The Serious and Unaddressed Problem of Rape at British Music Festivals
Music festivals have become a common location for rape and sexual assaults, so why has nothing been done about it?
*At the request of some interviewees, their names have been changed.
Georgia* didn’t want to go back to Latitude. A friend of hers was sexually assaulted at the music festival in 2012, and after six hours spent waiting in the first aid tent, she promised herself she would never return.
“It was full of drunks and people on comedowns,” she tells me. “I had to explain what had happened to three different people; everyone was confused about why we were there. Eventually they found a nurse, but it took ages. There was no specific protocol for dealing with that situation.”
After vowing to never return, she decided to give it another shot three years later, after reading about how the festival had launched a safety campaign to stop assaults from happening. “My flatmate had a spare ticket and I figured it was probably safe now,” she says. But on her first night at Latitude in 2015, she was approached by two men: “They kept telling me I was too drunk and that I needed to sit down, and they would look after me. I’d only had 2 cans and told them to piss off but they kept trying to take me somewhere ‘safe’."
Georgia called out to a couple of security guards and asked for their help; by this point the men were trying to drag her towards the festival car park. “They [her assailants] told the guards that I was drunk and they were looking after me. [The security guards] were about to walk away, but then my friends came over and got me. If they hadn’t been there I would have been dragged into the car park.”
When Georgia ended up back in that first aid tent from three years ago, she was in shock. “I kept crying and not wanting to go back to my tent in case those men came back,” she tells me. “It was exactly the same... What happened to my friend in 2012 was so shocking and the festival said they’d launched this big scheme to improve things. That’s why I went back! But it was exactly the same as my friend’s experience: no one knew what to do about the men who’d attacked me or why I was so upset.”
According to a report by Rape Crisis, it’s estimated that 85,000 women and 12,000 men are raped in the UK every year, and of the 97,000 people who are sexually assaulted, only 15% report their attack to the police. Government data from 2013 reveals that women aged 16-19 are most at risk of sexual assault, that women who regularly visit clubs have the highest victimisation rate, and that the most likely offenders are men between 20-39. Needless to say, these demographics are almost identical to your average UK music festival audience.
Last year undoubtedly saw a marked increase in press coverage and media discussion surrounding sexual assault at music festivals. However, despite the increased public awareness of 2015, no new or genuinely useful systems have been put in place, and when I got in touch with those involved in the management of various festivals, the majority of them declined to comment.
“Unless someone is raped on stage you’re not going to be seeing anti-sexual assault campaigns from any mainstream music festival,” says Chris*, who spent 4 years working in the marketing department at one of the UK’s top festival promoters. “No one in the industry wants to put festivals and rape in the same sentence. I wanted to suggest an awareness campaign for one of our bigger events, but I didn’t want to be the person talking about festivals and rape either... It would have made everyone on the team uncomfortable.”
It seems there is a palpable aversion to discussing sexual assault at festivals; and some organisers think that by talking about rape, then people might start associating their event with rape. The thing is, that association is already out there. People are being raped at British music festivals. People are worried about rape at British music festivals. People are talking about rape at British music festivals. It’s already a thing.
It doesn’t help that there are heightened levels of victim-blaming around festivals, and as a result, victims are reluctant to come forward. A government survey in 2015 found that more than 25% of the general public believe if a woman has been drinking, then she is partially responsible if she is sexually assaulted. This number increases if the victim is under the influence of drugs. Obviously, festivals and getting wasted go hand-in-hand, so the fact that sexual assault victims might be partially blamed as a result is worrying.
After a woman was raped at Reading Festival in 2014, Broadly writer Kate Lloyd wrote an in-depth piece on the music festival rape epidemic, and how victim-blaming attitudes are pervasive. For the piece, Lloyd spoke to Laura*, a music industry insider who was working on a festival when reports of a rape began to come in: “Our immediate reaction was to control the news, rather than tell everyone,” she told her.
This isn’t to say that festivals have completely ignored the issue of sexual assault. Many major music festivals retain a close relationship with local police forces and have a high-visibility security team patrolling both the stages and the campsite areas. Most festivals also have sections on their websites for personal safety tips, helplines, aid tents. But unfortunately these fairly basic guides don’t seem to have had much impact on actually preventing sexual assault.
“Festivals like to think they have addressed the issue by having a police and welfare presence, but the majority [of victims] don’t want to talk to police, and welfare do not employ specialist staff,” explains Fleur Gardiner, who runs a stall at Bestival – one of the few festivals to respond to my enquiries – that raises awareness of sexual assault and offers support to advisors. “Festivals are not unique in having these issues, but the music industry and festivals are unique in the level of tolerance to sexual assault, and in the lack of action in addressing it.”
Gardiner’s belief that festivals must hire specialist staff was reaffirmed earlier this year when a security guard at T in the Park admitted to assaulting a young woman. Simply put, if the very people who are supposed to help prevent sexual assault have been known to perpetuate it, then this presents a huge problem.
“It’s a couple of bad apples,” explains Greg, a freelance security guard who regularly works the festival circuit. “Most of the lads want to keep people out of trouble and stop the tents being set on fire, but there are always a few who forget we’re there to help people.” Is he ever briefed on how to respond to reports of sexual assault though? “Not specifically. If someone is hurt we drop them off at the first aid tent. We usually have contact with the local police, but there’s no specific training.”
Bestival is one festival that has taken real steps to improve security measures over the past few years. “We work closely with Hampshire police to ensure Bestival is a safe environment,” explains a festival spokesperson. “Security and stewarding teams are briefed to be vigilant for lone or vulnerable people and to offer assistance in escorting them to be reunited with friends or to our welfare facilities if necessary. [They also] have a 'Harm Reduction' protocol with Hampshire Police and other agencies that is designed to address issues such as this.”
It was following the alleged report that a 15 year-old girl was sexually assaulted beside the main stage at Bestival 2011, that the festival organisers helped facilitate a stall for Gardiner and her team, and their ongoing presence at Bestival confirms the festival organisers' commitment to tackling the issues. All the volunteers Gardiner works with are trained to support victims of sexual assault; these include sexual health nurses who are able to administer Early Evidence Kits (the window for retrieving forensic evidence of sexual assault is extremely narrow). Gardiner’s team also focuses on raising awareness by printing messages about consent and helpline numbers onto plectrums. However, while Gardiner’s work is important, it’s also fairly unique, and there clearly needs to be similar systems put in place nationwide.
“We need to talk directly to festival goers about consent,” says Holly, a steward at Glastonbury. “We’re there to help people find each other, offer directions, and keep an eye on vulnerable people, but the festival organisers need to send a stronger message about consent... [Discussions about consent] can’t just come from a bunch of teenagers in lanyards.”
Talking about consent, whether it’s with festival staff or attendees, is an issue most festivals are still shying away from. “Festival promoters should work to find ways to make perpetrators think twice about their behavior,” says Gardiner. “This can be done with messages via big screens on site, tweets, and proper briefing for stewards and security on how to respond to reports of sexual offences.”
Tellingly, the advice available on most festival websites is directed towards victims, rather than potential perpetrators. On the Personal Safety section of the Latitude website, it reads: “Keep your wits about you – that means not drinking too much or taking other substances. After all, if you meet the love of your life, you’ll want to remember something about it!” A “welfare tent” is also promoted where users can go for help with “practical and personal problems”.
“Women are given lists of instructions on ‘staying safe’,” Gardiner points out. “It infantilizes [women] and ignores the perpetrators responsibilities. It also adds to women’s reluctance to report for fear of being found partly responsible by not following those ‘rules’.” Yet the idea that women must be the ones following the rules persists, both in the messages festivals send attendees and in their reluctance to talk about the perpetrators of assault.
Chris Green and David Boardman currently lead the White Ribbon Campaign, a longstanding male-focused project that aims to have conversations with men about consent and the need to actively challenge inappropriate behavior. Their work extends to tackling sexual assault at festivals. “We are merely asking music organizers to say out loud: ‘We don’t want abuse on our sites’,” Green explained.
“The idea is not to be a bystander but to point out to men that their behavior is inappropriate generally and very much against the idea of a festival,” Boardman added. “The most important thing men can do is realize that abusers generally are more influenced by their friends. It is up to men to 'keep an eye' on their mates and challenge them if it looks like they are moving into questionable areas. To remember that a woman has as much right as men to overindulge in drink (or anything else) at a festival without fear of men deciding ‘she's asking for it’ and taking advantage of the situation.”
The White Ribbon Campaign and Gardiner’s work at Bestival are fantastic, but it’s noticeable that all the ongoing campaigns to stop sexual assault are coming from industry outsiders. While bands are setting up helplines for fans who’ve been attacked at gigs, and groups of teenage girls are forming anti-assault alliances; festival organizers still seem reluctant to even say the words “sexual assault” out loud.
Tickets are already on sale for this year’s music festivals, and if there was ever a time for them to get proactive about stopping sexual assault, it’s now. Putting messages about consent on their websites, advertising the presence of specially trained support staff and security, taking up Gardiner’s idea of specifically targeted warnings to potential offenders – these are minor, preliminary changes in the grand scheme of things, but they do send a clear message that sexual assault (not just “personal problems” or the ever vague “criminal activity”) will not be tolerated at UK music festivals. The idea that festivals should tell men not to rape, rather than telling women not to be raped, should not feel like a radical idea in 2016.
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