Allegations of rampant sex assault in Vancouver's club scene stir debate on the perils of hashtag activism
Women around the world have been speaking out about their experiences at the hands of powerful harassers and abusers. But the social-media outings may pose their own problems
Meghan Murphy has spent a lot of time hanging out in Vancouver's club scene – or, as she more aptly describes it, its hipster bar scene. Concentrated on the east side, it is a tight-knit world of DJs and partiers who move from bars and clubs to after-hours events. Everyone seems to know each other or know friends of friends.
It is also a scene, she says, with liberal use of drugs and alcohol, where women are given free drinks and treated as sex objects and where DJs – generally men – are revered and wield a lot of power.
"There's a lot of older men in the scene and a lot of very young women who are eager to be cool and be popular and be in with the cool DJs," says Ms. Murphy, founder and editor of the Canadian website Feminist Current, and a Vancouverite who has been around clubs for years.
"It's a scene that has a lot of drinking and a lot of partying; so, therefore, a scene where young women are vulnerable to predators – because they're wasted and because these are older men and they're in the position to take advantage and do take advantage."
In recent weeks, women around the world have used the hashtag activism of #metoo to speak out about their experiences at the hands of powerful harassers and abusers. In mid-October, a Vancouver woman using only her first name posted on Facebook that she had been victimized by a one-time friend and fellow clubber. Another woman, who works in clubs and used her full name, followed with a Facebook post that included a list of seven names she had compiled from other women's accounts. That prompted an outpouring on social media, with allegations of rampant sexual assault on the club circuit and personal stories from women who say they were raped.
The posts named DJ Zachary Webb, and news that he had killed himself – although it is not known if he knew about the public accusations against him before he died – has also led to a discussion about women's right to speak out and an accused person's right to due process.
"If none of us talk, it's silence," says Erica Lapadat-Janzen, an artist familiar with the club scene whose Facebook account was frozen for a time after she posted screenshots of the list to document what was happening. Facebook sent her a message reading: "You've repeatedly posted things that aren't allowed on Facebook."
A lawyer who specializes in defamation said that as much as sexual assault urgently needs to be addressed, the social-media outing is problematic.
"I haven't seen a phenomenon like this since my reading about the Chinese Cultural Revolution," Alan McConchie said.
He said there is a danger that a mob mentality can take over, encouraging people to pile on with secondhand accounts of assaults and accusations as they see others doing it.
What is happening now, he said, is "definitely defamatory."
And, he said, "just because it's a mass movement doesn't make it any more defensible."
For people in the club scene, the past two weeks have opened a wound that no one is quite sure how to heal.
"If somebody wants to be heard, there should be a way," said the woman who posted the first personal story accusing Mr. Webb of raping her after a long friendship with him.
The 28-year-old artist, who sometimes works in clubs, spoke to The Globe and Mail on the grounds that she not be named because she feared online abuse in the aftermath of the incident.
She said she feels that, for her and many other women, going public on social media is the only way to draw attention to what is going on.
The woman who posted the list of seven men that followed the first post included a slash beside each name. Each slash indicated a report she had received from someone alleging assault against that person. The list prompted a discussion on Reddit.
It is not clear whether Mr. Webb died before or after his name appeared on the Facebook list. He did not show up for his regular DJ gig at the Cinema pub on the night of Tuesday, Oct. 17, and was found on the Friday of that week. The list with his name on it was published in the interim. His date of death was listed as Oct. 17.
The club has said it received no complaints about the DJ, and police would not confirm any investigation to The Globe.
Mr. Webb's mother, a prominent casting director who also runs a free theatre program for young people in the Downtown Eastside, put a heartbreaking post on Facebook, noting the suicide of her "beautiful boy."
"Take care with your words, your posts, your shares. We are not judge, jury and executioner," Maureen Webb wrote on Oct. 25, indicating that she would say more publicly when a police investigation is finished.
She added: "I don't want to risk the chance that my words might incite harm, misery or retaliation on anyone else, as there is enough pain already."
Other exchanges on social media have been far less kind.
Some have called the woman who produced the list a murderer, although it was not posted until the day after Mr. Webb failed to show up at work.
Many other people commented on the Facebook post to support the action, saying the woman was "brave" to have listened to the many stories of other young women and then publicized them. A few said Mr. Webb's death was justified.
The list and comments on the Facebook page stayed public for more than a week before being taken down last Thursday.
"It's been horrifying and emotionally draining. It's really painful," said Ana Rose Carrico, a director of the Red Gate Arts Society, which runs two venues, one on Granville Island, and one on East Hastings Street. The society is known among club-goers as socially progressive and more activist on sexual-assault and harassment issues in clubs.
Ms. Carrico said there have been call-outs of predators or assault before, but not in such explicit ways as in the past two weeks. As well, the extent of the problem has not been made so apparent before.
"I think it's been a real wake-up call," she said. "We've been relying on call-outs and ostracism in this community, but that's not enough."
Ms. Carrico said Red Gate, which runs its clubs as a non-profit, has worked very hard to minimize problem behaviour and likely gets more buy-in because its volunteers and patrons are more socially aware than those of commercial establishments.
She said the society has occasionally posted notices in the clubs and on its website reminding people about the behaviour it expects from everyone during events, with a focus on respect for women. There are plans to ensure that notice is now posted for every event.
As the issue was erupting, the Cobalt, a Downtown Eastside hotel with a bar, posted a note on Instagram: "If you ever feel unsafe, please tell the bar staff. Zero tolerance for Creeps," it read.
The organization Good Night Out Vancouver, a non-profit that does sexual assault education for people who work at clubs, which has focused for two years on efforts to prevent sexual assaults in the city's clubs, conducted a workshop at the Vogue Theatre this week on how to prevent sexual assault. Some companies are requiring their employees to attend such events.
People involved in the nightclub scene in other cities have taken notice too – certainly in Toronto, home base of DJ and musician Chhavi Nanda, who goes by the stage name Chippy Nonstop.
Ms. Nanda organizes DJ workshops to address what she calls a gender crisis in the industry – particularly noticeable in Vancouver, where she used to live, she says.
She says there is a correlation between the lack of women in senior jobs in the industry and allegations of harassment and abuse. "If there's women in the forefront, they will be in a power position enough to speak up," she says.
She and other women The Globe spoke with note that this is not unique to this particular scene.
Ms. Murphy says the solution has to go beyond hashtag activism, and beyond the city's bars and clubs.
"I totally understand why these women would take to social media to try to find accountability and some form of justice," she said. But she added: "I don't know that we will find justice through social media."
Frances Bula is a freelance reporter