IT HAPPENED TO ME: I Was Groped While Performing Street Poetry

Looking back, it’s clear the incident wasn’t funny, not least of all because it’s clear that this isn’t an isolated incident for performers.
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AJ McKenna
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Looking back, it’s clear the incident wasn’t funny, not least of all because it’s clear that this isn’t an isolated incident for performers.

Like all performers, I have my fair share of "worst gig ever" stories. There was the book-festival gig in a marquee beside the local cathedral, whose bells rang constantly throughout my entire performance; the impromptu headline slot I had to give at a Pride event when both of the hugely popular trans standup comics we’d booked weren’t able to make the venue and I had to go on and read angry poetry at an audience pumped up for a laugh-fest for a lot longer than I’d planned to; the Fringe gig where I gave my audience of three the trigger warning and they promptly walked out of the venue, etc. These are the things we bond over: those little moments of shared deprecation which puncture our runaway egos and remind us to laugh at ourselves, to prove we don’t take things too seriously.

During one of my performances. [Photo by Chantal Guevara]

During one of my performances. [Photo by Chantal Guevara]

For a long time, one of those funny, self-deprecating stories I shared was about how someone in my audience sexually assaulted me.

When you put it like that, it’s not really that funny. But I told this story for laughs for years, and it’s only recently, as the conversation about sexual assaults at concerts has begun to change, that I’ve started to feel it isn’t such a laughing matter.

I wasn’t assaulted at a rock gig, in a darkened room, or at a festival miles from anywhere. I wasn’t groped furtively by some guy at the front of a mosh pit. I was assaulted in a public space in the middle of my city, in full view of a crowd of baying onlookers, and the assault was definitely intended only to humiliate.

Every year, an event happens called 1000 Poets for Change. It’s kind of a hippyish idea: a bunch of poets all over the world put on performances on the same day in the hope of — what? Expanding everyone’s consciousness? Rewiring the global brain? Or just showing off? Whatever the case, one of my fellow Newcastle poets, Jenni Pascoe, decided to organise a street poetry marathon to mark the day one year. 

The plan was to hit a number of places in the city, culminating in an appearance at Old Eldon Square, the city’s legendary gathering point for goths, punks, moshers and metalheads. Given that this was a pretty good description of us during our teens, a lot of us were psyched to end the day there. Surely, we thought, The Kids would be totally into us, right?

Well, it turns out that a bunch of gothy mosher kids (especially the kind whose devotion to the Dark Side is really only as deep as a Paramore hoody and a can of Monster Energy) don’t really take kindly to a bunch of people turning up with a microphone and basically preaching at them. It was the stupidest, most ill-thought-out, hey-kids-I-want-you-to-think-of-me-as-the-cool-teacher move ever, and to say they reacted badly would be an understatement. 

Insults were hurled. And objects. One of us had to permanently keep watch over the tiny amp we’d brought with us to stop one particular cheeky bastard from messing with the settings. It was already a bad enough gig for everyone else, but for me, it was about to get a whole lot worse.

Given that I was trying to stay on my game while dodging projectiles, it’s understandable that I didn’t pay a lot of attention to the middle-aged drunk who staggered out of the crowd from stage right. That changed the moment he grabbed my ass. At that point, the dude had my full attention. 

I pivoted away from him, put my microphone arm between him and me, looked him dead in the eye and bellowed, mid-poem, ‘What the fuck, mate?’

I guess this wasn’t the reaction the guy was expecting, given that he slurred his apologies and started backing away. I finished my part of the set — finished the show, really — with the angriest poem in my repertoire, liberally sprinkled with instances of the c-bomb and a choice bit at the end about introducing razor blades to men’s intimate areas that wouldn’t have been out of place in a Poppy Z Brite novel (which appeared to be the only piece the moshers actually seemed to appreciate), dropped the mic, and stormed away while the rest of the team cleaned up.

A bunch of us were meeting at a pub to celebrate a local musician’s birthday an hour or so later, and by the time we were there, I’d turned the day’s events into an anecdote that killed at the party. But looking back, it’s clear the incident wasn’t that funny — not least of all because after discussions with fellow performers, it’s clear that this isn’t an isolated incident. A number of other performers I spoke to in the course of writing this article each had their own horror stories to tell about audience members seemingly feeling entitled to performers’ bodies.

A singer told me she’d noticed a difference in the way men in the audience would sidle close to or touch her after gigs depending on whether she was performing alone or as part of a band with four blokes. A local storyteller recalled an incident after a gig with her troupe when a random man got her alone on the stairs and tried to kiss her without her permission — she, like me, is a trans woman, and I can’t help but see transphobia as playing a part in both of these assaults: I was the only visibly trans performer in my group and it was my ass the random drunk dude decided to grab. It wasn’t about sex; it was about trying to punish me for being trans in public. The creep who tried it on with my friend was likely taking advantage of the fact trans women are more vulnerable than cis women, and reports of sexual assault from trans women are less likely to be believed.

But it wasn’t just women who reported harassment: a male friend I spoke to who sang in bands said he’d had to put up with women grabbing at his crotch way too many times — and this wasn’t a rock-star boast but an expression of genuine frustration. 

Whatever your gender, it seems there’s a section of the audience who thinks by putting yourself out there on stage, you make yourself fair game. And all performers are affected, whether you’re a performance poet shouting rhymes in the street or Katie Perry performing in Rio.

I still perform. Last year I took a show to the Edinburgh Fringe and toured the country as part of a show combining poetry, theatre and performance art. I’ve even done street gigs since the incident. 

Am I more wary on stage since it happened? It’s hard to say. But there’s definitely a part of me that flinches when someone approaches me on my own after shows, and I don’t think that was there before. No performer should have to feel that way, and no audience member should have to worry about causing that kind of fear in a performer when they go over to get a book signed or offer a compliment. 

Think about it this way: most strip clubs operate a look-but-don’t-touch policy. If you wouldn’t put your hands on a pole dancer, why should a singer, a storyteller, or a poet be treated any differently?