Zero tolerance

Why festivals need to do more to tackle sexual assault

21st June 2018

Festivals might just be one of the best things about summer — sloshing about in muddy fields, getting messy with your mates and listening to the best bangers of the past few years, live. Festivals are beautiful; things of joy, sunburn and brazen drug deals. 

Sadly, they’re not all fun and games for everyone. From the indie Parklife to the boutique Bestival, drink-and-drug-fuelled festival environments have proven to be breeding grounds for sexual assault and harassment. While you’re getting your rocks off to Biffy Clyro, there’s a good chance someone else is being casually groped, or far worse, against their will.

Between 2014 and 2017, 12 sex crimes were reported at Glastonbury, currently the biggest festival in the UK. Five of these violations took place last year and no arrests were made. In 2015, a man was arrested on suspicion of raping a woman at V. Just this month, a police investigation was launched after a reported assault near Download’s main stage. The list goes on and on.

It’s not just in the UK, either. Sweden’s largest festival, Bravalla, has been cancelled for 2018 after an outrageous 27 assault allegations, including four rapes, at this year’s event, leading Swedish radio presenter and comedian Emma Knyckare to start organising a women-only music festival for next summer.

Sexual assault at festivals is nothing new, but up until this year, actual data on the subject has been hard to find. However, the first ever figures have been revealed this week and they’re harrowing.

A poll of over 1,000 people, carried out by the Press Association, shows that 22% of Brits who have attended a festival have experienced sexual assault while there. Unsurprisingly, the statistics are significantly higher for women, rising to 30% overall and almost half (43%) of women under the age of 40.

The presence of alcohol and drugs seems to provide perpetrators with a sense of entitlement

“Sexual assault has been normalised at live music events due to them taking place in enclosed spaces where many people are drinking alcohol and taking drugs,” says Alice Porter, senior representative for the Girls Against campaign, which fights to make gigs safer for women.

Gigs and festivals can empower perpetrators of sexual assualt

“It allows perpetrators excuses and ways to remove blame from themselves — although, obviously, these excuses are unacceptable.

“These factors seem to provide perpetrators with a sense of entitlement. It’s amplified at festivals because of their size and scale, and because festivals can feel like a place removed from society.”

Some might argue that steps are being taken. This is no small thanks to Girls Against. Working with the Association for Independent Festivals’ (AIF) Safer Spaces campaign, they’ve helped implement the Charter of Best Practice — a safety code that gets festival organisers to commit to staff and volunteer training on issues relating to sexual assault, as well as welfare provisions for victims. It currently has 60 signatories.

Additionally, they helped organise a 24-hour social media and website blackout, last month, to raise awareness of the problem. A total of 25 festivals, including Boomtown, Kendall Calling and Electric Fields took part and shared a brief animation with an important “zero tolerance” message along with the hashtag “#saferspaceatfestivals”.

But, there’s still a way to go. Glastonbury has recently been praised for its efforts to accommodate a woman who was sexually assaulted by the people she had planned to attend with. Special arrangements were made for her travel and accommodation, and she was given access to additional help from security, should she need it.

Clearly, this is a step in the right direction. However, can it really be called enough when one in three women can expect to be the victim of sexual violence, and the only real “precaution” taken by the organisation is advice on the website that essentially amounts to, “Stay with your friends and avoid dark corners”?

Sophia, 19, got involved with Girls Against after being groped without consent at Budapest’s Szigeti Festival.

“I was on my way from one stage to another between sets and we had to push through a busy crowd,” she explains. “I wore a long, flowy dress that was new. Maybe that’s why I was so concerned about it. A guy in his late twenties was smoking as I passed by him and he suddenly started making gestures as if he had burned a little hole in my dress.

At first, I thought he was just trying to help. Then, he started groping my bum

“While I was searching for it, he proceeded to swipe the ashes off me — his hands on my hips — and at first, I thought he was just trying to help. Then, he started groping my bum. I looked at him angrily and he and his friend started laughing in a dirty way. I realised he hadn’t burned a hole in my dress. He’d made up the whole scenario in order to touch me.”

Far away from security and with no idea how to identify her assaulter (“I had no information on him and there’s more than one guy running around a festival in a white shirt”), Sophia didn’t report it. She was accompanied by friends and in broad daylight, and still, she was assaulted. There was nothing she could do to prevent it.

So, why is it the responsibility of women to avoid being assaulted, rather than the responsibility of men to not assault them or the responsibility of the festival to take sufficient safety precautions?

Festival security is just not up to scratch

Sophia asserts that increased security and, therefore, visibility, is the biggest priority when it comes to tackling sexual assault at festivals and that raising awareness between sets should also be considered, something that Porter agrees with.

“Festival security is just not up to scratch,” says Porter. “Some are looking at improving it, but they’re not doing enough. If they were, the current statistics wouldn’t exist. The main way sexual assault can be stopped is through an increase in guards, who should be fully trained in dealing with cases of sexual assault and approachable for victims. Many of them aren’t, which leads to dismissals of reports and allows it to continue.

“Spreading awareness of the issue is so important. Whether it’s having signs and displays on screen condemning sexual assault or showing support to campaigns like ours, it’s always helpful to remind perpetrators that their actions are wrong.

“But, festivals will only do more if we demand more.”

21st June 2018