Amber Coffman of Dirty Projectors.
Last week, the US indie music scene experienced a watershed moment in the fight against systemic sexual harassment. When Amber Coffman, a member of Dirty Projectors, tweeted about being sexually groped by the well known CEO of a PR company, it prompted a number of other women to share their own stories of abuse at his hands (literally).
Since breaking the silence, it's become apparent that the conduct of Heathcliff Berru (founder of Life or Death PR and Management) has been an open secret in the industry for a long time. Multiple women, beginning with Yasmine Kittles from Tearist, have backed up Coffman's allegations with similar accounts. When Kittles saw that Coffman was prepared to call him out, she texted her and said, "I stand behind you, if you're going to name him."
Was just re-telling/re-remembering a story abt how a very popular music publicist RUBBED my ass and BIT my hair at a bar a couple years ago— Amber Coffman (@Amber_Coffman) January 19, 2016
Thank you @Amber_Coffman for bravely speaking the truth. Heathcliff Berru is a scumbag and I'm glad someone finally spoke up.— Best Coast (@BestCoast) January 19, 2016
Can verify this from personal experience https://t.co/otCFQKn8RY— Beth Martinez. Hero. (@dangervillage) January 19, 2016
i have flat out told people privately what he did and they still hired him. that's how women get listened to.— Motormouthmedia Judy (@motormouthmedia) January 19, 2016
Berru invited himself to Kittles house in May 2011 under the pretext of watching her band's latest music video. Once there, she says he grabbed her bottom, refused her requests for him to leave, pulled her onto the couch and then opened his trousers and forced her to put her hand on his penis.
As Kittles says, "It just felt like: I know that I have to accept that I am maybe going to be raped."
Kittles was not raped that evening, but she was left feeling incredible ashamed and violated. She remembers jumping up and apologising profusely to Berru, saying sorry over and over. In an interview with ThinkProgress' Jessica Goldstein, she says, "It was like regressing back to childhood...I could hear my voice, and it felt like a small voice, like the smallest voice, like I could hear it in my ears. Like I was in a tunnel."
Berru then asked Kittles if she wanted him to stay over.
In the years since then, Kittles has been upset to see how many people knew about Berru's behaviour but either did nothing or shrugged it off. When she brought it up with her managed, he told her to get over it. When she told her best male friend about what happened, he dismissed it as classic Berru. "That's kind of his thing," he said. This attitude was pervasive. As Goldstein writes, "The men in her life mostly put it on her: Well, do you want me to stop hanging out with him? What do you want me to do?"
Judy Silverman, owner of PR firm Motormouthmedia, was also aware of Berrus' history of abuse but was hesitant to come forward. Silverman had been responsible for firing Berru when he worked for her some years earlier and it already felt like the few people she'd told were choosing to view her as a bitter ex-employer. She also talks about the culture of 'brotection', which might permeate across all industries but particularly those that foster the 'party atmosphere' of the music scene.
This 'brotection' was explored (although not by that name) in an article published on SBS late last year. In it, comedian Brydie Lee-Kennedy wrote about the industry exclusion she experienced following her break up with an abusive partner, also a comedian. This abuse had been previously excused within her community as merely a problem of alcohol abuse and anger issues.
This is despite the fact that her former partner had been arrested by police while they were together because, amazingly, a patrol car had happened to drive by while he was beating her in the street. Although she refused to press charges (the impact of domestic violence is sometimes seen in the victim's reluctance to punish their abuser), there is still a police record. The abuse is documented. It happened. No one can deny that.
And yet, when Lee-Kennedy began telling members of the comedy community in Sydney, she found little support. As she says, "More often I was met with awkwardness and a gradual disconnection from that friendship. On several occasions, I was told to stop talking because they knew what I was going to say and they didn't want to hear it about their friend. They didn't even want to hear it."
The week before Lee-Kennedy published her piece, she was contacted by a close male friend. Four years had passed since she'd tried to talk to him about the abuse that had been inflicted on her. Although they have spent a significant amount of time together in that period, he had never been open to hearing what she'd had to say about the circumstances of her former relationship. He was messaging now to tell her she needed to stop talking to people about what had happened because "it was making life difficult for him."
"Don't make me choose between you," he said.
This wilful complacency is evident in how Berru managed to continue abusing women with the tacit condonation of the music industry contacts, colleagues and friends who knew something but refused to take real action. The Bro Code is strong, especially when it's threatened by the kinds of 'sluts' and 'strays' who are expected to lie down and take what's inflicted on them. And it's not just the music and comedy industries that this occurs in - it happens across the board, in film, sports, corporate environments, universities and anywhere else where there's either money to be made or power to be had. Hell, look at how entire towns rallied to defend the young male perpetrators of the Steubenville and Maryville rapes respectively, while vilifying the two female survivors and in one case even driving her family out of town. Are we really going to say nobody knew about Rolf Harris or Jimmy Saville? Because we know they knew about Bill Cosby.
This 'brotection' doesn't just come from men. Rather, it is inspired by the sense of allegiance to the system that gives men more social power when it comes to sexual aggression and abuse. As Kittles said, one of the reasons she didn't report Berru to the police at the time was because she'd invited him into her house. If she'd been a male musician whose business was being courted by Berru, would she have had to worry? Of course not, because men are at liberty to invite other men into their homes and not be blamed for whatever might end up happening. If you're a woman though? Well, it doesn't matter that you're a professional musician under the impression you're about to discuss work. What else did you really expect?
The 'brotection' Silverman describes exists, and it needs to end. Berru has resigned his position as CEO of Life or Death PR and Management and the company appears to have dissolved for now. But there are countless more like him operating across all industries, and it's time to stop averting eyes and start calling out. As Coffman says, "There's no good reason that you could come up with for not defending women."