The PWR BTTM debacle demonstrates why queer politics don’t protect women

After multiple allegations of sexual assault and harassment, PWR BTTM band member, Ben Hopkins, is being held to account by fans as well as the music industry.

Liv Bruce and Ben Hopkins (Image: Twitter/@PWRBTTMBAND)

New York queer punk music duo PWR BTTM, a vowel-less take on “power bottom” (Google that term, if you like), have become the center of controversy, due to multiple allegations of sexual assault levied against guitarist and drummer Ben Hopkins.

On May 4th, Vice dubbed the group, who identify as “queer, non-binary, and transfeminine,” “America’s next great rock band.” One week later, on May 11th, Kitty Cordero-Kolin, a member of the DIY scene in Chicago, posted in a closed Facebook group, alleging that Hopkins had been seen initiating “inappropriate sexual contact with people despite several ‘nos’ and without warning or consent” at shows. This initial post was shared on Reddit, so the story spread, prompting swathes of PWR BTTM fans to come forward, accusing Hopkins of abuse, sexual harassment, preying on minors, and using misogynist slurs. One woman, referred to as “Jen,” told Jezebel that Hopkins raped her after a PWR BTTM show last year.

The swiftness and enormity of PWR BTTM’s subsequent fall from grace cannot be overstated. A week after the allegations came out, the band was dropped by their label, Polyvinyl Records; by their management company, Salty Artist Management; and by streaming services, including Apple Music and iTunes. Support acts pulled out of tour dates. PWR BTTM’s first album launch in Brooklyn was aborted, and all performances have been cancelled for the foreseeable future. Hopkins, who uses gender-neutral pronouns (“they/them/their”), has denied the allegations, claiming that he perceived the encounter with “Jen” to be wholly consensual.

 

Cordero-Kolin’s post states, “Almost every single one of Ben’s victims is queer.” It’s not immediately obvious why this is relevant, but one can surmise that Hopkins’ conduct is seen as a wider attack on the queer scene itself, as the allegations undermine the professed ethics and politics queerness signifies.

Queerness is supposed to represent the antithesis of the kind of behaviour Hopkins is alleged to have engaged in. While “queer” once described marginal or “othered” sexualities, today it is understood to be little more than an identity, with no concrete relation to practice. In other words, queer identity demands nothing more than “queer” identification, and can be embodied through superficial “expressions” like fashion and makeup. When not posing next to swastikas on the beach, Hopkins used glitter, eyeliner, and vintage dresses to demonstrate an understanding of and adherence to queer ideals, to illustrate a rejection of “toxic masculinity” and the gender norms socially ascribed to males.

But wearing flowery dresses and lip gloss does not necessarily lead to an actual rejection of the male entitlement and male dominance of men under patriarchy. By centering self-defined identities, individual expression, and performativity, instead of scrutinizing male violence and unequal systems of power, queer discourse has allowed misogyny easy access to the party.

Little has been made of the fact that all of Hopkins victims are discernibly female. Male on female sexual coercion is hardly transgressive and appears to have defined the relations between Hopkins and the fans he harassed and abused (perhaps someone should chastise Hopkins for this display of biological essentialism!) A man in a dress and makeup, as anyone who is familiar with 70s and 80s music is aware, is also decidedly lacking in novelty. Were such superficial choices really expected to overturn systems of power that have defined society for centuries? (It didn’t work for Bowie, after all.)

The shocked response to the allegations against Hopkins is at least in part due to PWR BTTM’s queer aesthetic, bound up with their queer politics. The appeal of bands like PWR BTTM is similar to the appeal of gay nightclubs in the 90s and 2000s. These spaces were anti-heteronormative because they were not designed to cater to heterosexuality, meaning that those at the bottom of the patriarchal hierarchy were more likely to feel safe or liberated in these spaces. These were places where women and sexual minorities could drink and dance without experiencing the kind of male harassment that is so common in straight bars. Today, as gay clubs close down and lesbian spaces are eradicated, the queer scene advertises a similar “safe community.” But these “queer” spaces are not organized according to categories of sex or even sexuality. Because they are based on self-proclaimed ideals and abstract, “fluid” personal identities, there is no way to guarantee these spaces will be any different than any other. It turns out that gender-neutral pronouns, makeup, and glitter don’t address sex-based oppression.

In November, one reviewer praised PWR BTTM for “eschewing the masculinity that comes with tired bro-rock,” and earlier this month, NPR described their songs as “a powerful re-imagining of what it means to exist within or outside contemporary notions of gender and sexuality.” But while the band wants to be seen as rebelling against gender and sexual norms, they’ve done so in a wholly superficial way — via clothes, makeup, and pronoun demands. Adopting a personal style that signals “alternative” in this way is something anyone can do — all an individual has to do is purchase certain commodities and adopt the codes and language of the social scene. But it’s far more difficult to change our actual behaviour, ethics, feelings, and reactions — which is how PWR BTTM fucked up on record.

In their initial response, published on May 11th, Hopkins and bandmate Liv Bruce deny the allegations and detail their “surprise.” On May 18th, an expanded response was published, wherein Hopkins deployed tired tropes of an abuser attempting damage control. He presented himself as a bewildered lamb, signalling a swift role reversal from sexual aggressor to victim: “What has transpired over the past several days has been emotionally overwhelming and difficult to comprehend.” I bet. Hopkins likely believed he would never be exposed. Reaching for the values he claims to hold so dear, as a member of the “queer community,” he writes, “This allegation was devastating to me as it is contrary to the intentional way I seek to interact with those around me.” In an effort to take control of the narrative, Hopkins expounds upon his own personal experience:

“As I digested the allegations, I tried to figure out who the individual might be so that I could try to reconcile what I had read with my memory of any particular sexual interaction. I’ve waited to respond to the Jezebel article because the statements made about me by the anonymous source did not line up with any sexual experience I have ever had.”

People are not only upset at the allegations against Hopkins, but that his bandmate feigned surprise, when in fact “Jen” had confided in Bruce already. After being called out on this, Bruce claimed to have not taken action because the victim asked for confidentiality. Of course, refusing to play in a queer punk band with an abusive man would not have compromised confidentiality, but Bruce declined to do this.

It’s worth acknowledging that, in this case, both musicians were held to account — one for his actions and the other for inaction. I do not for a second think that misogyny or male violence is less prevalent or less tolerated in queer circles, but in this case, it does seem that sexual assault is being treated with the seriousness it deserves. That is comparatively exceptional if we consider the vast array of male musicians who have gotten away with sexual abuse of women and girls, from R. Kelly to Jimmy Page to Chuck Berry.

PWR BTTM’s response crystallizes a problem at the heart of modern gender politics, wherein language and personal experience are given precedence over material and systemic reality. Hopkins apologizes for “making anyone feel uncomfortable,” but goes on to say that the allegations “directly conflict with my experience,” implying that the woman is lying. As though emphasizing his experience can retroactively determine reality and that if he doesn’t believe or feel like anything unethical happened, it didn’t. After saying all this, Hopkins adds, “That being said, in keeping with my commitment to my principles, I believe it is my responsibility to be accountable to this individual’s perspective and to honor it accordingly.” This statement seems to contradict his previous comments. Hopkins appears to only be going through the “correct” motions in order to remain within his chosen social group and maintain social cache. Claiming to honour someone’s perspective while privileging your experience and implying they are lying does not equate to “accountability,” nor does it honour the alleged victim’s perspective.

This controversy shows that we must look beyond identity politics for resolution. Personal experiences are not universal and do not necessarily determine truth or change material reality. Hopkins’s claims — whether it be his allegiance to queerness or that he never sexually assaulted anyone — must be analyzed within a larger system of gendered power relations. It is no coincidence that a male has serially abused female admirers — gender socialization teaches men that they have the right to access female bodies. Because gender is what naturalizes that male dominance and entitlement, gender non-conformity actually means pushing back against gendered power relations in concrete ways.

No matter what labels they take on, no matter how many dresses they wear, PWR BTTM are not, in fact, gender non-conforming.

Only through looking at violence and abuse as systemic can we make sense of the PWR BTTM debacle. A man who understands himself to be “queer,” who is invested in the notion and performance of gender as “expression,” should be defined by his interactions with women, not his sparkly blusher.

Jen Izaakson is a PhD student at Kingston University’s Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy (CRMEP), researching gender and Freud. You can find her on Twitter @isacsohn and read more of her work at jenizaakson.wordpress.com.  

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