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Music Festivals Need to Do More to Prevent Sexual Assaults

When festival organizers and bystanders are poorly educated on how to handle or prevent sexual assaults, it implicitly says this behaviour is acceptable.

Illustration by Emma Oneill

Melanie Doucet was enjoying Osheaga in Montreal a few weeks ago when she said she was drugged and could barely walk away, only to be brushed off by bystanders and later security who told her she should have watched over her drink. Doucet’s story is part of an appalling pattern. Just this year, 18 women reported being sexually assaulted at Schlossgrabenfest in Germany, five women reported rape at Bravalla festival in Sweden, another five reported they were sexually assaulted at Roskilde Festival in Denmark, and another woman reported she was sexually assaulted at WayHome Music and Arts Festival in Oro-Medonte, Ontario. “There's just so many different variables that don't come into play at gigs,” says Hannah Camilleri, co-founder of Girls Against, a UK-based campaign to raise awareness of and prevent sexual assault in the live music community. “There’s a much higher availability and consumption of alcohol which lowers everyone's inhibitions. You're also not returning to your own bed, you're making new friends, you're surrounded by so many more people. There's a lot more things that could wrong.”


When festival organizers, security guards, and bystanders are poorly educated on how to handle sexual assault cases or prevent it from even happening, rape culture persists and it implicitly tells men their behaviour is acceptable. In an extreme case, a security guard at T in the Park in Scotland admitted to sexually assaulting a 17-year-old girl at the festival in 2015. A security guard. When people in power can’t be relied on, women are discouraged from reporting. One researcher estimates that only 10 to 30 percent of sexual assault victims report it. When women are silenced, women aren’t safe. Education is needed at each these levels—festival staff, security, and fans—to confront sexual assault. Kira-Lynn Ferderber of Project SoundCheck, photo by Andre Gagne

We get it, the festival market is in a rough patch with outright cancellations, awkward rebrands, poorer inflation rates meaning smaller booking budgets, and then some. But given festivals pose a significant risk of sexual assaulta study found 26 percent of sexual assault victims treated at The Ottawa Hospital in 2013 had been at a mass gathering—and women tend to make up the majority of festival audiences, festivals can never skimp on resources for women’s safety. They need to do more. Utilizing resources like Project SoundCheck will help festival organizers educate themselves and the public, too. Project SoundCheck, a partnership between the Sexual Assault Network of Ottawa and the Ottawa Coalition to End Violence Against Women, started in 2015 in response to the study of sexual assault victims at mass gatherings. Focused on music festivals, Project SoundCheck has several handouts on their website that any festival team can distribute to encourage bystander intervention at any sign of someone in trouble. That includes a manual for festival volunteers, handouts on confronting racism and sexism, and a troubleshooting sheet on overcoming hesitation to intervene.


Project SoundCheck has provided training for Ottawa’s RBC Bluesfest, CityFolk, and Escapade Music Festival among others. Anna Wood, human resources manager and volunteer services coordinator at RBC Bluesfest, says that all 3,200 festival volunteers this year received Project SoundCheck resources, and 1,500 of them attended a general orientation that covered Project SoundCheck. “It’s coming from a place of ‘let’s look out for each other, and all have a great time at a great event,’’” says Wood. “We hear a lot of stories about how people used some of the tools they learned to check in on someone, whether they outright asked someone if they were okay, or interrupted a situation to ask where the bathroom is. We often hear that people didn’t realize that just starting a small conversation can be a way to check in with someone. It only takes a few minutes, and it can mean so much to that person having difficulty to know that someone took the time to look out for them.”

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Security teams, often contracted by festivals, can look to companies like SecuriGroup, who offer sexual assault training for their staff to help address victims’ low rate of reporting, in an effort to help educate. “Security guards are often large, intimidating men, which is scary for someone who has literally just been in a very vulnerable position,” says Camilleri of Girls Against. “There is also the fear of being victim blamed. No one wants that to happen to them so often victims downplay what has happened to them in case they're being seen to be making a mountain out of a molehill.” Some festivals have gone the route of creating women-only spaces. This year, Glastonbury in the UK notably launched The Sisterhood, a venue intended as a safe space for women with all-female security, workshops on inclusivity and performers. The Guardian noted, “it means these stories and lessons will, for a couple of days, be out of reach of men,” but that’s an issue. While women-only spaces are well-intentioned, removing men alone doesn't educate them on preventing abuse. Giving women a place to themselves is a fantastic option, especially for women who feel safest when they’re surrounded by other women, but not a solution to address the root causes of sexual violence. Festivals must provide education in conjunction with spaces where women can feel safe. THUMP reported that at the Electric Forest Festival in Rothbury, Michigan a Her Forest program was set up where at least one of its workshop days is open to men as well. Shambhala Music Festival near Nelson, BC has a designated space where any women can come to if they feel unsafe or want to rest or wait for their friends and feel comfortable. Safety doesn’t take away from fun either. In the UK, the Isle of Wight Council is working with the Isle of Wight Festival and Bestival to host tents where fans can relax and make bracelets with sayings like “no means no” while getting more safety information. Information card on how to prevent sexual violence at festivals provided by Project SoundCheck

Electric Eclectics in Meaford, Ontario, fosters mutual respect through initiatives like Nightlifeguard, a project by Vanessa Rieger. At Electric Eclectics, Rieger and assistants set up a first-aid station and roam around the dance tent, making sure everyone has a good time. Chris Worden, assistant director of Electric Eclectics, is also a member of Noise Against Sexual Assault, a coalition started in Toronto to prevent sexual violence at shows. “One thing that we are looking at is signage that simply reminds attendees of the basic standards of decency expected of them by other people in the space—including items like ‘No Transphobia, No Racism, No Sexual Violence,’ etc. Signaling these values to people in the space seems to be the most realistic prospect for a form of discussion between venues and attendees.”

Festivals can no longer treat discussion of sexual assault as a taboo. Refusing to acknowledge a major safety issue in your space doesn’t win you any business, nor does victim-blaming women to make “smart choices.” Women’s dollars will go to places where they feel safe. Do you want to survive the festival market bubble burst? Don’t put women on the sidelines. Work to ensure staff, security, and fans all have education on sexual assault to promote respect, intervention, and understanding.

Jill Krajewski is a writer living in Ottawa. Follow her on Twitter.