Wild as me

Workplace: any land, premises, location or thing at, upon, in or near which a worker works.

Worker: a person who performs work or supplies services for monetary compensation.

Some workplaces are easy to identify: factories, offices, retail stores, construction sites, hospitals, schools. Some workers are also easy to identify: teachers, nurses, store clerks, factory workers.

But the lines can get blurred when the setting becomes, for example, the stage at a country music festival and the worker is one of the performers.

Meghan Patrick, an up and coming Canadian country music star faced this situation at a country music festival in Hagersville, Ontario, earlier this summer. She and her band were the headline act, so by the time they hit the stage, some members of the audience had been drinking for several hours. Shortly into her set, she heard a man in the crowd yell out: “Show me your tits!” (Or as the delicate Canadian media reported it: Show me your t*ts.)

Her first reaction was to ask what the person had just said, whereupon he happily repeated it. She then had the lights turned up and asked who the harasser was. While, not surprisingly, he did not identify himself, those around him were happy to point him out. She told him, briefly and bluntly, what she thought of what he had said and then asked him to leave. He declined, but was escorted out by venue security, and the concert continued.

Grace and Grit

The next day, Patrick wrote a powerful social media post, in which she said, in part:

“This is not a hobby. This is my livelihood, my heart and soul. I give everything I have into the songs I write and my performances. To have something that means so much to me be degraded to that? Fuck that. And fuck the guy who said that. I have worked my ass off for a long time to get to the point where I earned a headlining slot. I deserved a hell of a lot more respect than that.”

In a subsequent interview with Tom Power on CBC radio’s Q, Patrick’s rage had not abated. She described the stage as her workplace, her place of business. What if, she speculated, a man in a corporate board room told a woman at the table to show her tits?  No doubt, there would be serious consequences for the man.

What happened to her was every bit as demeaning and objectifying as her hypothetical, but it does not seem to be viewed in the same way, because she is a musician and her harasser was a member of the audience.

#Me, Three?

Over the past couple of years, we have learned a lot about abusive men in the entertainment industry. The #MeToo movement has raised awareness, provided support to survivors of sexual predators who used their positions of power over mostly young women trying to get their start as actors, singers and dancers, and forced some accountability on the industry as well as a few individual men. Whether we will see systemic, long-term change remains to be seen.

We have also heard from women in television, especially those who cover professional sports, about the verbal harassment and threats they are subjected to by men who seem to be offended at the thought that a woman can cover these stories.

What we have not heard much about is sexual harassment of female performers by audience members, and yet this is an all-too-common reality for many female performers, especially at concerts where liquor is served and at outdoor music festivals where the consumption of alcohol is part of the culture. (And, no doubt, a critical component of the festival revenues.)

Thinking like a lawyer

After hearing Patrick’s story, I started wondering whether what happened to her constituted workplace sexual harassment, so I turned to the province’s Occupational Health and Safety Act. The stage seems to meet the definition of a workplace and she seems to meet the definition of a worker that I set out at the beginning of this piece.

What happened falls well within the definition of workplace harassment in the OHSA:

  • A course of vexatious comments or conduct against a worker in a workplace that is known or ought reasonably to be known to be unwelcome
  • Remarks, jokes or innuendos that demean, ridicule, intimidate or offend
  • Any form of workplace sexual harassment

But is there an “employer” as understood by the OHSA? Does the event organizer owe a duty of care to the performers at its event? What about the purveyor of the beer? The harassing audience member?

Employers in Ontario are required to have a workplace harassment policy and, if there are more than six employees, this policy must be posted in a public place.

I travel by train regularly, and every time, as part of the welcome aboard, put your phones on vibrate, no smoking message, we now hear that VIA Rail will not tolerate any behaviour by a passenger that is harassing or violent towards another passenger or crew member.

Maybe music festivals should have to make this announcement at the beginning of each performance. I don’t know if it changes people’s behaviour, but it does put everyone on notice. I like hearing it when I am on the train, even though I am sure that many passengers have already tuned out in favour of whatever they are listening to through their headsets.

I don’t know that workplace harassment policies or the Ontario Human Rights Code provide the solution to what Meghan Patrick and so many other women performers have to think about every time they get up on a stage.

According to research by University of Ottawa music professor Jada Watson, there has been a 66% decline in the number of women country musicians played by radio stations in Canada since 2000.

Of course, that is mostly because the station programmers make the decision not to play women artists, but it may be that some women country artists give it all up because they don’t want to be yelled at by drunken men who want them to show their tits.

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