The Sexist Bogeyman: The Groupie
By Emily Fender
Illustrated by Rici Hoffarth
You see someone walk up to a band to chat after a set and the gender suddenly becomes very important for reading the scene. Do you guess they are a guy going up to express admiration, or a girl going up with the hopes of slipping back stage? The woman in this scenario becomes hyper-sexualized and devalued as a fan, whereas the guy might even be admired for the guts it takes to go up so confidently. Why is it women are constantly the target of “groupie” assumptions, from both other fans and the band themselves? Why has this idea of a groupie become so common?
Photographer and tour manager CJ Harvey had some thoughts on the term “groupie” when I talked to her. “I personally don’t like the word groupie because it’s almost always used in an extremely offensive, outdated manner. Often towards young women. If someone is having a consenting relationship with someone in the band, who cares! That’s their own private business.” This term “groupie” is often used with a nasty and misogynistic connotation, usually to reduce a female fan to her sex drive and relationship with the band. No one’s role should be reduced to an assumption of their sexuality. If someone volunteers to describe themselves as a groupie, likely with the motive to reclaim a derogatory term, this is their own business.
I, personally, am not interested in going to concerts to have an exclusively sexual relationship with the people on stage, but this is more of a lifestyle choice than a moral one. And despite the relative rarity of women who serially pursue exclusively sexual relationships with band members, being a woman in a concert space is inevitably accompanied by a host of assumptions. It’s as if when a woman, steps into a bar that has a slightly elevated platform on one end, especially if she’s alone, people often assume “Oh, she’s a girl, so she must be here to sleep with the band.” This has varying extremes, but it always seems to follow us around.
Unfortunately, many bands I’ve interacted with face-to-face have picked up this expectation. It’s as if they have a checklist running through their head: does she have a serious significant other present? Does she seem gay? Does she have an official role such as photographer, journalist, working for the venue, etc. (which doesn’t always seem to phase them)? If the answer is no to all of these, the repeated conclusion is that she must be here to fuck somebody, likely the band. If she says hi to anyone in the band, she must want to fuck them and assume they have the power to say yes or no. There is no ambiguity of sexuality, there is no space for any facet of socializing before the sexual.
The more I’ve decided to explore this, the more common I’ve found this interaction to be. This again came up when talking with London-based photographer Andreia Lemos. She talked a bit about this uncomfortable tension. Lemos describes “[I] always felt a bit of a struggle with my placement in the concert scenario... It was always borderline uncomfortable to even make eye contact with the people on stage—cause I could always feel the assumption there. Since I’ve become a photographer in those situations, the feeling has subsided a bit. Because I guess now my ‘purpose’ in being there is ‘clearly stated.’”
She brings up two major issues here, women being uncomfortable because of sexual assumptions, and the anxiety to justify your position as a woman to help shield you from those assumptions. The former issue is gaining visibility ever since the #MeToo movement picked up speed a year ago, yet there seems to have been very little change that filtered down to the local music scene. The latter is sneakier—for a long time I would question my presence in the concert space and try to think of some way to “clearly state” my reason for being there. This was not simply because I wanted to have a more direct role in the music scene, but because I wanted to make myself feel more comfortable acting in that space and shield myself from sexual assumptions, whether among the other fans or the band themself.
One of my friends had a similar experience. Andie Newell, an editor for Embodied Magazine and student at New York University, told me that she started carrying around a camera and a notepad to have “the signifiers of ‘I’m here for a purpose.’” Newell said that it helped deflect sexual assumptions that are often projected onto a girl alone at a concert. For her, it led to an interest in music journalism, but the situation that backed her into that corner is dangerous. A woman should be free to do as she pleases in a concert setting and feel safe, even if all that she wants to do is enjoy the music and socialize.
However, women armed with work tools that visually designate their purpose still encounter these tensions. CJ, who has again toured with many bands as their photographer and tour manager, both nationally and internationally, explained, “I constantly deal with offensive interactions while I'm backstage or selling merch because people try to make small talk and ask who I'm dating in the band. It's entirely irrational because if I'm standing there selling you the band's merch with three cameras around my neck. Why would you not assume I'm the merch girl or photographer?” A telling phrasing here is that the question is who you are dating, not if you are dating. CJ connects this to a larger imagination that is projected onto the social situation. “So many people have this insane built up image of what rock and roll promotes, and what touring is, and what's expected of women in music from what they've seen in movies and that misogyny is projected onto everyone in the industry almost daily on tour.”
Race often exacerbates these issues. At the small rock concerts that I attend, the crowd is almost always entirely white-passing. My friend Petra Chiabi spoke to this. We have similar taste in music, and she spoke about her experiences as a black woman going to these small rock concerts. “In concert spaces like these, you won’t find the same ‘abundance’ of color in the room, and there are some situations where I’ll be the only POC female. For the most part, people leave me alone (I’m always super aware of where I am, where the closest exit is, I’ll try to keep something in my hand just in case). But in these arenas, there’s often hella drunk dudes. I’ve never gotten more than a grab or an occasional slick comment (thank god), but it’s scary.” She contrasted this to bigger concerts where there is more likely to be people of color, describing how different it was at a Jhene Aiko concert. “An entire group of black women made the point to come over and talk to me before the show started, just to check in (which, I loved, because that’s feminism dude. Talk to your fellow woman if you think something is going on). It was super sweet. That’s the positive thing. The fact that there’s a system that allows us to link together.” But she emphasized that “the system wouldn’t be there if it weren’t for the negative side of being out and about as a single black woman.” We need to open up this discussion because we need people to have the space to speak up for themselves about what’s going on, and what’s going on goes so much further than sexism at small NYC rock concerts.
But we must start somewhere, and in some ways this is an easy place to start because it is so banal—I’d guess most people weren’t necessarily surprised to hear those stories. When I vent about my frustration being in the concert space and dealing with these assumptions, my well-meaning friends and family often respond with some combination of the following: recognition that awkward encounters due to sexual expectations happen, frustration that I have to deal with it, some statement that boys suck, and undertones that I have a lot more to deal with in future interactions with boys. But despite their good intentions, this position is not a great one. Intentionally or not, its derivative of the “boys will be boys” attitude. None of them mean to lessen what women are going through, but seem to be encouraging me to find ways to deal with it in a reactive way instead of challenging the boys’ behavior more proactively.
There is a long standing joke that especially younger guys go into music “for the girls” (plenty of my family members joked about this when my brother got his first guitar), which has fortunately been recognized as a less endearing motivation but rather the uncomfortable one that it is. It seems that “making it” as a band comprised of men necessitates a massive ego trip where guys assume that they will get any girl they want. But this should not be dismissed as an unfortunate (and definitely not endearing) growing pain, which again would be derivative of the “boys will be boys” attitude.
Some bands, however, recognize and call out sexism in the concert space. I saw Cage the Elephant playing a little over a year ago and Brad Shultz, the guitarist, stopped the band mid-song to call out a guy in the pit for trying to yank the shirt off a girl who was on another guy’s shoulders. When I turned around to see, it was very clear that this girl did not want her top off. Once Brad called him out the other concert goers noticed and started putting themselves between the guy and the girl, telling him to back off. Other bands like Chicago-based band Twin Peaks radiate such positivity while also maintaining a “no bullshit” attitude that is very productive and assuring, one that is felt at their concerts.
But it is also important to not foreclose sexuality in this space. Society has come a long way in recognizing the autonomy of a woman’s sexuality, although clearly we still have a long way to go. This is especially clear in concert spaces. To try and solve this by proposing a desexualized role would be a step in the wrong direction. Rather, the problem is the gendered assumptions that seem to be written into the space. Sexual assumptions should never be the very first way to approach a conversation, whether it is explicit or not. With this comes the love and acceptance of women who show up to most concerts to go home with someone, whether in the band or not. The path to a more inclusive concert space is not by demonizing sexuality, but allowing it to be a voluntarily brought up facet of socialization.
We need to be more proactive about changing the sexually-charged attitude common in concert spaces. Acts of sexual violence are not spontaneous, but rather stem from micro-aggressive behavior. Instead of characterizing perpetrators of sexual violence as monsters separate from us, we need to realize the everyday patterns of our society that they come from.
Let’s start this social restructuring with this step: does anyone out there identify as a groupie? Or are we just operating on the assumption that they’re out there in innumerable large numbers? I would argue that the idea of groupies are a sexist bogeyman, a non-existent scapegoat, the weight of which ends up falling onto female fans. The animosity towards groupies stems from a demonization of female sexuality, which manifests itself in other ways like using the word “masturbator” as an insult towards women. Would anyone ever assume a guy is a groupie and proceed to devalue his position as a fan for being sexually interested?
We need to start looking back over these ideas to root out these toxic ideas. They lead to power imbalances and misconceptions that in turn help the idea live on, that then facilitate at best a sexually uncomfortable environment and at worst a sexually violent one. To make a safer environment, we need to demand better behavior of others but also of ourselves.
Emily Fender was born in northeastern Florida. She's currently earning her degree in International Film Theory at New York University, and spends her time studying and enjoying all kinds of art. She strongly believes in supporting local artists and frequents concerts throughout New York and when visiting home in Jacksonville, FL.