Personal Space: PWR BTTM and How Online Mob Culture Hurts Both Accusers and the Accused

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Lena Dunham and Matthew Rhys, S6E3 of HBO’s GIRLS

Earlier this year, my favorite show GIRLS made waves with a bottle episode called “American Bitch,” in which the main character Hannah meets one of her literary idols, the fictional Chuck Palmer. Chuck’s had some allegations made against him- several women have come forward on the Internet with claims that he sexually assaulted them, specifically, that he forced several of them into oral sex on his book tour. Hannah, a burgeoning writer, publishes a piece on a “niche feminist website” expressing her rage and frustration at the accusations, stating “If one more male writer I love reveals himself to be a heinous sleazebag, I’m going to do a bunch of murders, create a new isle of Lesbos, and never look back.”

Chuck reaches out to Hannah, inviting her to his condo to give his side of the story to a writer who, in his view, took allegations shared by one woman and a horde of anonymous others, and ran with it as truth. Chuck tells Hannah that he’s become unable to sleep, living in fear that his daughter or her friends will stumble upon the accusations on the Internet. He’s terrified of losing her love and trust, and these allegations have a real risk of destroying both of those things in addition to his writing career.

Chuck tells Hannah there was never a point in which he forced any woman to perform any sexual act with him. He insists that the woman who came forth was at his book tour, came up to talk with him afterward, young and beautiful- and thus, he invited her to his hotel room. He points out that she was a grown woman- she did not have to say yes, but she did, and once they were in his hotel room, she “practically ripped at [his] Dockers.”

Hannah volleys back and points out the power imbalance that comes with Chuck being a famous writer. She admires him- what’s she going to do, say no to spending one-on-one time with a creative who’s given her so much joy and inspiration through his work? Chuck scoffs at the idea that his work buys him that sort of power- he points out the power imbalance in that he didn’t lose his virginity until he was in his twenties and on Accutane, and she was naturally breathtaking. Throughout the whole discussion, Chuck is personable, commending Hannah’s writing ability, her sense of humor.

The episode revolves around this tug-of-war that exposes the nuances of “the right way” to navigate sexual assault allegations. Obviously, claims of sexual assault are serious and deserve to be taken as such- with respect and care. But do we assume the claims to be true right away? Is there a way to approach sexual assault that respects the roles of the accuser and the accused equally in our culture, or does the patriarchal standard we adhere to need to be balanced out by siding with the victim until proven otherwise?

By the end of “American Bitch,” Chuck has convinced Hannah that the event in question was a misunderstanding that was written about very articulately and heart-wrenchingly on Tumblr, in a way that resonated with a lot of other women. He makes a case for the Internet’s power to make us feel like we know everything- when in reality, we often read one source and then flap our lips as if we knew every detail.

But then, in a sick twist, once Hannah’s trust has been earned, Chuck invites her to “lay with him” in his room- to “feel close with someone in a way that he hasn’t in a long time.” She does, and they have a nice, normal conversation for a moment- but then all of the sudden, Chuck pulls his dick out. And puts it on Hannah’s leg. And she touches it. Just then, Chuck’s daughter comes in the condo- he puts his dick away and smiles an evil grin at Hannah- she fell for the trap, the sick practical joke he’d been planning the whole time. She was just like the others- she got comfortable, she felt special, and she fell into the murky grey waters of consent.

I found myself thinking a lot about this episode when accusations of sexual assault against Ben Hopkins from the queer punk band PWR BTTM started coming up on my Twitter timeline. PWR BTTM have been building up a lot of hype in the mainstream music press. Their sophomore album, Pageant came out on Polyvinyl today, to rave reviews.

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PWR BTTM: Liv Bruce (Left) and Ben Hopkins (Right)

The critical acclaim on their album ahead of their massive tour behind it has been really hampered by some horrendous claims. Two days ago, in a Chicago DIY Facebook group, a member named Kitty Cordero-Kolin posted accusations against Ben Hopkins, one of the members of PWR BTTM, calling them “a known sexual predator,” and claiming to have “seen Ben initiate inappropriate sexual contact with peoples despite several ‘nos’ and without warning or consent.” They also claim to have heard stories of Hopkins “bullying other queer artists, making unwanted advances on minors despite knowing their age, and emotional abuse in relationships.”

These sort of claims are particularly heartbreaking when related to a band like PWR BTTM, a band whose music and message revolves around positivity in the queer identity- songs dealing with feelings of loneliness, frustration at being a queer person tossed aside in a heteronormative world, or just some gay music that kicks ass, is fun and funny, and doesn’t cater to the straight experience. 

There was a bit of backlash on Reddit and Twitter as the allegations began to circulate, considering that Cordero-Kolin was not one of the alleged survivors of abuse, but was instead relaying pretty vague bits of hearsay. They went onto Twitter to substantiate their claims with more screenshots.

All of the allegations made across Cordero-Kolin’s posts are vague (“Liv is a sexual predator as well”) with no context and sometimes only tangentially related (The “drag clothes” portion of crowdfunding when the band’s tour van was stolen, claims about Hopkins’s father), and much of the evidence on Twitter comes in the form of showgoers claiming that PWR BTTM’s stage banter was “too sexual,” or “I heard from a friend that this is true.”

The Internet moves so quickly that it’s difficult to know which parts of the pile-on to take seriously. While I don’t find Cordero-Kolin’s posts across several accounts to be particularly convincing, especially given the timing (the album release date) and the pairing of their accusations with a previously addressed photo of Hopkins posing with a Swastika at age 17 (a regrettable age, we can all agree, and an age in which Hopkins was not in the spotlight or engaged in the queer community as he is now), we as fans have to hold Hopkins accountable to address the claims, and if there are victims out there, they need to be respected if they choose to come forth.

I wasn’t sure how to react to the way PWR BTTM handled the allegations. Yesterday, Bruce and Hopkins released a joint statement.

Hi everyone,

Ben and Liv here. We want to respond to some very serious allegations that have been made against Ben. The allegations come as a surprise, but we are trying to address them with openness and accountability. With respect to the image included with these allegations, Ben previously addressed this matter on their/the band’s Twitter in January (https://ibb.co/dsNRRQ).

Unfortunately we live in a culture which trivializes and normalizes violations of consent. There are people who have violated others’ consent and do not know. Ben has not been contacted by any survivor(s) of abuse. These allegations are shocking to us and we take them very seriously. Further, the alleged behavior is not representative of who Ben is and the manner in which they try to conduct themselves.

To address this matter head on, we have set up an email address through which a survivor or someone working directly with a survivor can discuss the allegations being expressed on social media: pwrbttm.ask@gmail.com We are currently looking for a mediator with the necessary qualifications. This will be the only person with access to the account. Ben does not have access to the account, for two reasons: 1) because we acknowledge that certain individuals will not feel comfortable establishing a direct communication link between themselves and Ben, and 2) to protect Ben in the event that a malicious party attempts to use the address for anything but its intended purpose.

Our primary goal here is to ensure that a survivor of abuse has a voice, that their story should be heard and that people who cross the line should be held accountable. What this means for the band, our album, our fans and our upcoming tours is, as of yet, unclear. Music is everything to us, but we feel strongly that this matter needs to be addressed first. Updates forthcoming.

While I admired the band’s willingness to put their musical ventures on hold until the issue was solved, as well as their willingness to hold Hopkins’s feet to the fire despite their surprise at the allegations, their proposed solution of putting the alleged survivors of abuse on a track to solve the problem quickly and easily rubbed me the wrong way. The email system is basically an elegant way of asking survivors to confront their abusers- which, obviously, is not the way to go about solving the problem.

On the other hand, without any real statement from a victim, these allegations really have no substance to them. Just as many people who claim the accusations to be true state that Cordero-Kolin has a history of dishonesty– either way, vague unsubstantiated tweets are just that: vague and unsubstantiated.

The statement was also a little troubling considering some Reddit posters claiming that the band had known about these claims for months leading up to now, or at the very least, Liv Bruce had known. But even then, the response from Liv was the same as it is in the statement- they replied suggesting that the issue be brought up with Ben, because they didn’t seem to know they’d crossed any lines, and the problem couldn’t be fixed if it wasn’t addressed.

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Hopkins (left), Bruce (right)

I may be biased in my view on the situation. I saw PWR BTTM at Beat Kitchen in Chicago in 2015, on the tour during which the assaults were said to have taken place. They were opening for Mitski, who I didn’t know anything about- I paid the fifteen bucks it took to see their opening set, and planned to leave right after. I’d been interacting on Twitter with Hopkins a lot leading up to the show, tweeting myself lip-syncing to I Wanna Boi, promising to cover myself in glitter for their set- they recognized me and wanted to meet me after they performed.

After giving a lot of people in the crowd hugs, taking pictures, meeting with people from Pitchfork, we talked for a pretty good amount of time in the basement of Beat Kitchen- about the show, my plans for college, my writing, all sorts of things. They were very genuine and caring.

In the middle of our conversation, a guy at the show came down the stairs and got really uncomfortably close to Ben- inches from their face, telling them how great the show was, mumbling some other things- and then made out with and put his hands all over them. Ben was visibly really uncomfortable and sort of laughed it off as the guy went into the bathroom, but when Liv came out of the dressing room, Ben told them that a guy had just made out with them and touched them without consent. Liv was irritated, clearly thought it was gross. When Liv went back upstairs, the same guy came out of the bathroom and tried to touch and kiss Ben again, but they pushed him away and told him off on the spot about space and consent.

This was astounding to me. The shows I grew up going to were punk shows, and PWR BTTM is a punk band. One of the most notable qualities about a show like this is the lack of personal space- everyone sweats and pushes each other around, because that’s how a punk show goes. It’s messy. But Ben and Liv both, at both PWR BTTM shows I’ve been to, took time to make a huge deal about consensual touching and making a queer punk show a safe space for people with anxiety or claustrophobia to enjoy great music.

I found the way that Ben handled talking about consent in a space that is a notorious grey area really impressive and really surprising to me. I would be truly shocked if these allegations were true. It’s heartbreaking to me to watch a band that’s made it so much easier to be young and gay in the world be crucified for something that could have so easily been manufactured.

However, I’m also a survivor of sexual assault. And I know how important it is to be believed and to be respected. But it is so frustrating to know how serious these things are, and to think that they’re being made up and spread, crushing the joy that young queer people need so badly today.

I wonder what the right thing to do is from here. I commend PWR BTTM for their willingness to tackle the issue head-on, and they were right about one thing: consent is sometimes much less cut-and-dry than people think, especially in a space like a punk rock show, and oftentimes those who have crossed a boundary don’t even know that they have. Hopkins’s willingness to be accountable, even if he doesn’t know the instance in which he needed to be accountable, is admirable. But this email mediating thing is bullshit. We can only wait and see how things play out from here.

I know what isn’t the right thing to do, and that’s contributing to the mob of people taking what they read on the Internet as truth without considering the complexities. Consent is about communication, or the lack thereof. The Internet, of course, thrives on poor communication and making issues about ourselves- to take a tweet about assault as the ultimate word trivializes abuse and consent in a way that is detrimental to both the accuser and the accused. We run the risk of smothering survivors’ voices by piling on our own hearsay to a situation that ultimately has little to do with us, and we risk losing an important creative voice and damaging one’s reputation forever by assuming truth based on masses of anonymous online accounts. What we can do is show support for those who choose to come forth, and ask for accountability and understanding from alleged perpetrators as the truth comes out. It’s hard to stay level-headed on either side of the issue- the feeling of assault is gutting, and the feeling of being accused of assault, especially when you may not have known you caused those feelings, can be deeply frustrating and requires a great deal of patience as emotions and realities are processed and evaluated.

Like the rest of you, I was heartbroken to hear these allegations because Pageant had been shaping up to be one of my favorite albums of the year. The sentiments about queerness in the body, in public and private spaces, offered the solace I needed more than anything when my future as a gay man feels really uncertain. I hope that I can enjoy this record once more without the sour taste it’s been leaving these last few days- I really hope these allegations turn out to be false, and I know all of PWR BTTM’s fans do as well.

Instead of jumping on a bandwagon, assuming one thing or another, it’s necessary that we remain skeptical on both sides of the issue, as we wait for the truth to emerge. Sexual assault is far too serious to be turned into a piece of web gossip. Take these claims seriously, but seek truth on your own.

Nick Malone is a writer from Chicago. You can read his work here.

 

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