We spoke with Chlöe Howl, a 22-year-old pop singer from the UK, on her experiences with sexual harassment in the music business. As a teenager, she signed with a major label and has been the subject of harassment, and has heard horrific stories from her peers in the industry. Along with three other prominent women in the business, Chlöe started the 'Stop 2018' campaign aimed at ending bullying, misogyny, and harassment in the music industry. Here is what she had to say:
Zach: You were signed at 16 fresh out of school, joined Columbia, and started making music professionally at an age when most others don’t have those pressures. When did you start to notice that powerful men were taking advantage of, sexually assaulting, and raping artists, specifically women, who needed help starting their careers? How were you first exposed to this culture?
Chlöe: I would say when I first started touring. I actually pretty much witnessed an incident when I was 18, of a woman being extremely drunk and a man with power over her career taking that opportunity to pounce. Also at festivals you meet a lot of powerful male musicians and I definitely had my own experiences of naively thinking they just wanted to hang out and then slowly as the night progressed, and I was more and more impressionable, noticing they would edge closer and get more tactile and flirtatious and try and get us alone etc.
Z: In the BBC interview, you talk about your working relationship with a male in the industry. You worked closely with him as a teenager, he encouraged you to try drugs, he pressured you with texts, and eventually physically grabbed you in ways did not want. How did you feel when he would send these texts and make these advances? What was it like trying to maintain a working relationship, but also dealing with these unwanted advances?
C: It’s an interesting one because I believed he was my friend. He made me think that he cared the most about me and my career and had my best interests truly at heart, and I believed him. So when these things happened, I felt like if I retaliated, I would be upsetting someone who really looked out for me. So in a lot of ways I just wanted to keep the peace. There were also instances where if I did call him out, he would just stop doing any work or responding to my messages, so in general, I felt like I had to maintain a positive relationship, even if I really didn’t reciprocate his feelings.
Z: You mentioned that one night the same guy grabbed your butt and said: “I feel like we’d have a good time in the sack.” You didn’t want to make any claims at the time because people would say you were drunk or a flirt. What specifically led up to this moment where he felt it was okay to violate you like that? How is this type of behavior perpetuated and encouraged in the industry? What made you feel “ashamed” and “embarrassed” after it happened even though he was the one who was out of line?
C: I think the responsibility lies with the man in power. The older man (or woman) who is working with the young, inexperienced person needs to be aware of their position, and conscious of how that position can be abused. I think in the music industry a lot of this behavior is perpetuated by a generally expected level of behavior. People do drugs, party all night, go back to strangers houses, there’s a lot of flings and drama, and that is how the music industry is expected to be - rock n roll. And I think people assume that image as a cloak that absolves you of any responsibility for your actions. And unfortunately, a lot of their peers grant them that excuse. I think a lot of people, the powerful men especially, feel invincible. There’s a lot of big money going around, and these abusers know this, and so they prey on the intern, or the artist on the rise etc, believing that they’re worth more to the company and are indispensable, therefore untouchable. When a situation of harassment or assault occurs you do feel ashamed. Very often it’s partially down to not thinking you’ll be believed and so knowing your abuser is out there, manipulating the narrative however they see fit. Also, if the abuser was your friend, you spend a lot of time wondering if you allowed this or encouraged this to happen through your own behavior, which is totally untrue. Being sexualized without your consent is humiliating, it makes you feel powerless, and violated. It’s also an unwelcome reminder when you were least expecting it, of the unchecked power men continue to hold over women in this industry.
Z: When a man sexually assaults a woman in the music industry, many times this man has helped advance the woman’s career. The woman may feel like she led him on or let it happen. What is the struggle like of wanting to out the wrongs of a predatory man to the world, but also not wanting to disappoint a man who has helped your career? How do you find the strength to work in an environment with an abusive man, knowing he has the power to alter your career?
C: Well, I think that adds to the feeling of being ashamed. You let a lot of things slide for the sake of your own career. I remember sitting down and thinking “do I like this? Do I want this?” Because I let these things go unchecked as it felt inevitable to my progress as an artist, which I OF COURSE wanted. I know in my case, it took me a very long time to realize the situation was even wrong. I had never worked in any industry before, let alone the music industry, so I wasn’t aware that this relationship was unusual. The struggle of knowing you can’t call someone out for their mistakes, or assert yourself properly without the threat of all your hard work coming to a standstill is really harrowing, looking back.
Z: You also mentioned in the interview that you know girls who have been raped and that you are “lucky that the experiences you’ve had haven’t gone any further.” That’s one of the saddest, most atrocious things I’ve heard since I’ve been alive. Nobody should ever have to consider themselves “lucky” because they haven’t been sexually assaulted that badly compared to their peers. What makes you consider yourself lucky? How have stories of rape and abuse from other artists empowered you to share experiences of your own?
C: When so many women you know have stories, it’s hard not to be comparative. I have been in situations with men I know have gone on to rape other women, and the night hasn’t ended that way for me. A lot of the stories I’ve heard could’ve very easily been me. I used the word “lucky” in the interview because, as I said previously, it does feel very inevitable; I don’t know a woman without an experience. It’s not just artists who go through this, it’s at every level. It’s in the labels, the management companies, the music media, the awards ceremonies, the boards. I’ve been empowered to stand alongside women, such as Michelle and Yasmin, who have been through extreme situations and are channeling that anger into change, and making sure steps are taken to stop this from happening to anyone else. I wanted to share my story because I want the stigma to be shifted. We are not the ones who should feel ashamed, who should be hiding in the shadows or staying inconspicuous, the abusers should. I wanted to add my voice because I know so many artists who are afraid of speaking out for fear of damaging their career and we shouldn’t be afraid! Hopefully, all the work these incredible women are putting into action in the UK and around the world, will help other women to feel supported and believed, enough to speak up themselves.
Z: When a woman speaks out about rape and sexual assault, many people, especially men, say things like “Why didn’t she come out sooner?” or “If it really happened, she would’ve said something right away.” For those who have never been abused like that, especially men, what is it like in the moment when another man makes unwanted advances toward you? Confusing? Shameful? Scary? Painful? What would you say to people who doubt accusers to make them understand the courage it takes to speak out and the pain involved in reliving the experience?
C: I think that you can never fully comprehend how it feels until you’ve been through it, and if you haven’t been through it, your first reaction to somebody’s story should be to listen and be understanding. People who invalidate women’s claims because they “took too long to come forward” are partaking in further victim blaming. You are punishing that women all over again for her assault. Women are known to lose friends, their reputation, and their careers through reporting their sexual assault, as well as having to go through a very grueling and humiliating legal process, with a pitifully minute chance of justice. People don’t believe them, and people persecute them for coming forward. For a lot of women, it may take a long time to even process themselves what happened, how wrong it was or that it wasn’t their fault, as rape culture is so ingrained into society. If you want to be an ally, when a victim comes forward, you listen. You check they’re ok. Consider the idea that they didn’t feel they had the support network to speak up until now, or their abuser has only just stopped having control of their financial situation or their career. There are so many reasons. There is a revolution happening at the moment, where women are standing in solidarity together, and the industries they're in can no longer ignore them or their stories. Its only until now that I’ve seen other women come forward and be believed and supported, that I have had the confidence to speak about my experiences. These women know it’s been a long time, they don’t need you reminding them of that. But the length of time doesn’t make what happened to them any less abhorrent or criminal, or their suffering any less real.
Z: There are people in the music industry who have a long history of sexual abuse and continue to abuse women today. There are men at the top of the industry who should no longer be working or be put in jail. How do you have the faith to pursue music knowing that many of the men who make decisions promote this type of culture? How has your perspective on this abusive culture changed since you’ve entered the industry?
C: Unfortunately, my opinion on working with men has changed, due to a wide spectrum of experiences. I am very quick to pick up on subtle behaviors from men that I work with, and have noticed that sexism is everywhere. From your manager encouraging you to flirt with someone you want to work with, to going into a meeting to discuss your own vision, and not being allowed a single chance to speak, to people assuming women don’t write or produce their own work. I love music, I don’t always love the music industry. The way it is set up allows a lot of corruption. There have been times that I have wondered if it is worth it, because of the sheer amount of shit you have to wade through as a woman in music, but I refuse to let that stop me. I am lucky now to only work with people who don’t subscribe to those behaviors and I intend to keep it 100% that way as it’s a way more positive, and creative environment.
Z: I heard you say in one of your earlier interviews that “If you’re in the public eye you’re always going to be a role model.” As you are in the public eye, how has becoming a role model made you want to speak out against abuse in the industry? What message do you want to send to those who perpetuate this behavior, and also to the young women entering the industry?
C: I think the word role model has become a dirty word. When I made that comment, I was 18, and a lot of people associated it with being a pristine, clean-cut figure, that doesn’t encourage sex, alcohol, and wears conservative outfits. People were really interested in the topic of girls wearing revealing outfits on stage like it was a bad thing. I remember interviewers discussing those topics in such a negative light and me feeling like that was the right way to think and respond to please them. I now realize that is absolute bullshit. How a woman behaves is completely her choice. The whole point of feminism is NOT to encourage women to do more or less of anything, it’s about women having the choice. I think there’s a lot of pressure on female artists to be “role models”, but the goalposts are constantly moving and it’s just another impossible standard for women. We are expected to be everything all of the time. Role models for me are people who refuse to subscribe to society’s l expectations, who are 100% fearlessly and authentically themselves, no matter whose or what prejudice it challenges. I am really grateful to have unlearned the idea that anyone has to present themselves in a certain way to be respected or put their bodies through hell to be beautiful. The idea that wearing revealing clothing makes you promiscuous perpetuates rape culture and it perpetuates victim blaming. I would never ever call myself a role model, but I hope that going forward I can use my platform to amplify the voices of people who deserve to be heard.
Z: You, along with others, have started the ‘Stop 2018’ campaign to end bullying, misogyny, harassment, and rape in the music industry. What sparked the formation of this campaign? What specifically do you hope to accomplish in the coming year?
C: This campaign was started with Michelle, Yasmin, and Helliene who also spoke on the BBC. It’s a place where women can anonymously sign up and share their stories. We want to make the issue more visible and real and force the industry to pay attention! We hope that this campaign will encourage the industry to start putting systems in place to prevent this behavior, for reports of sexual misconduct to be taken incredibly seriously and support for victims to be mandatory. There’s a lot of work to do, but the abuse of trust and power needs to stop, and ultimately, we hope 2018 will be that year.