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Sixty UK Festivals Taking a Stand Against Sexual Assault Is Only the Beginning

A recently announced Safer Spaces initiative is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to ending sexual violence at music events.

by Lauren O'Neill
May 5 2017, 4:30pm

It's a sad truth that most women have a sexual assault story. Most of us have more than one, if we're honest. And though they range from your garden variety arse-grab-in-a-nightclub (and trust me, the sadness of explaining away the extremely undignified experience of having your body touched without your permission as "garden variety" or "routine" is not lost on me) to incidents that are far more serious to the point of being life-changing, for the majority of us, they've become par for the course. And for those of us who choose to spend our spare time going to watch live music, whether that be at concerts or festivals, they are, sadly, a pretty regular part of those events too.

That's why today, the Association of Independent Festivals is launching the Safer Spaces campaign, which involves 60 UK festivals – including Bestival, Parklife, Boomtown Fair, Field Day, Secret Garden Party and End of the Road – taking a major stand against sexual assault. Twenty-eight of the festivals in the Association will blackout their websites for 24 hours on Monday 8 May in recognition of the problem, according to a press release, in order to broadcast the campaign's three main takeaways: "Zero Tolerance to Sexual Assault"; "Hands Off Unless Consent"; and "Don't Be a Bystander". On top of that, the participating festivals are due to share a short animation (below) demonstrating these messages via their social media pages.

All 60 events have now also signed a charter where they've pledged to maintain a zero-tolerance policy on sexual assault and committed to putting festival-goers who report assaults first, via provision of welfare services and proper training for staff and volunteers. Secret Garden Party's founder Freddie Fellows told a freelance writer for Broadly that the festivals are "all united in the fact we have to look after our audiences and declare that sexual harassment is unacceptable behaviour". And yes, his is the sort of attitude we need from all those involved in the festival industry.

Because by even recognising that sexual assault happens at these events (potentially an uncomfortable truth for events that depend on good PR, right?), their organisers are doing something that has never been done in the UK on such a large scale, and that's a really big deal. I hope very much that other, bigger festivals follow in their footsteps and sign up to their charter, or something similar, too.

But it's also the case that sexual assault is a sprawling and complex issue, and this campaign (though presumably aimed at young people, particularly young cis men, who are perhaps unaware of all the realities of sexual assault) doesn't necessarily cut right to the heart of that. The gif animation due to be broadcast via the festivals' social media channels, for example, seems to carry an emphasis on "stranger danger" that buys into the received view of the stock rapist as someone you don't know, rather than acknowledging that around 90 percent of serious assaults are committed by a partner, friend or acquaintance of the survivor. For stats widening to include all types of assault, the split becomes about 56 percent known offenders versus 43 percent strangers (and there's room for error since these crimes are often under-reported). And so the gif animation's underlining of the importance of consent, therefore, is better, and especially admirable, because it's a simple, catch-all message that applies to everyone.

What I'm trying to say, in a roundabout way, is that the Safer Spaces campaign is a great start, but it's not enough. And that's not the fault of the campaign itself – it's simply down to the way we're educated about sex in this country. Time and again, the government fails to make sex education compulsory in schools, and time and again, bodies become battlegrounds whereby unwanted advances are constantly made. Better education would undoubtedly mean that those advances just don't happen in the first place.

It shouldn't even be the job of independent music organisations to inform their punters about sexual assault, and the fact that it now is is a sorry state of affairs. Because if you're old enough to go to a festival, there's a good chance that your attitudes to sex are pretty well set, and some website blackouts and a well-intentioned .gif, unfortunately, may not be able to change that. But you have to pat Safer Spaces on the back for at least trying to plug the gap that should be filled by earlier education and a taught sense of respect and boundaries. In the context of the way in which sexual assault at music events has been swept under the astroturf in the past, it's a hugely positive step forward. We just need to take some more.

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(Image via Pixabay)