BY SARAH BERMAN | VICE.COM
As soon as the missing person posters started circulating for Vancouver DJ Zachary McLean Webb, the city’s party scene braced for bad news.
Webb was one of seven Vancouver men named in a list of alleged sexual abusers that was widely circulated on social media last month. Was his disappearance related? Friends and observers could only speculate, as he failed to show up for work a full day before the list was posted. As a wave of #metoo posts picked up momentum, so did fears of suicide. Four days after he was first accused of rape on Facebook, Webb’s family confirmed his death.
Media reports have painted the incident as a cautionary tale of “hashtag activism” gone off the rails, a “definitely defamatory” campaign that may have dealt out more pain than justice. Although experts caution against attributing suicide to any singular event, many people involved couldn’t help but connect the dots. “There is a controversy surrounding my son’s death, and yes, that makes it harder,” Zach’s mom wrote in a recent Facebook post that mentions an ongoing police investigation. “Take care with your words, your posts, your shares. We are not judge, jury and executioner.”
Meanwhile, the women who outed their alleged rapists have been called bullies and murderers, and have been threatened with legal action. Webb’s friends have even made comparisons to the Amanda Todd case, where a teen committed suicide after being bullied and blackmailed. But if you ask many women working in the nightlife industry, “the list” has sparked a reckoning that badly needed to happen. It made something insidious and invisible now impossible to ignore.
VICE spoke to six women who recently named their alleged abusers online, and many more people associated with Vancouver’s after hours party culture. Together, their accounts suggest some disturbing patterns of behaviour that extend well beyond one person or incident—powerful older men giving out drinks, drugs, and club gigs, which allowed them to systematically take advantage of young, sometimes teenaged, girls.
A nightlife photographer VICE spoke to was 16 when one popular DJ hired her to take club photos. He was nearly twice her age at the time, and frequently hosted after-parties at his house. “Being that young, feeling like these older guys wanted to have us around and be part of that scene was super cool,” she told VICE. “There was just a lot of alcohol and drug use.”
On two occasions she says the DJ allegedly forced himself on her sexually, and for years afterward she felt guilt for not speaking up or fighting back. “Maybe at 16 I wanted to make out or something,” she told VICE. “I had never had a boyfriend, I didn’t know what love or consent were. I never really said no or tried to fight him off—I was just very disconnected from it.”
The photographer told VICE she didn’t have the words or emotional support to process what had happened to her, and she also didn’t want to lose her position in the scene. “Ten years ago it was very different, there wasn’t the same awareness there is now,” she said. “At the time our friends thought the only kind of rape was the kind where a guy in a hoodie breaks into your house—the Law & Order kind.”
She continued working his party, and for a while neither of them brought up the incident. “After it happened the first time, he didn’t act any differently. He made me feel like nothing bad had happened,” she said.
But some months later, almost the same thing allegedly happened again. The second time the photographer says she was passed out. “I remember just waking up to it happening,” she told VICE. “From what I do remember of it, he was very strong and very rough.”
Facebook posts by multiple women viewed by VICE make similar allegations against the same DJ.
Now 27, the photographer says she did not come forward about the alleged rape for attention, social status, career advancement, or to get back at someone she disliked. When she joined in with her own #metoo post last month, she says she did it to back up the stories of other women who were being attacked for daring to name their abusers. Her story echoed another widely-read post that alleged the same man assaulted another woman when she was 17 and passed out.
“I just want people to know that women aren’t lying. I don’t want to relive it every second of every day. It’s hard even to remember because I was so young, there were substances involved, and you tend to disassociate when bad stuff happens.”
A lawyer representing the DJ told VICE he has not been charged with any crime and “denies the serious wrongdoing of which he has been accused.”
The photographer acknowledges some whispers have followed the disclosures. The assumption that women like her simply regret their own decisions, and are looking for a way to blame others, is exactly the kind of sentiment she and others are trying to fight. The conversation around what qualifies as meaningful consent is still shifting, and she hopes men will take a more active role in questioning and confronting other men.
On first glance, Webb’s death has blown up this sensitive conversation. Emotions are running extra high, and men on the DJ circuit VICE spoke to say they’re feeling nervous about saying anything wrong.
But if you ask the women who allege they were hurt by Webb, they say his death doesn’t change a thing. Police, private confrontation and other avenues for recourse failed them, which is why they sought safety and accountability in numbers.
Two of the women VICE spoke to described sexual assaults by Webb. Both requested anonymity for fear of backlash and legal action.
One woman said she made an anonymous police report about Webb in June. She suspects she was drugged two years ago at a small post-club gathering, and was allegedly groped by Webb and another man while she could barely move. “I never asked for sex, I didn’t consent at all,” she told VICE.
A lawyer representing the second man said her client “has never been the subject of charges related to any such allegations.”
Webb’s accuser said it took years to tell anybody about what happened. Now that her experience has been shared publicly, she feels “a weight off her shoulders” seeing so many more women encouraged to come forward.
“If the cops aren’t going to do anything, unfortunately this is the avenue you have to take,” Erica Lapadat-Janzen, local artist and former roommate of Webb, told VICE. “The time for being silent is over.”
Some of the city’s longtime nightlife fixtures have been notably quiet, though privately they told VICE there’s a need for new talent, new parties, and more women calling shots.
But the women VICE spoke to say there’s more work to be done. The accusers who have felt safe coming forward are established photographers, musicians and artists—most of them white. For each woman who has named an abuser, there are other non-binary, trans, women of colour who were too vulnerable to come forward, Lapadat-Janzen told VICE.
Women say the outpouring of support is starting to outweigh the doubters. Just about everyone in the industry has been horrified by the scale and scope of the allegations, and insiders are now taking a hard look at the compromising power relationships between drunk young women and the men who have run the scene for a decade or more.
There’s talk of a femme and non-binary run festival later this month, a direct callout to the “boys club” the women say enabled serial predators, and caused undue harm.
“I do feel sad and horrible for Zach’s family and friends,” one woman told VICE. “But sexual assault survivors have much higher chance of experiencing suicidal thoughts, or even following through with suicide, compared to those who rape.”
“The Amanda Todd case, I think that comparison is super unfair. These are our stories and experiences,” she said. “I can’t understand how coming forward with the truth is bullying.”