tightly around the waist for a few disorientating, panic-stricken moments and rubbed up against. His manoeuvre was fast, aggressive and unmistakable in its overtly sexual intention. Recovering from the shock of it, I twisted and shoved him as hard as I could to release his grip, got back onstage and finished the song and gig.

The bewilderment and rising anger of what happened was compounded after the gig by the same man cornering me up against the bar of the venue with an incoherent ramble about what a good guy he was, that he didn’t mean it, and could he buy me a drink. It took the bar manager physically removing him from the venue to make him stop harassing me. There was no dressing room to escape to and I’m in a city I don’t know; everything is just carrying on as normal and I’m thinking, 'Maybe nobody saw?' The normality of the situation contrasted so sharply with the violation. You wonder if you imagined it.

I was obviously distressed by the whole thing. I was upset, confused, angry, and explaining to my bandmates who hadn’t seen what’d happened why I was acting so out of character. It was at this point that something really unexpected occurred – a member of the touring party started to downplay what had happened. I don’t remember the exact words he said, but the meaning he was trying to push was this: ‘You're overreacting, the man apologised, he probably didn’t mean it that way, it’s not a big deal, you should have let him buy you a drink, it’d have calmed the whole thing down.’ He was trying to minimise the man’s action to, in a strange way, make me feel better – ‘Don’t be sad, something bad didn’t really happen to you’ – and, in turn, I guess, to make himself feel better about it.

Everything about what happened felt violating to me, but it’s difficult when someone you love and respect dismisses your experience to not be filled with self-doubt. You find yourself questioning what even happened: 'Am I overreacting? Was I acting in a way that made it inevitable? Was I inviting it by being amongst the audience?' These are stupid questions, of course, but choosing to challenge my friend, someone with whom I agree on lots of other things, was tough. Telling him that he was wrong to minimise what happened (and that I was not okay with how he tried to play it down) was difficult. I couldn’t do anything to undo the initial assault, but I could do something about my friend, so rather than letting it slide, I decided to challenge his viewpoint and gut-instinct solution to the problem. The conversation (awkward and difficult as it was) led to an understanding between us, and a strengthening of our friendship. It opened the door for the many, many conversations we’ve had since. We learned from each other and it created a situation where we could challenge one another (often), but without the fear of losing our friendship. It’s something I am deeply grateful to have in my life.

Nobody wants to be the person that causes a scene, that kills a mood, or that interrupts the joke to point out the reasons it’s unacceptable. We let things slip and slide away in the moment; we ignore things we find uncomfortable and excuse behaviour and attitudes because we want life to be nice, right? Grimace a bit now, but wait a bit and the problem will be behind us, so why prolong the pain by discussing it or challenging it? But this unwillingness to challenge breeds a culture of tolerance where there should be none. It’s easy to challenge a drunk dickhead, an internet troll or the openly and overtly misogynistic. Challenging a friend is tougher, but it’s also inordinately more effective and valuable. Momentous positive change often has small beginnings. Societal change on a wide scale, just like a music scene, can start in your backyard by having difficult conversations with your family, your friends, your community, your brothers, your sons, your dads, and coming to a collective agreement about where the line is and how we react when it is crossed.

What we are talking about (stay with me here) is like a good mosh-pit. When you jump into the chaos, you have given consent for some jumping, pushing and shoving, and you’d expect a few bruises. But if someone falls down, you grab them and help them up right away, no matter what – it’s a beautiful thing. Similarly if someone is getting out of hand, crossing the line and spoiling it for everyone else, there’s good self-policing in the pit and that person is ejected or shown in no uncertain terms they are being a problem. We look after each other. So let's bring that mosh-pit attitude to all aspects of life: support the fallen, call out the bullshit and challenge the transgression. If we tolerate crossing the line in the smallest way by making excuses for people, it leads to a grey area – something ill-defined and prone to getting worse. It leads to people being damaged. We can stop that by choosing to challenge. Choose to challenge the people you love, choose the difficult conversation, and we can create something as beautiful for ourselves as a good mosh-pit.

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