By Kaytie Coughlin
Nothing gave me more strength and feeling of acceptance than Punk Rock and Emo Music did growing up. In fact, it gave me so much strength and belonging that my confidence remained through adulthood. My parents, supportive as they were, clearly hoped it was a phase. They did not understand what it meant. (Which I suppose means I did my job correctly in terms of rebellion, right?)
But I did not understand either.
From my very early to late teens I felt cool when a guy would grab me by the waist at a show and kiss me hard on the mouth. This generally lasted anywhere from a few seconds to a several minutes. Sometimes I would let them feel me up. Generally over the bra. These men occasionally asked me how old I was. I’d tell them the truth and often ask them the same. Usually these guys were anywhere from twenty to twenty six. Even once they knew my age this did not stop them.
And, I liked it.
I remember one guy said, “If my friend comes around tell him you’re at least nineteen.” And we had a laugh about it. I very clearly remember being newly sixteen at the time. Sometimes I even pursued these older men. There were a few who declined to fool around or buy me beer. There was also one who chased me down and someone else had to put a stop to it (then kiss me). But mostly we graciously obliged each other.
In my adult life I ended up dating several guys also into punk rock. We’d talk about these sorts of experiences. It was almost par for the course that both of us had made out with people or fooled around at shows. There was a certain level of understanding that this was not necessarily divulging too much information about our sexual histories but a unique, communal experience. We described these encounters at shows as psuedosexual.
The boyfriend or guy I had around at the time of these conversations could agree there was nothing wrong with what had happened regardless of the age difference. These guys and I had even joked that maybe we would have messed around at a show despite the age gap had we known each other then.
“There’s nothing wrong with it,” one of us said. “There’s a huge difference between someone grabbing you at a show and someone dragging you to their car and raping you.”
“There is,” I said.
Yes, there is. But that doesn’t make either okay. Especially, if the girl is under age. She feels cool and mature beyond her years when her lips touch his. He feels omnipotent.
And somehow, in my adult life, no man has grabbed me and kissed me at a show.
I never learned to see my experiences differently until I discovered ‘Surviving R. Kelly’ on Netflix. Given that I was born in 1993 I had heard the rumors about R. Kelly even in grade school. “Did you hear? He peed on a twelve year old!” (I also heard the Bill Clinton stories around that time and was horrified.)
What could possess a man to act like that? I remember thinking. Hip Hop was never my thing, but these stories about Kelly were everywhere. And of course as a teenager, I knew all about G.G. Allin: The heroin addict rapist who would shit on stage. And how could we not mention that he allegedly had the smallest penis in the world.
“But how could he rape someone if he had the smallest penis in the world?”
Regardless, I refused to listen to the late artist or his projects.
And yet, I had no problem with what I had condoned happening to and around me growing up.
Before coming across ‘Surviving R. Kelly’ this past Summer, I had watched ‘The Punk Singer’, a documentary about Kathleen Hanna, one of the founders of the Riot Grrrl movement. During the beginning of the Covid Quarantine this March I watched it again. This was probably the fourth or fifth time in my life that I had seen it. In recent years I would feel myself start to tear up when listening to Riot Grrrl. I couldn’t understand why. It’s upbeat and powerful. It’s made for strong women who have an affinity for both feminism and punk rock. It’s literal proof that women have always been liberated in this community.
And yet, the last time I watched the documentary about Kathleen Hanna I paused the film and cried for a good twenty minutes. There has to be some reason for this, I thought.
Although my experiences with these men at shows were consensual, they were not right. I did nothing wrong by kissing them or even letting them feel me up. What was wrong was my letting myself believe well into my adult life that what they did was okay. No feminist should have the mentality of “This is what we do. This is part of my culture.” This should never have been a part of my culture.
Just like Kelly’s victims, we were all young and just trying to seek acceptance from the people we felt were a part of our community. It is no one’s fault. Not even the parents. There are several statements in ‘Surviving R. Kelly’ from parents of the victims claiming that onlookers blame them. When I was at my youngest my mother was at some of these punk shows with me standing in the back. She trusted me and would never intend for me to make out with someone much older even if I thought I wanted to. I was even there with another girl my age. (And believe me she was not having it with these boys or the drinking.)
In no way am I saying that I experienced the level of trauma as the girls whom R. Kelly abused. But what I am saying is as a liberated feminist who still loves going to shows, I will no longer condone this type of behavior. I would be giving into white power to believe that what these white men in my world are or were doing is entirely different than what R. Kelly does. We have made it acceptable for these white men to assert themselves sexually with young girls and that needs to end.
Perhaps that’s why I cried during ‘The Punk Singer’.
Although I never believed that misogyny was specific to any given race I will go ahead and say this anyway: The Patriarchy knows now limits. I was too enamored with these blue eyed boys, their skin liken to that of a graffitied moon, to see where I went wrong.
I would also like to quote Tarana Burke, founder of the #MeToo Movement, in Episode 1 of ‘Surviving R. Kelly II: The Reckoning’, “There’s no demographic that you can name that has not been touched by sexual violence.”
Hopefully if we can all come to an understanding about misogyny in our cultures we can put an end to abuse of power.
Kaytie Coughlin is a twenty-seven year old writer from New Jersey and currently living in Austin, Texas. She graduated from the University of North Carolina in 2019 with a Bachelor’s in English and Creative Writing. In her free time she enjoys studying pop culture, liberal politics, watching obscure and cult horror films, reading, and running. Kaytie also has a collection of personal essays she hopes to publish one day.