Harassment will continue until institutions are willing to take difficult decisions, says Jonathan Knott.
Since the #MeToo movement emerged, we are seeing more complaints of sexual harassment from many walks of life. But why are they so prevalent in classical music? One reason is the licence society has historically given to successful people in creative fields. There is a vague but widely held sentiment that such figures – whether in music, theatre, film or elsewhere – are somehow above normal standards of behaviour.
It’s plausible that tutors at the Royal Academy of Music (RAM) - currently the subject of multiple complaints - have benefited from this. But beyond this, studying for a career as a classical performer brings together several factors that lend themselves to exploitation. Any musician at conservatoire level will have been accustomed to disciplined practice from a young age and many may not be comfortable challenging authority. They are studying in highly competitive field, where rocking the boat could have serious career repercussions. Perhaps above all, the learning process involves developing an intimate emotional bond between two people, often without external observers. When treated responsibly, this can be a powerful and mutually rewarding experience – but it’s also one that has great potential for harm.
It’s far from clear whether the independent review launched by RAM will be enough to deal with this problem – and in any case, it’s wider than any one conservatoire. Many institutions are reluctant to face up to abuse within their ranks because of the upheaval and bad publicity that’s likely to follow. It’s far easier to play down complaints or take ineffective bureaucratic actions.
But such evasion perpetuates the problem. Harassment and the suffering it causes won’t go away until the sector takes difficult decisions and makes clear what behaviour it will and won’t accept. It takes courage to speak out. So when complaints are made, the least we can do is to take them seriously.