Making The Music Industry Safer For Women
July 1, 2019
Sam Bowman in Music Industry, Safety, artist safety, female artist, music industry

It’s no secret that the music industry as a whole is largely dominated by men, which has led to problems for female artists looking to break out. In general, women comprise about 32% of the entire industry, from producers and distributors to artists and beyond. Because the music industry is essentially a man’s world, widespread systematic issues exist such as sexual assault, discrimination, and objectification.


Female musicians of all ages and experience levels are subject to this power imbalance. Young, popular artists are especially vulnerable to inequality within the music industry. They are subject to name calling on social media and sometimes much worse. 


In late June 2019, 17-year-old Billie Eilish became the latest female musician to deal with rampant discrimination based simply on her gender.  Eilish, who gained a following in 2016 after releasing her first single, “Ocean Eyes,” on SoundCloud, has always had a keen awareness of the prevalence of female objectification within the music industry. She typically performs in baggy sweatpants so as not to draw attention to her body. 


As quoted by CNN, Eilish once said, “I never want the world to know everything about me. I mean, that’s why I wear big, baggy clothes. Nobody can have an opinion because they haven’t seen what’s underneath, you know?”


Despite her age and care to dress in a demure manner, Eilish’s worries about objectification were realized after she took a selfie with a fan while wearing a tank top. The photo was posted on Twitter, and trolls immediately went to work commenting on Eilish’s body. Her fans came to her defense, but the lesson was clear: Women and men are not equal in the realm of music production. 


To be a woman in the music industry means being judged on your appearance and body type as much as for your music. But can anything be done to change that unfortunate reality?

Accusations and High-Profile Musicians

The sexualization of teenage pop stars is nothing new, and it’s not even close to the worst that can happen to females in the music industry. Stories of sexual harassment crop up on a regular basis, as does the often-immediate vilification of those making the accusations. For instance, in late 2017, singer Timothy Heller alleged that she was sexually assaulted by her best friend, a fellow musician.


Unfortunately for Heller, who gained popularity as half of the indie-pop duo Dresses, her alleged perpetrator was more of a household name, with a large social media following: Melanie Martinez, a pop singer who was a finalist on The Voice in 2012. While it’s unusual for females to be accused of sexual assault, what’s not unusual is that Heller’s accusations were met with almost immediate backlash from fans of Martinez. They questioned Heller’s motives, called the story “fake,” and demanded that Heller provide evidence.


Pop star Kesha saw a similar unbelieving response after accusing her producer Dr. Luke of sexual, emotional, verbal, and physical abuse in 2014. Dr. Luke countersued, claiming that Kesha’s accusations were false and part of an orchestrated plan to help release Kesha from her recording contract with Dr. Luke and Sony Music Entertainment. In April 2016, a New York judge dismissed Kesha’s claims, adding that “every rape is not a gender-motivated hate crime.” The judge’s phrasing seems to indicate that there was indeed merit in Kesha’s claims, despite their dismissal. 

Defining “Consent”

The idea of consent seems like a no-brainer:Iit simply means that all individuals involved in a decision or action grant permission for the situation to occur. In fact, health professionals define sexual consent as a communicating agreement to have sex, but there are caveats. Informed consent to sex can only occur between two legal adults and can be withdrawn at any time and for any reason. 


If either party withdraws consent at any point — either by saying “no” or by a non-verbal action, such as pushing a partner away — the activity is no longer consensual. Unfortunately, determining if everyone involved did indeed give their consent is difficult in some situations, especially when there are conflicting stories on what occurred. 


For instance, in response to the rape allegations against her, Martinez claimed that Heller “never said no to what we chose to do together.” However, Heller’s story indicates otherwise, and the general public is left to choose who to believe. According to Heller, she said “no” to Martinez on two consecutive nights before ultimately giving in. It’s important to note that consent cannot be given when it is a result of coercion. Women in every industry should be aware of the legal definitions of consent, and the circumstances in which consent can be withdrawn in order to better protect themselves.

Resources for Sexual Assault Victims

The truth about what really occurred between Martinez and Heller will likely never be uncovered. Heller chose not to go to the police or to submit to a rape test kit after the alleged event, meaning that she has no tangible proof that will stand up in a court of law. And in regards to sexual assault claims and the ability to prosecute perpetrators of these types of crimes, time is of the essence. 


Along with time constraints, victims of sexual assault have additional potential roadblocks when it comes to rape kits. According to Duquesne University, there is a backlog of approximately 200,000 untested rape kits across the country. Further, the vast majority of registered nurses in the U.S. lack formal training as sexual assault nurse examiners (SANEs). While any medical professional can administer a sexual assault examination, the outcome for both victims and law enforcement is improved when a rape kit is performed by a trained SANE.


One of the harsh truths in the music business is that females may be taken advantage of, especially those who are young and desperate for their big break. For some, industry-based harassment may only come in the form of objectification from online trolls. Others, however, may endure sexual or emotional abuse at the hands of a producer, colleague, or friend. And while there are a variety of recommended resources for female musicians, staying safe in the industry as a woman takes more than just collaboration and empowerment. 


Female musicians should remain vigilant, learn what they can about the definition of consent, and always speak up against adversity and abuse.


Article originally appeared on Music Think Tank (
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