Vicky Spratt | Deputy Editor | Thursday, 21 January 2016

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How These Women Used Twitter To Out A Senior Music Exec Accused Of Sexual Assault

The Debrief: Amber Coffman, of Dirty Projectors, tweeted about her experiences on Monday and many other women followed suit, in a public show of solidarity

This week the story of multiple accusations of sexual assault and harassment in the music industry began to unravel on Monday night when Amber Coffman, of American band Dirty Projectors, tweeted about her experiences. At the centre of it is Heathcliff Berru the (now former) CEO of Life or Death PR. 

Life or Death had many high profile clients including D’Angelo and Tyler, the Creator. It also formerly represented Frank Ocean, according to The Fader

Amber Coffman tweeted about an incident where Berru ‘rubbed her ass and bit her hair’, in front of several of her male friends, saying she was remembering it and felt that now was the time to speak out publically,  

She wrote ‘still makes me so damn mad thinking about it’ and went on to say ‘still mad at myself as well for not punching him in the nose, but I totally froze up. Weird survival instinct I guess.’ Finally, Coffman said ‘I’ve been told many women have had scary stories about him for years but are scared to speak up. And dudes overlook it and keep hiring him.’

Coffman confronted the complicity of others in the industry saying ‘tired of sketch ass dudes and sexual predators getting a pass from their ‘bros’. ‘Grow a spine and hold your friends accountable’, she said.  

 Once Coffman’s tweets went out others began to show their support and confirm that they too had had similar experiences with Berru. Beth Martinez, an LA-based music publicist, was one, 

Beth also wrote of how she was ‘too ashamed to tell anyone for years’ and said it took her ‘years to realize how fucked up that was.’ 

Another, Faith Silva also accused Berru of drugging women on Twitter,

Judy Silverman of Motormouth Media added to the conversation, aligning Berru’s behaviour and the industry’s silence about it with Bill Cosby. She also said that even with the public shaming of Beru and show of solidarity from multiple women both within the industry and from outside of it, many were still too afraid to speak out for fear of losing their jobs, 

Since these women came forward to share their stories Heathcliff Berru has stepped down as CEO of Life or Death PR, issuing the following statement via Billboard: 

'There have been several reports about my alleged inappropriate behavior which deserve a response. I am deeply sorry for those who I have offended by my actions and how I have made certain women feel. If I crossed the line of decency or respectfulness in situations when I was drunk and under the influence, there is no excuse of course. To be clear, while my conduct may have been inappropriate, I have never drugged anyone or engaged in that type of behavior.  Nevertheless, I do not want to be the type of person who would let drugs or alcohol take command of his life and compromise how he treats people. Yet I have been this person and it’s time to put a stop to all of this. Create a world with one less inappropriate man.

I have been fighting a losing battle against drugs and alcohol for many years and will be checking into a rehabilitation facility in the hope that I can improve my chances of winning that fight. A year ago, I was confronted by a peer and began to try to clean up and make things right with therapy and with an eye towards quitting the addiction. The shame and sadness feels as strong now as it did then and I am making an immediate change.  

I have already lost my wife, abandoned my family, and destroyed those I love as a result of my shameful, embarrassing, unacceptable behavior. I deeply apologize to them as well. By no means do they deserve to feel the pain of my actions. Please give them the space they deserve. They were the light at the end of a dark tunnel. I was married during some of these years and hid my problems from everyone well. Especially her and her family. Totally inexcusable. 

In no way do these allegations reflect on Life or Death PR, its staff, or anyone associated with the company. These are my issues, not theirs. I could not be more proud of the company and what it stands for. That being said I have stepped down as the CEO and relinquishing all responsibility to the current president, Nick Dierl. The company shouldn't have to deal with this distraction and I want Nick and the rest of the team to continue to do their good work while I take care of myself.'

 What’s clear from Twitter is that people in the music industry were aware of stories about Berru’s alleged behaviour for years, but that this did not stop people from working with him. Now that these women have spoken out many of Life or Death’s former clients have severed ties with the company.  

Coffman called on men to stand along side women when it comes to sexual harassment and assault in professional environments: ‘men in power need 2 have our backs’ she said, ‘fuck the boys club’.  

Sadly, these stories are not unusual. They’re not exclusive to this one man at this one company. As Coffman said ‘silencing + not believing women is deeply ingrained’, and this is why in the music industry as well as in many other workplaces women feel the need to put up and shut up for fear of damaging their prospects. Of course Berru’s behaviour reflects poorly on him and on his company but what it also shows is how difficult it is for anyone who’s been victimised, assaulted or harassed to speak up, even today. 

The Debrief spoke to a 26 year-old young woman, who’s in a UK-based band and has worked in the music industry throughout her 20s. She told us that sadly the sort of behaviour that Berru is accused of is as widespread as it is insidious. 

We asked her whether she felt there was a culture of silence in the music industry, she told us about her experiences,

‘I've been touched up by PRs, had a guy touch me in my sleep and then publically name me explicitly and talk about having sex with me without my consent. I then encountered this person professionally and my boss, knowing what had happened, just turned a blind eye and said it was unfortunate but nothing they could do…’

She went on to tell us about how she feels in light of the women speaking out against Berru’s behaviour, 

‘I was discussing this with my boyfriend yesterday in light of the recent news stories, and trying to explain why it's so hard to react in the way that you rationally should/later wish you had- when you come across unacceptable behaviour it just shocks you and you don't know how to react... it feels embarrassing and as though if you make a fuss it could provoke the situation, it's especially awkward with people you know in a professional capacity... "did they mean to... did I misread the situation... maybe this is normal??". It's not consciously thinking about how it would affect your career as much as them being in a position of power that legitimises their actions and makes you doubt yourself.’

‘I'm not good at expressing myself about things like this, but I'm very glad other people do, and I have so much respect for them for it. I know it's selfish/weak, but I also feel like making a fuss about incidents can exacerbate the stress and trauma of the incident for the victim, when it's easier to just leave stuff behind. I've had more serious, non music industry related sexual assault too, and dealt with it in the same way, which is bad because there's no justice/re education to stop repeat offences, but means I don't let the consequences take up my space in my life either, and with prosecution rates so low.... It's really great to see people actually holding Berru accountable.’ 

‘It sounds unconvincing when I type it, but I've generally thought of staying silent and choosing to focus on other things as my way of taking back control of these incidents, but when you hear multiple people come out and share stories about someone who has been abusing women for years it is really powerful and inspiring.’

Coffman herself said yesterday that the experience of speaking out about the harassment she suffered has been ‘powerful and touching’. She added that ‘this has to be the beginning of a vry long examination + conversation’ about harassment and sexism in the music industry. 

Social media has become a powerful platform for women to speak out about sexual harassment and assault, as porn performer Stoya did last year when discussing her former co-star James Dean’s behaviour. After she tweeted that he had assaulted her other women came out and said it had happened to them as well. In so many industries there is still, today, a gender-based skew of power which so many people suffer as a result of.

Outing the perpetrators of harassment and assault online has proven to be an efficient way of effecting action in the first instance (Life or Death PR swiftly lost many clients as a result of the allegations against their CEO, Berru himself issued a statement not long after and the company has since dissolved) and showing people that they are not alone, of encouraging them to speak out in the knowledge that they will be supported. 

 The Debrief could not contact Life or Death PR for a comment as their website no longer functions

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Fighting Sexual Assault In 2015: How Far Have We Come?

Follow Vicky on Twitter @Victoria_Spratt

Tags: Sexual Assault