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Promoting misogyny and sexual exploitation on George Street

in To Each Their Own by

It seems like little over a year ago that I was writing about local club ‘Allure’ and its sexist promotional events.

Oh wait, that’s because it was. March 2014, to be precise.

The club’s opening sparked scandal and social media fury when it became known the club had invited New York-based celebrity photographer sleazebag Kirill Bichutsky to appear at the event. Bichutsky is known for his sexually exploitative photos of young women, and last time he was here CBC confirmed the presence of underage women in some of the photos that emerged from the local event put off by Allure nightclub. The result was a (too-)short-lived suspension of the club’s liquor license; not even a slap on the wrist — more like a light tap on the finger, really.

Now Allure is back at it again with another appearance by Bichutsky planned for November, proving that not only did they learn nothing from last year’s controversy, but that they clearly care more about profits than about upholding their obligations as a socially responsible licensed drinking establishment.

This time there’s a more organized effort to stop Allure and its sexist practices. Local feminist collective SPAAT has been doing an admirable job of public education and outreach, raising awareness through the media and directing efforts toward an online petition to bar Bichutsky from being allowed to conduct his sexually exploitative activities in the city.

Time to take firm action against entrenched sexism in the local entertainment industry

What is up, after all, with the blatant sexism of those who are in positions of authority in the entertainment industry, both locally and elsewhere in Canada?

The current outrage surrounding Allure’s invite to Bichutsky evokes strong parallels over the public mobilization in Toronto this summer against misogynist rapper Action Bronson, whose songs and videos promote sexual assault, misogyny and transphobia, and who was scheduled to appear at the NXNE Festival in that city in July.

 Opposition to sexist and misogynist events in our community does not constitute censorship — it constitutes a collective grassroots demand for equality and respect for all members of our community.

When a petition popped up opposing his appearance, the festival organizers defiantly denounced it as censorship and refused to listen. But when the petition garnered over 40,000 signatures in a few days, when other artists began speaking out, and when the city also threatened to review its relationship with the festival, they changed their tune and ditched him from the lineup.

Locally, a scandal exploded only last month about the sexism of music festival promoters like those involved in September’s Harbourage debacle. There too, the men reacted with an attitude of self-righteousness and denial. When called out earlier this summer over the lack of female performers in other festivals, they did the same. And now, faced with the active promotion of sexual harassment and exploitation by one of the downtown bars, the men running the organizations that should be taking action are instead circling their wagons and firing off irresponsible platitudes to defend each other. A more clear example of a sexist old boys’ club would be hard to find.

A different scenario played out in Halifax earlier this year, however, when Bichutsky was slated to appear at the Argyle Bar and Grill in April. Bichutsky was hired by an event promoter, but when the club owner found out, they had the courage and good sense to refuse to allow him to appear at the club, and promoters had to cancel his invite.

Opposition to sexist and misogynist events in our community does not constitute censorship — it constitutes a collective grassroots demand for equality and respect for all members of our community. This is not a case of ‘free speech’ versus ‘feminism’ — it’s a case of men-who-make-money-by-sexually-exploiting-women versus a community that is demanding dignity and respect for everyone.

Taking action against misogyny

Bichutsky’s actions—and particularly his efforts to profit off of blatant sexism and the media frenzy that it evokes—are evocative of U.S.-based speaker Julien Blanc, who makes money by traveling the world and giving seminars on how to sexually assault and harass women (he uses the disingenuous terms ‘dating advice’ and ‘seduce’, much like Bichutsky calls his work ‘art’).

As public awareness of the impact of Blanc’s misogynist behaviour has grown, he’s been refused entry into Australia, Singapore, and the United Kingdom, while several other countries—including Canada—are reviewing whether to also deny him entry visas. These bans are a good example of how officials and public bodies can constructively promote anti-harassment initiatives by active enforcement of equality and human rights codes. Bichutsky ought to start coming under the same scrutiny.

 By its failure to take any serious action, the province sent a clear message to bars like Allure that sexual harassment and predation would be ignored by public officials.

The failure of official and regulatory bodies in this province to uphold a progressive, responsible stance on the matter is revealed glaringly by the fact this is not the first, but the second time the city has had to contend with Allure’s exploitative acts. In 2014, in response to the public outcry over photos of Bichutsky’s sexually exploitative photography of women—including underaged girls—the Liquor Board suspended Allure’s liquor license on a Monday and reinstated it on Friday, prior to the weekend rush and ensuring, no doubt, that their profits were unaffected. By its failure to take any serious action, the province sent a clear message to bars like Allure that sexual harassment and predation would be ignored by public officials.

Likewise, the George Street Association (GSA) has utterly failed in its ethical obligation to address the situation, bringing into sharp question the usefulness of an organization which sometimes seems to act more as an apologist for the misdoings of downtown bars than an umbrella organization for ensuring safe and responsible entertainment in the downtown core.

In its response to media the GSA denied its role and accountability in the situation, stating simply that it has no governing or sanctioning capacity and thus cannot do anything. This is patently false. The GSA has a very clear ability to use its prominent role to speak out against sexual exploitation and predation in the downtown core, and to influence its membership. It can expel members that fail to uphold values that are expected of establishments in this day and age.

It claims that Allure is breaking no laws, yet Bichutsky’s actions constitute a form of sexual harassment and most certainly contribute to what is known as ‘chilly climate’ — a situation where one is made to feel uncomfortable by being sexualized. The provincial human rights code contains no less than four sections dealing with sexual harassment and chilly climate.

 The [George Street Association] has a very clear ability to use its prominent role to speak out against sexual exploitation and predation in the downtown core…

By claiming that Allure is not breaking any laws by promoting sexual exploitation, chilly climate, and sexual harassment, the GSA and those who run it are simply indicating their refusal to acknowledge the importance of the province’s anti-sexual harassment policies and legislation. By doing so, they threaten not only the GSA with disrepute, but also its member organizations.

The members and partners of the organization—including the almost two dozen bars that comprise its membership, and the liquor companies which support it—ought to immediately distance themselves from this disgraceful response on the part of the GSA, which implicitly impacts the reputation of its members and partners, and casts a negative light on the entirety of the downtown entertainment district.

Perhaps the George Street Association is in need of reform, and perhaps it’s time for the City to intervene and restructure the GSA with a more diverse and representative leadership that is actually educated in the areas of equality and social responsibility, and with a clear mandate to ensure equity, diversity, and human rights in the events and activities that take place in our city’s core.

It’s time for action, not denial

But the focus right now is Allure and the sexually exploitative individual it’s contracted to appear.

Bichutsky responded via social media with a typically chauvinist and aggressive complaint that no one had attempted to engage in debate with him. He told local newspaper The Telegram that “Instead of going to the press or starting a petition, they could have come to me and said, ‘Kirill, we want to know why this is beneficial for our town, we think it’s harmful,’ and started an honest conversation. Nobody did that.”

This is a typical and disingenuous defence of men who are called out for their sexism. There is no obligation to start a debate with someone who is engaging in harassing, sexually exploitative activities, any more than there’s an obligation to debate someone who is acting racist or homophobic.

Bichutsky is simply trying to frame his activities as legitimate by insisting they are worthy of debate. They are not. One does not engage in ‘debate’ with Ku Klux Klan members who are burning crosses on people’s lawns. Nor does one engage in ‘debate’ with men who are photographing underage women and perpetrating sexually exploitative chilly climates. Oppressive and exploitative actions do not constitute art, free speech, or matter that is worthy of ‘debate’. Nor do the men committing these acts get to determine what’s up for ‘debate.’

“I have no hatred towards women,” he told The Telegram. But sexual harassment and chilly climate sexism—like racism and other forms of hatred and discrimination—“does not require an intention,” states the provincial human rights code.

The fact that official bodies are lightheartedly treating this matter as an issue worthy of ‘debate’—rather than one impacting the safety and well-being of women and indeed everyone in the city—demonstrates only the complicity of a male-biased officialdom in failing to uphold the province’s commitments around equality and anti-discrimination.

If Bichutsky is allowed into the country, then it is up to the province to act to ensure that the club that is promoting him is shut down. It is not only the reputation of George Street, but the reputation of provincial and municipal officials, and of their commitment to substantively fighting discrimination and sexual exploitation in this province, which is now at stake.’

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