Note: This article contains descriptions of alleged emotional abuse and inappropriate sexual conduct.
“Please forgive me for being hurt,” Win Butler wrote in the early morning of August 27, 2017, to a woman who was ignoring his texts asking for sex. According to screenshots reviewed by Pitchfork, the message is one of hundreds exchanged between Butler and a woman who asked to use the pseudonym Sabina over the course of a three-year sexual relationship that she now characterizes as emotionally manipulative.
Sabina approached Pitchfork after our August publication of a report in which four people accused the Arcade Fire frontman of sexual misconduct taking place between 2016 and 2020. Three women detailed relationships in which they believe Butler used his status as a famous musician to pressure them into sexual encounters either in person or over the phone, and the fourth person, who is gender fluid, described two instances of alleged sexual assault involving unwanted kissing and touching.
Butler acknowledged having sexual interactions with the four people but maintained that the encounters were consensual. In a statement issued through crisis PR specialist Risa Heller, he wrote, "I have long struggled with mental health issues and the ghosts of childhood abuse. In my 30s, I started drinking as I dealt with the heaviest depression of my life after our family experienced a miscarriage. None of this is intended to excuse my behavior, but I do want to give some context and share what was happening in my life around this time." (Régine Chassagne, Butler’s bandmate and wife, issued a statement in support of her husband as well.) A representative for Butler from Arcade Fire’s music publicity firm, Nasty Little Man, did not provide an on-the-record response to Pitchfork’s requests for comment on Sabina’s allegations prior to deadline for this story.
In August, following the publication of Pitchfork’s initial report, a Canadian lawmaker called for those who believe Butler victimized them to file formal complaints. (There has been no public indication of any complaints filed.) The following day, Feist announced that she would be dropping out as the opening act on Arcade Fire’s 2022 European tour, with a statement citing the allegations against Butler as her motivation. (In October, Beck also canceled his planned performances as opener on the band's subsequent tour of North America. He did not offer an explanation as to why.) The tours have otherwise continued as scheduled, with no reported instances of Butler commenting on the matter. In the time since the allegations were published, Arcade Fire have posted only once on social media, to announce another show, and have locked comments on Instagram posts.
Earlier this month, the Recording Academy announced that Arcade Fire’s WE was nominated for the 2023 Grammy Award for Best Alternative Album. The band is also billed as a headliner for a summer 2023 music festival in Spain, alongside Florence and the Machine and the Strokes.
The new allegations, like the ones before them, have surfaced in the context of a post-MeToo articulation of consent, rooted in factors like power imbalance and emotional manipulation. Sabina is unequivocal in her characterization of the alleged interactions. “It was an ongoing abusive relationship,” she said. “Emotionally abusive, manipulative, toxic, and using his power dynamic to exploit my body at times that were convenient for him. He met me when I was so vulnerable.”
Sabina met Butler in the summer of 2015, when she was 22 years old and he was 35. She had recently divorced and left a strict religious group, and was working as a waitress at a cafe in Montreal while pursuing studies at a local university. “When I first moved to Montreal, I literally had $40 in my bank account,” she said. Butler, at that point, had sold millions of albums, won a Grammy for Album of the Year, and played to sold-out crowds around the world. Sabina didn’t recognize him when he came into the cafe, but a coworker pointed him out. Eventually, the two talked about the medieval poet Dante, whose work Butler was reading. “I thought I was being so intellectual,” Sabina said.
In early September 2015, Butler invited Sabina to a dance party he was hosting, with an offer to put her on the guest list. She attended with her boyfriend, and spoke for a while with Butler at the party. The next morning, she saw on Instagram that Madonna had also been in attendance, which gave her a clearer sense of the scope of Butler’s celebrity. The two stayed in touch. She saw it as a friendly correspondence; he occasionally seemed to cross that line. “He knew I had a boyfriend and didn’t care,” she said. “He would reference my boyfriend and be like, ‘Have you broken up yet?’”
One night, Butler invited Sabina out for a drink. They flirted, and eventually kissed, an experience she recorded as “jarring” in a diary entry viewed by Pitchfork. “We were sitting and talking about probably Simone de Beauvoir or something, and I remember being alarmed that it had progressed to kissing,” she said. She left abruptly.
Despite her alarm at the first kiss, Sabina was attracted to Butler, and felt that they were forming an emotional bond. In the fall of 2015, at Butler’s Montreal studio and jam space, Sabina and Butler had sex for the first of several times, she claims. They continued texting afterward, exchanges that Butler would frequently direct toward sex and requests for photos. In spring 2016, Sabina and her boyfriend broke up.
Diary entries dated near this period show that Sabina was conflicted about her encounters with a person she referred to simply as “He”—drawn to his power and sexual directness but concerned that to him she was “just a body.” “I don’t want to talk too much about the sex itself because there were so many instances of it,” Sabina told Pitchfork. “In general, it was an abusive dynamic. It was really aggressive and I felt like I just had to do what he said. I was not really comfortable with some of the things he was asking me to do, but doing them anyway. And that is ultimately dehumanizing.”
Because she didn’t overtly say no or otherwise try to stop him, Sabina believes Butler would characterize the sex as consensual. For her, the dynamic is much more complicated, colored by his forceful physical and verbal presence, as well as the gap between their social standings: his as an older, powerful rock star, and hers as a younger, less powerful student. “Now, at [the university], they have consent courses,” she said. “I think he genuinely wouldn’t know if something was consensual or not.”
As Sabina and Butler’s relationship developed, she hoped to spend more time with him in person, and that they might continue having discussions about art and literature, like the talks about Dante and de Beauvoir that kicked off their relationship. But over text messages, she says, it seemed like sex was the only thing he wanted from her.
“It was just being available for sex in any form, whether that was in person when he was in town, whether it was photos, and to engage in sexting when he wanted it to happen,” she said. “There was an urgency to his needs that didn't account for my needs or what was going on in my life or my situation or my whereabouts. When he wanted sex, it was expected that I would be up and ready for it, because it was so nice of him to make time for it or something.” If she didn’t send him what he wanted, she claims, he would be emotionally manipulative: “He would make you feel so bad about it. You’re being cut off from contact if you don’t agree to sexual favors.” (Women previously interviewed by Pitchfork also described receiving unwanted sexts from Butler, and feeling pressured to reciprocate or send explicit photos or videos. And like Sabina, they also claimed that he told them to keep their interactions a secret.)
According to Sabina, her and Butler’s sexual relationship continued, with significant breaks, until June 2018—a period of about three years that overlaps with the claims of multiple women interviewed in Pitchfork’s previous reporting about Butler. Sabina found herself increasingly uncomfortable with the nature of the relationship over that time. Texts reviewed by Pitchfork show that Butler repeatedly pushed her to break off from her roommate and live alone, with the implication that they could more easily have sex that way. (One of the women interviewed in Pitchfork’s previous piece also shared text messages showing Butler asking her if she had a roommate.)
Butler agreed to DJ an event Sabina was involved with organizing, then pulled out a week and a half before, after she and other organizers scheduled the August 2017 event around his availability. (Another organizer of the event supported Sabina’s account of the scheduling in an interview with Pitchfork.) For Sabina, the cancellation was a sign that the deeper personal connection she sought with Butler might not be forthcoming. It marked a turning point in her feelings about the relationship. “I was devastated,” she said. “Knowing that he wasn’t showing up meant that he didn't respect me.”
After the DJ cancellation, Sabina began engaging with Butler’s sexting less frequently than before. Occasionally, she would mention difficulties in her personal life and Butler would turn the discussion back toward sex. Then, in the early morning of August 27, 2017, after repeated sexual overtures from Butler, Sabina wrote: “Hey I’m sorry I can’t stop crying. Don’t be mad at me.”
That morning and in the following days, Butler peppered Sabina with messages that she answered noncommittally, or—more often—not at all. He vacillated between emotional registers: “I’ll take care of you,” “Can I help?,” “I’ll leave you alone,” “Sorry for bothering you,” “Goodbye,” “I wanna see you,” “Baby ?,” “I’m going to stop texting,” “I’ll see you next year if you still want to be friends,” “Hope you feel better. Sorry if I contributed,” “Did I do something wrong?”
On August 27, Sabina described the texts from Butler in a message to a friend. (That friend confirmed the veracity of the exchange to Pitchfork.) “I said I couldn’t see him but was vague about why and he like text harassed like just begging and then I turned off my phone,” Sabina wrote to her friend, referring to Butler by the code name “Draco Malfoy” and adding that his messages had made her cry.
On August 30, Sabina sent Butler a long message, enumerating an array of personal challenges and work and school obligations, telling Butler that his erratic availability and fixation on getting sex from her made her feel like she was “not even a person.” “Thanks for your note,” Butler responded, then continued texting her through the night about wanting to see her. Finally, he wrote “Wanna come By ? Going to bed now if you aren’t down. Goodnight,” and sent two photos reviewed by Pitchfork, including one that appeared to show him masturbating in graphic detail. He continued texting without response as night turned into morning, apologizing for the photograph and continuing to ask if he could see her.
Sabina says she “burst into tears” after receiving the photographs, which she characterizes as aggressive and alarming. “I hadn’t asked for it at all,” she claims. “It just felt really, really disrespectful and scary and gross … It felt like that specific encounter was crossing a line that he shouldn’t have crossed and it was shocking. I really feel like he has more to apologize for. He never took accountability for that.”
It wasn’t their last interaction. Sabina and Butler saw each other a few times in 2018, which she now regrets. “The last time we had sex was because I finally lived alone,” she said. “I remember being like, ‘Well, I have to have sex with him, because he always wanted me to live alone and now I did it, so it seems like a waste not to do it.’ Which is so fucked up. That final time didn’t feel good and I didn't feel any kind of connection to him. That was definitely the moment where I was over it.”
According to Sabina, she remains haunted that she didn’t cut Butler out of her life after receiving the explicit photograph in 2017. “If you are in an emotionally abusive relationship it makes you feel better to tell yourself that this was all for something, that their outbursts were mistakes and that you meant something to the abuser, that you still hold value in their eyes,” she said. “But the only value I ever held for him was performing sexual acts whenever he wanted.”
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