From Arc Digital
By Cathy Young
A New Yorker story on an indie band sexual misconduct scandal reveals a bizarre reality of relationship-policing, male-blaming, and female infantilization
Among the tidal wave of sexual misconduct allegations in the early days of #MeToo, one little-noticed story concerned an indie country-rock emo band called Pinegrove. On November 21, 2017, the band canceled its tour because of a “sexual coercion” charge against lead singer Evan Stephens Hall. A lengthy message from Hall on Pinegrove’s Facebook page asserted that the accusation stemmed from a complicated, intense relationship that he believed to have been mutual and “based in love.” However, the singer also castigated himself for having “monumentally misread the situation.” In particular, he wrote that he “should have more actively acknowledged my position of power as a public figure, and also as a man.”
For the past year or so, Pinegrove has been trying to make a comeback with some concerts and now with a new album, Marigold. A New Yorker story earlier this month, by Kelefa Sanneh, sheds more light on this situation. It also sheds some very disturbing light on the cult-like and frankly insane climate that has currently taken hold in progressive culture with regard to claims of sexual abuse.
Here is the background to the allegations:
Hall’s accuser had been on tour with Pinegrove as a member of the band’s crew. Although she still wishes to remain anonymous, she told The New Yorker that she was willing to disclose her professional experience, to make clearer the pressure that she felt when she and Hall began their relationship. An indie tour can feel like a non-stop party, or like an extended road trip, but it is also a workplace — albeit one with few written rules, and no distinct boundaries between personal and professional lives. She says that this atmosphere, combined with Hall’s power as the leader of the band, gave rise to a romantic relationship that she now sees as implicitly manipulative.
“He really had no control over me,” she says. “But, in the bubble of tour, I really felt like he did.” The relationship ended soon after the tour, and she says that it took her a while to figure out that, even though there had been no violence in the relationship, she felt damaged by it — and that she wanted Hall to take some time to reflect on the damage he had done.
In the next paragraph, Sanneh reports that “at the time the band was not in a position to offer anyone a long-term job or even a living wage.”
Hall’s original Facebook post offers an additional detail: when he and his accuser became involved, she was also dating someone else, and “the dissolution of that relationship would have yielded intense personal and professional consequences.” Eventually, the woman broke up with her boyfriend. Hall wrote that “we got together again shortly after that, which lasted for about two weeks, during which we spent as much time together as possible.”
In other words, two people in the unstructured setting of an indie band that was sort of like a workplace (but on which no one was financially dependent) became sexually and romantically involved. It didn’t work out. The woman felt hurt, perhaps especially because this situation led to the loss of another relationship. Later, she decided that what happened was somehow “implicitly manipulative” because of the man’s “power”— which she admits he didn’t actually have, except that it “felt like he did.”
If someone set out to write a scathing #MeToo satire, it’s hard to see how it could top this.
The New Yorker story says that Hall took a year off touring and started therapy “at the request of his accuser.” But that’s a rather sanitized version of the facts provided in a September 2018 article in the online music magazine Pitchfork (which The New Yorker references). It appears Hall’s accuser didn’t just come forward on her own; the accusations were first made in a series of emails from one Sheridan Allen, founder and head of a Philadelphia-based outfit called PunkTalks whose mission is ostensibly to “connect touring musicians and music industry workers with free therapy.”
On November 14, 2017, Allen wrote to the Pinegrove label and to the organizer of a festival where the band was scheduled to perform, alluding to the #MeToo momentum and accusing Hall of “predatory and manipulative behavior toward women.” She stated that she was in touch with a woman accusing Hall of sexual coercion and that this victim was “NOT THE FIRST” (caps in the original email, which Pitchfork reviewed). She also suggested that Hall should step away from performing and get therapy (which she volunteered to provide through PunkTalks); that both the band’s tour and the release of its first album, Skylight, should be canceled; and that a public statement should be made about the situation.
Two days later, in an internal email to the PunkTalks team, Allen wrote that if those conditions were not met, “the original victim and another identified victim plan to speak publicly, which we support 10000%.” She also referred to herself as “working directly to take down the biggest band in indie right now,” a statement from which she backtracked on Twitter several months later.
Pitchfork reports that the accuser subsequently distanced herself from Allen, saying that she never intended to go public and never demanded a public statement from Pinegrove or Hall. However, the accuser did (by her own account) contact various band affiliates to tell them that Hall had “sexually coerced” her. Under the circumstances, the “request” to take time off and go into therapy sounds more like an offer you can’t refuse.
The Pitchfork story also reveals more detail of Hall’s alleged “coercion.” According to a mediator who had worked with Hall and the “alleged victim,” the woman “felt that he coerced her into cheating on her partner with him, and she felt that she said no to him several times…and he continued to pursue her.” On the other hand, “Hall maintained that their relationship progressed mutually but acknowledged the alleged victim’s ‘right to describe her experience however feels true to her.’”
Hall’s other “identified victim” mentioned by Allen turns out to be a Phoenix-based educator and organizer named Autumn Lavis — who emphatically told Pitchfork that she had not been victimized by Hall.
Lavis and Hall first met in the summer of 2016. They had a brief, intimate relationship that, Lavis said, ended when Hall got back together with an ex-girlfriend. “The aftermath made me feel bad about myself,” Lavis said. “But I never felt that he was abusive towards me at all. If someone did have a negative experience, I want to validate that, but mine was consensual.”
Lavis also told Pitchfork that she “vented to Allen, who was her friend at the time,” about the relationship and the breakup. Then she was shocked to learn that Allen was touting her as Hall’s other victim.
But is Hall’s actual “alleged victim” any more of a victim than Lavis? It seems that in both cases, there was a brief relationship that ended with hurt feelings. But one woman takes responsibility for her own actions and recognizes that her bad relationship was consensual. The other hides behind vague statements about “coercion,” “control,” and manipulation. The difference between “consensual relationship” and “coercion” turns out to be entirely subjective.
Meanwhile, The New Yorker chides Hall for “resist[ing] the idea that he was his accuser’s boss” because there were no real financial rewards involved:
Of course, the leader of a burgeoning band nevertheless wields plenty of influence, no matter how little money he makes. Every rock concert involves a power dynamic: even at an egalitarian basement show, a small number of people make most of the noise, and a larger number of people do most of the listening.
In his tortured Facebook statement, Hall seems to agree:
i have been flirtatious with fans and on a few occasions been intimate with people that i’ve met on tour. i’ve reached the conclusion now that that’s not ever appropriate — even if they initiate it. there will always be an unfair power dynamic at play in these situations and it’s not ok for me to ignore that.
But by that measure, inequalities and disparities of influence can exist in almost any relationship. Are you allowed to sleep with people if you’re the star of your social circle? How about if you’re very attractive and seen as extremely desirable? Hall’s statement also makes it very clear that the unequal “power dynamic” inevitably exists between women and men:
i have always tried to approach all of my relationships under the premise of equality, but i see now more clearly that the inherent privilege of my gender and the accumulated privilege of being a recognized performer most certainly impacted this interaction.
Modern feminism, kids: a man apologizing for having the temerity to treat women as equals.
Of course, “privilege” is a complicated thing. A female friend of mine, a registered Democrat and charter member of The Liberal Media™, had this to say in an email: “Talk about who had the power — he was being held hostage by a woman who was apparently unhappy about the end of their affair.”
I’m sure that in the mainstream music scene, stars (usually male) have often gotten away with egregious misconduct and exploitation. Pinegrove, as The New Yorker reports, is part of “a musical subculture where allegations of sexual misbehavior are taken seriously, or at least more seriously than they often are elsewhere.” Unfortunately, it’s also a subculture in which men offer groveling penitence for their “privilege” and accusations of abuse based on hurt feelings are taken far more seriously than they should. It’s a subculture in which many people still can’t decide whether to forgive a man who (if you really think about it) is the victim of an abusive ex.
The New Yorker’s Sanneh can’t quite decide whether Hall should be forgiven either. He suggests that it may be disturbing for Hall to be singing “songs that seem to be about his private sorrows.” Besides, he notes, “there is no way to judge the sufficiency of Hall’s atonement without deciding how much he had to atone for in the first place.” That Hall may have been punished way too much doesn’t seem to cross Sanneh’s mind. As my dissenting friend put it, “this article posits that men should be publicly shamed and their careers put in jeopardy if a woman ever comes away from a consensual intimate encounter that was not wholly satisfying.”
But it’s not just about the injustice to Hall; it’s about the kind of world we want to live in. Are women adults with agency and the equals of men, or fragile creatures who need to be protected from emotional hazards? Should freewheeling, anarchic artistic environments where the personal and the professional can mix be allowed to exist, or should they be policed into oblivion? Should people — men in particular — be afraid to get involved in any relationship that could potentially go sour and that may fall short of perfect equality of power?
And why isn’t The New Yorker raising these questions?