Rave Ethics zine
Over the past year, Montreal has had its fair share of ugly truths come out in headlines punctuated with the word “harassment,” followed by the names of powerful organizations and individuals. Many people were shocked, others were merely surprised that what were formerly known as “open secrets” took this long to gain notoriety on a wider scale.
The mechanisms of #MeToo and other movements working across social media platforms have collectively been a powerful force in driving a long-overdue conversation about sexual harassment and the social contexts that sustain it. However these conversations often lack corresponding action in the real world, staying suspended in the news cycle long enough for the next scandal to comes along and take its place in a largely unchanged environment. And there will always be another scandal, so long as each case of harassment is seen as an isolated incident committed by a few “bad people,” rather than a systemic issue that permeates all industries at all levels, from Hollywood sets to DIY parties in Montreal.
PLURI has been an active voice in the local conversation about breaking the cycles of harassment, acting as both a literal buffer between non-consenting bodies on the dancefloor and an administrative one, ensuring that the good intentions of venue owners, artists and promoters translate into the local nightlife events they facilitate. PLURI, which stands for Peace, Love, Unity, Respect Initiative, describes their mission as aiming “to reduce marginalization and harassment on dancefloors by organizing workshops for event organizers and staff, providing onsite intervention and volunteers at events and producing educational material.” At the forefront of the organization is Éliane Thivierge and Celeste Pimm, two partygoers who sought to address an issue they had experienced firsthand through the creation of a grassroots initiative.
“It came from many years of being an active partygoer,” says Thivierge. “I was more feminine-presenting at the time and identified as a woman, and I experienced a lot of harassment, enough that I developed a very acute knowledge of what triggers me and makes me uncomfortable and comfortable in a party space.”
They recall one of the last troubling encounters that set the project in motion, an afterparty event where the harasser was given a free pass once having been identified as one of the venue’s staff members. Despite receiving the impression that their grievances were being taken seriously, no further action was taken on Thivierge’s behalf. “So I wrote a little piece about it for (the zine) Rave Ethics, and then the piece when viral,” says Thivierge. “To me this content was very obvious. If there’s one thing I know about, it’s consent on dancefloors.”
Pimm came on board not long after. “I had seen the Rave Ethics zine and it was one of the first times I’d seen an active effort to address behaviours on dancefloors put into writing,” says Pimm. “At the time I had a lot of friends who were involved with the DIY promoters scene and a lot of them felt a little bit lost as far as how to make their parties better for people and safer and more inclusive.”
The duo brought together the local party community in the summer of 2016 to pick up where the zine left off. “We invited a bunch of people — people of colour, women, trans and queer people — to join a conversation about what should be done about inclusivity and safety on dancefloors. They voiced issues they were having with specific venues, with specific events, and we discussed different strategies,” Thivierge recalls. “At first it was just, like, we’ll give a workshop with the content from this event, but then we saw there was a broader issue here. It brought up accountability as being a huge issue, especially around music scenes, and that is directly related to the lack of diversity in line-ups, for example.” And for a lot of women involved in the tight-knit afterhours scene, “there was always someone involved in the process of creating the event that had either assaulted them, or abused them or one of their female or queer friends,” says Thivierge.
The public consultation turned out to be the first of many conversations that would take place over the following year as they began to accumulate an informal curriculum through resource sharing, field interviews and information from other organizations tackling similar issues, such as Good Night Out and the Ottawa-based Project Soundcheck, as well as Thivierge’s own academic experience in social work.
“It took us like a year of doing these community events and reflecting before we came up with a few specific strategies for our way of approaching safety and inclusivity on dancefloors,” says Pimm. The pair decided that narrowing the focus to address violence that happens during a party was the most effective way to take action, given their time and resources. “I think before we were trying to cover everything and it wasn’t really productive, but now we have concrete services, so if someone who doesn’t really know what they’re looking for comes to us, we can say here’s what we do, here are first steps you can take,” says Pimm.
April 2017 marked a turning point for the local nightlife scene as a whole when the Conseil des Montréalaises released a study on the safety of women, young cisgender women and trans women at outdoor events in Montreal after a woman had reported being drugged at a music festival the previous year. The study found that more than one in two of the women surveyed had been harassed or assaulted at an outdoor festival and over half of these incidents took place at night. Despite the frequency of this phenomenon, police and staff only intervened in 11.1 per cent of the cases of aggression or identified harassment, and none of the 35 formal complaints filed resulted in prosecutions and/or convictions of the accused harassers. Lack of trust in police and security to take effective action cast both as unreliable allies. With no immediate place to turn, many cases of harassment, both minor and acute, occur without consequence and perpetuate a toxic culture within the nightlife scene.
The study’s findings, though unsurprising to many who have experienced harassment in these contexts, shocked many and prompted festivals to take action. “There are a lot of people that work at these festivals in important positions that don’t experience harassment because they are cis-men, and I think because of that it’s hard for them to believe that other people had different experiences in these same spaces they were building,” says Thivierge.
It’s worth noting that over half of the participants who reported experiencing sexual harassment do not know where to go when they need help or fear for their safety. That’s where PLURI enters the picture.
PLURI offers intervention or “outreach” workers, a bank of Party Support volunteers, consultation services, and educational training workshops. Pimm describes the role of the outreach worker as a third set of eyes, trained to detect the subtle nuances of harassment in party spaces. “Our intervention team is somebody that is on the floor checking in with people to make sure they feel comfortable and doing any minor interventions. They can take it to someone (on staff) at the event if any kind of higher level actions are needed,” such as in cases of violent and aggressive activity. “Without having to directly accelerate it to security and staff, a lot of people feel empowered to talk about the harassment that they’re experiencing when they know it’s not going to lead to a big conflict at an event,” she says.
The volunteer bank was a resource created for smaller, lower-budget DIY events who still want to take steps to facilitate a safer space. Party Support volunteers are partygoers that are also attuned to recognizing harassment on the dancefloor, although participation in the program is on a casual basis and requires fewer training qualifications.
Consultation work consists of everything from communications, social media and poster content, to dealing with specific events or crisis, “and thinking about your venue space, and how a PLURI intervention worker or volunteer is going to fit into the context of the party,” says Pimm. “When we’re working with somebody it’s really important to us to make them feel like they can have an open dialogue. We’re not the kind of organization that will blame people for not already knowing what they’re doing, and it’s important for us to allow this space to unpack their understanding, and to empower themselves to want to create that change,” she adds.
The staff training and workshops services are at the core of PLURI’s harm reduction approach. To create and maintain a completely “safe space” at all times is unrealistic even for the most vigilant team, and that’s why PLURI takes a proactive and inclusive approach, educating all stakeholders in the nightlife experience, party hosts and guests alike, about the structural systems of oppression that translate into party spaces, including sexism, racism, ableism, homophobia and transphobia. With a basic intellectual common ground established, the workshops focus on specific concepts like consent and boundaries, basic safety practices, how to distinguish harassment from consensual flirting and how to respond effectively to harassment.
What would be the first of many of these workshops took place at Casa in December 2016, where they presented all of the content to an audience of rave-scene regulars, local venue owners, promoters, artists and partygoers. “It was sort of a big moment, because it felt like the first time an in-person dialogue happened between people who were making parties and people who were going to parties,” says Pimm. “I feel like after that event a lot of people started talking about the issues at hand and it quickly became something that people were aware of, at least in this Montreal-Rave-DIY scene.”
After their first on-site intervention gig at a major festival, PLURI received feedback. “What the directors of the festival were saying is that everyone they talked to, the partners involved to the men and the women at the festival, all of them were happy that there were intervention workers on site because it made all of them feel better about being in the space,” says Pimm. “For me that was a big moment. After trying out intervention in a festival setting and seeing how people would react to it, we got only positive feedback and gratitude.”
For the past two years, PLURI has helped many local organizers take the first steps to becoming safer spaces. You can find a PLURI worker at Datcha every weekend from Thursday to Sunday, as well as other local festivals, including the recent Slut Island music festival. To spot a PLURI outreach worker or volunteer just look for a partygoer adorned with the signature yellow “PARTY SUPPORT” patch.
Where they don’t operate in a physical space, PLURI offers educational resources online. Most recently they collaborated with Boiler Room to create a video adaptation of Thivierge’s Rave Ethics piece, A Short Film on Common Misconceptions, as well as a global directory of similar resources and initiatives, which is available to the public. In response to the opioid crisis and the increasing threat of cross-contamination in party drugs, PLURI has also offered free training workshops on recognizing and administering Naloxone to treat an overdose.
While PLURI’s actions in the local community are significant, they acknowledge that the fundamental issue of sexual harassment is expansive beyond what any one group can tackle. A movement is not a homogenous entity, it is a series of working parts and PLURI is making their contribution through education and on-site action here in Montreal. “Through the process of educating and creating a safe space for people to tell us they don’t know what to do, we allow them to ask questions, and not know about things, and say problematic things, and then we unpack these things with them,” says Thivierge. “I think that makes a huge difference with every person we’ve worked with.” ■