Sexual Abuse and Harassment in the Music Industry and Its Effect on Musicians' Health
Updated: Jul 23
This post will discuss sexual abuse and harassment. This post may be triggering, especially if you are a survivor of sexual abuse and harassment. This post is meant as an educational resource. If you find yourself in need of help, resources and helplines are linked at the bottom of this post. Remember, you can call 988 at any time if you are experiencing a mental health emergency.
I wish a post like this were never necessary but that's not the world we live in. And I'm not going to shy away from hard things because when topics remain in the dark, evil continues to flourish.
A Little Background
Research has long noted that female musicians experience more pain and health problems than their male counterparts. And as you comb through these articles researchers offer reasons for these differences which includes everything from women being smaller to the fact that instruments were standardized at a time when most musicians were male, and therefore may not be ergonomically appropriate for females.
However, I'd like to propose a long-overlooked facet that may in fact be contributing to higher rates of health problems among female musicians
Sexual abuse and harassment (SAH) has been well-documented as contributing to mental and physical health problems such as anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), headaches, and gastrointestinal issues. Extensive research has been conducted in medicine and engineering on SAH in their communities. Still, very little research has been conducted in the musical community, though anecdotally, we know it is happening.
You don't have to look far to find the allegations either. Headlines from the Los Angeles Opera, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and the Cleveland Orchestra, among others detail confirmed and/or alleged sexual misconduct. Juilliard, The University of Michigan, and Berklee College of Music are also among those in higher education with public alleged and confirmed instances of SAH.
In the UK, the Musicians' Union survey on Sexual Harassment found the following:
48% of musicians had experienced sexual harassment in the workplace
Of that 48%, 85% did not report it.
Over 50% witnessed sexual harassment in the workplace
In Australia, an independent investigation into SAH in the music industry found:
55% of musicians had been sexually abused (72% were women)
Of the 55%, 82% didn't report.
71% of those who did report said their career was negatively impacted.
In the U.S., researchers looked at sexual harassment among female brass players. Respondents communicated the following:
“I was sexually harassed by my undergrad horn professor, and it was debilitating. It’s been a couple years since I have been in contact with him, but it still affects my playing and my life.”
“I experienced SEVERE trauma from my high school band director who sexually harassed me and embarrassed and degraded me from the podium.”
So what does all of this have to do with musicians' health?
There is a well-known model that helps us understand the factors that play a role in health and diseases – it's called the Biopsychosocial model. And from this model, we understand that health and lack of health are comprised of three factors: biological, psychological, and social.
One area I want to focus on today is trauma and its effect on health.
Trauma and Musicians' Health
As I mentioned earlier in the blog, sexual abuse and harassment can lead to many physical and mental health problems. Recent research shows that women who experienced workplace sexual harassment:
had greater odds of stage 1 or 2 high blood pressure
As we know from the little research available, women are more likely to experience workplace harassment in the music industry. And we know that SAH is proven to have detrimental effects on women's health. Therefore, we should consider this common workplace problem when addressing musicians' health. [Note: This should never happen; the word common was used because SAH is unfortunately very common in the music community.]
In addition to the aforementioned bulleted points, research from 2012 shows that women's neck pain in particular was, "significantly associated with unwanted sexual attention." And, that "interventions to prevent harassment in the workplace may help reduce musculoskeletal disorders in the workplace."
It should be understood that we should attempt to reduce and hopefully end workplace harassment simply because no one should ever experience such disrespect and harm. Simultaneously, it is prominent that those studying workplace health recognize that reducing SAH has an effect on pain.
Bringing It Back to Musicians' Health
When examining risk factors for playing-related musculoskeletal disorders in pianists, researchers determined that 60% of pianists' pain was comprised of the following:
This left 40% of unknown causes. I would wager that if and when researchers start examining sexual abuse and harassment among musicians in relation to their health problems, they would find not only correlation but also partial causation.
Sexual abuse and harassment is a serious problem in the music industry and a severe threat to the health and wellbeing of musicians.
To those who have lived through this reality, I'm so incredibly sorry. You deserved better. To those for whom this was new information, I hope you will join the fight to creating safer workplaces for musicians!
Final Note: [ The author recognizes that workplace abuse and harassment can happen to anyone of any gender and that it can be perpetrated by anyone of any gender. This post was specifically designed to address the discrepancy in reasons given for why female musicians have more pain. Therefore, the focus was largely on women who have experienced workplace abuse and harassment.]
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Emergency Mental Health Number: 988
Sexual Abuse Hotline: 1-800-656-4673
RAINN Website: https://www.rainn.org/resources
Borrell-Carrió , F., Epstein, R. M., & Suchman, A. L. (n.d.). The biopsychosocial model 25 years later: Principles, practice, and scientific inquiry. Annals of family medicine. Retrieved January 16, 2023, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15576544/
Boulton, M. (2022, August 31). Sexual harassment and bullying widespread in Australian music industry, says New report. The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved January 16, 2023, from https://www.smh.com.au/culture/music/sexual-harassment-and-bullying-widespread-in-australian-music-industry-says-new-report-20220831-p5bec2.html
Dodge, S. (2022, March 23). Rock 'n' roll professor, University of Michigan finally served in sexual harassment lawsuit. mlive. Retrieved January 16, 2023, from https://www.mlive.com/news/ann-arbor/2022/03/rock-n-roll-professor-university-of-michigan-finally-served-in-sexual-harassment-lawsuit.html
Fighting sexual harassment in music industry. The Musicians' Union. (n.d.). Retrieved January 16, 2023, from https://musiciansunion.org.uk/campaigns/end-sexual-harassment-at-work
Gross, S. A., Musgrave, G., Canning, R., & Thompson, F. (2016). Can Music Make You Sick? Final Report and Recommendations. London; Help Musicians UK.
LA Opera Independent Investigation: Summary of Findings and Recommendations. LA Opera. (n.d.). Retrieved January 16, 2023, from https://www.laopera.org/about-us/press-room/press-releases-and-statements/statement-summary-of-findings/
Larimer, S. (2021, October 27). Boston's Berklee College of Music Reeling amid sexual misconduct allegations involving professors. The Washington Post. Retrieved January 16, 2023, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/grade-point/wp/2017/11/14/bostons-berklee-college-of-music-reeling-amid-sexual-misconduct-allegations-involving-professors/
Schmalenberger, S., & Maddox, P. (2019). Female brass musicians address gender parity, gender equity, and sexual harassment: A preliminary report on data from the Brass Bodies Study. Societies, 9(1), 20. https://doi.org/10.3390/soc9010020
Stock, S. R., & Tissot, F. (2011). Are there health effects of harassment in the workplace? A gender-sensitive study of the relationships between work and Neck Pain. Ergonomics, 55(2), 147–159. https://doi.org/10.1080/00140139.2011.598243
Thurston, R. C., Chang, Y., Matthews, K. A., von Känel, R., & Koenen, K. (2019). Association of Sexual Harassment and sexual assault with midlife women’s mental and Physical Health. JAMA Internal Medicine, 179(1), 48. https://doi.org/10.1001/jamainternmed.2018.4886
Tsioulcas, A. (2018, March 3). Sexual assault claim against conductor Dutoit is credible, Boston Symphony says. NPR. Retrieved January 16, 2023, from https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2018/03/02/590496543/sexual-assault-claim-against-conductor-dutoit-is-credible-boston-symphony-says
Tsioulcas, A. (2018, October 24). Cleveland Orchestra fires 2 leading musicians after sexual misconduct investigation. NPR. Retrieved January 16, 2023, from https://www.npr.org/2018/10/24/660248392/cleveland-orchestra-fires-two-leading-musicians-after-sexual-misconduct-investig
Tsioulcas, A. (2022, December 13). Former music students accuse two Juilliard teachers of sexual misconduct. NPR. Retrieved January 16, 2023, from https://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2022/12/13/1142452091/former-music-students-accuse-two-juilliard-teachers-of-sexual-misconduct
Yoshimura, E., Paul, P. M., Aerts, C., & Chesky, K. (2006). Risk factors for piano-related pain among college students. Medical Problems of Performing Artists, 21(3), 118–125. https://doi.org/10.21091/mppa.2006.3024