Awareness of sexual violence at music festivals is thankfully increasing, even if assaults don't appear to be declining. So far, there have been limited efforts to tackle the problem: from male-free festivals to initiatives from organizers to educate partygoers about consent.
But what if you knew in advance that your attacker was going to be attending the same festival as you—and there was nothing you could do about it? Would you still go, and risk bumping into them? Or would you refund your ticket and stay at home?
This is the situation that 27-year-old Laura Whitehurst from Manchester found herself in recently, according to a self-published blog post that has gone viral.
After purchasing tickets for the major British music festival Glastonbury, held in Somerset in June of most years, Whitehurst excitedly joined a WhatsApp group with her fellow attendees and began swapping outfit ideas with her friends.
Then, in April of this year, Whitehurst alleged in the post, she was sexually assaulted by two of the male friends she'd planned to attend the festival with. Whitehurst writes that her friendship group subsequently ostracized her, pressuring her not to press charges and sending her threatening messages via social media. After reporting the incident to the police, they advised her that it was best to not attend Glastonbury for her own personal safety—and to contact the festival for a refund. But when she contacted the festival organizers, she received an unexpected response.
Instead of refunding her ticket money, Glastonbury promised to establish measures to ensure her physical and mental wellbeing as much as possible while at the festival. The festival's head of event operations, Adrian Coombs, called Whitehurst before the event and told her they would come up with a thorough safeguarding procedure, in conjunction with local police, to keep her safe.
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To start off, festival organizers sent Whitehurst a parking pass so she wouldn't have to ride the train with the people who'd been harassing her. They arranged for Whitehurst to arrive at a staff-only entrance, to minimize the risk of bumping into her assailants and former friends. They reserved a space for her to camp far away from the assailants. (Everyone who attends Glastonbury Festival stays on-site.) They gave her and a friend hospitality wristbands that provided access to quieter, non-public bars and spaces, in case she needed somewhere to hang out away from the crowds. Most importantly, she was given a list of phone numbers to call in case of emergency, and a letter from Coombs requesting "the bearer of the letter must have her requests for safety taken seriously and she must be taken to safety immediately." Whitehurst was instructed to carry the letter with her at all times and present it to any member of staff if she felt unsafe.
As a result of the measures put in place to protect her, Whitehurst was able to enjoy the festival she'd until recently felt too scared to attend.
"These incredible humans had come together to make sure for the next five days I wouldn't have to feel like a victim—I could actually enjoy the festival," she wrote. "In a festival catering for so many, they really gave a shit. They gave a million shits. More shits than I could ever have expected or asked for."
Her words have resonated with people around the world: The post went viral, and hundreds have commented to express their support, many sharing similar experiences of surviving sexual violence.
"It's been a really weird day. It's been beautiful," Whitehurst says of the response in a phone interview with Broadly. "I've been tearing up all day, reading all the comments. I've been completely overwhelmed. Everyone's been so kind." She tells me that Coombs called her earlier today for a chat, and that Glastonbury co-organizer Emily Eavis is aware of her case.
"In the months leading up to Glastonbury," she remembers, "I was having nightmares about attending. I'd resigned myself to not going. But the response when I contacted Glastonbury was unreal."
Whitehurst tells me that the festival wasn't entirely stress-free: She did still fear she'd bump into her alleged attackers, especially at shows for certain artists she knew they liked and might be watching. She made the decision to avoid some stages and artists to avoid this anxiety—but not all. "The National are my favorite band in the world," she tells me, "I've always wanted to see them, and I was a bit worried [her former friends] would be there because they're also fans. But I made the decision to go, and that was really moving for me. Having the [security] letter on me at all times—even though it was covered in glitter—made me feel a lot safer."
Although it's important to remember that one positive festival experience can't undo the trauma of sexual violence, it's nevertheless rare to hear a sexual violence story that has an outcome that's in any way uplifting. Campaigners have heralded Whitehurst's story as a huge step forward in how we safeguard survivors of sexual violence.
"Laura's story is a reminder of how we can aim high in the way we respond to women who've been sexually assaulted," comments Sarah Green of the End Violence Against Women coalition.
"She simply sought a refund, but the Glastonbury workers thought, Hang on—it's not fair that she shouldn't come. We can go way better than refund," Green says. "There are duties to protect survivors of abuse that still often fail in schools, in the health service, in police forces, and in the courts. This kind of standard, based on human empathy and justice, should be our standard."
"It's amazing!" agrees Ester Van Kempen of Good Night Out, which trains event organizers in how to combat sexual violence. "It's nice to read something positive for once around people who experience sexual assault." For Van Kempen, one of the most important facets of the story was that festival organizers believed Whitehurst immediately, unconditionally. "There weren't any questions—they just believed her and put measures into place. That's probably the biggest problem with sexual assault—women not being believed."
Meanwhile, Whitehurst hopes her story will encourage festival organizers to do more to support sexual violence survivors—and that sexual violence survivors will feel encouraged to ask for support.
"Hopefully other events can take note of the human nature of the way they reacted," she says. "It was really caring and there was no judgment passed on me. They went over and above. I really hope that other festivals implement similar procedures, but I also hope that other people will have the courage to ask for help as well. It was only on a whim that I did, and I'm so grateful.
"You don't know what help's there until you ask," she continues. "People have to ask for help."