This Controlled Violence: Crowd Behaviors and Our Responsibility to Others

Moshing. Stage-diving. Slam-dancing. Plain ‘ol getting rowdy. These are just a few standard behaviors at punk and hardcore shows. Fans can often be found arguing about the importance of these activities as a cultural factor and an element of the genres themselves.

Punk and hardcore music have a strong history rooted in underground, basement performance spaces where close crowd proximity was a given. As the genres and their crowd aesthetics have evolved to fill larger performance spaces and draw more diverse crowds, crowd behavior has taken a life of its own.

Over the past year, more and more venues have started to display signs such as, “No Moshing Allowed” and “No Stage Diving (We will see you and you WILL be thrown out)”. There are many artists out there who encourage this type of physicality during their performances. More often than not, those artists are the same ones calling for everyone to “watch out for each other” and “pick each other up”. I will admit, these days I spend more time in larger venues than friends’ basements, but this emerging phenomenon has me wondering. If venues are taking steps to ban these behaviors, why aren’t they taking steps to condemn sexually violent behavior?

A major element of crowd behavior at venues is legal liability. This gives venues significant power to limit what type of behavior is allowed and not allowed on site. They may not have control over each individual but they should be communicating a clear stance of what behavior they condone and creating a space of basic safety for patrons.

Beyond the venue’s responsibility to establish and enforce policies against sexual violence, there is our own responsibility. In social contract theory, each person born into the world and living as a member of society enters into a sort of “contract” with the “state” (whether literal or mythical) and thus agrees to live by the basic rules of society and reap the benefits.

For example, people generally agree not to steal items from others, therefore they may reasonably expect others not to steal from them. In the case of crowd behavior, we all share a  “crowd” contract. Most people attend shows with the understanding that they are going to have an enjoyable time and will be free from any overt emotional, physical, or psychological harm, regardless of any official venue policies.

In this sort of “crowd” contract, we are agreeing to treat others in the space with respect and to participate in a safe space in exchange for others doing the same. We are all responsible to each other. Not responsible FOR, but responsible TO.  I think it is safe to say that in these types of scenes, the crowd is accepting a certain level of closeness and bumping around with fellow crowd members.

However, that does not mean we need to accept sexual violence. Of all the female concert-goers I asked about concert sexual harassment, each and every one had not one, two, or even three stories of this behavior to share, but seemingly endless memories of unwanted physical contact in a concert crowd environment.

Choosing to attend shows does not make you the guardian of every other person there, but I believe it makes each of us responsible for doing what we can if and when we see a situation we know should not be happening. If you see someone being touched inappropriately, but they’re unable to move with everyone pushing to the stage, don’t turn your head away.

The bystander effect is a frequently occurring psychological phenomenon that diminishes the individual’s sense of personal responsibility for a situation. The more people there are around, the less likely an individual is to even notice someone in need of help, judge the person as needing help, or assume the responsibility of offering help.

Likewise, group psychology suggests that our behaviors can become less conscious and more detached when we are in a large crowd and believe nobody’s watching. It is when we are noticed that we often become more aware of what we are doing, what it looks like to others, and the effect it has on others.

These phenomena are often seen in situations of sexual violence and assault in crowds, especially among perpetrators who feel their behavior is not a big deal and no one will notice what they are doing. There are so many people around, no one feels it is their responsibility to act.

Next time you attend a show, keep in mind not only your own behavior, but ways in which you can be an ally to someone who may need your help. If you see someone touching another person in way that is making that person uncomfortable, say something. Invite the person experiencing unwanted contact to move closer to you, try to help them get away from the person causing them harm.

Call out the perpetrator. If you don’t feel comfortable approaching the person yourself, find a security member. They are there to help and want to make sure everyone is having a safe experience.

We all want a safe place to enjoy the music we love, it is our responsibility to each other to create that space. If someone falls down, pick them back up.

More on contract theory:

The Racial Contract by Charles W. Mills

The Sexual Contract by Carole Pateman

Principles of Political Right by Jean-Jacques Rousseau




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