Can Female-Only Campgrounds Stop Sexual Assault at Music Festivals?
Electric Forest just launched a new program for female-identifying campers. Will it help keep women safe—or is this victim-blaming?
On February 17, Rothbury, Michigan music festival Electric Forest announced a new initiative for their 2016 edition: HerForest, a set of programs exclusively catering to its female attendees. HerForest will include a panel discussion with female musicians on the lineup and women on Electric Forest's production team, as well as group-bonding "inspiration circles" led by "lifestyle guide" Kiki Federico (one of which will be open to men). But the most unusual aspect of HerForest is its camping grounds for female-identifying people only, which attendees can stay in for the duration of the festival for an additional $40.
Though there have been female-only festivals for years, from the now-defunct Michigan Womyns Music Festival (also known as Michfest) to Fabulosa in Yosemite National Park, female-only amenities within co-ed festivals are rare. Michfest stirred controversy in recent years by sticking to a "women-born women" policy for attendees—issues that led, after widespread protests online, to the demise of of the festival—they announced last year that 2015 would be their last hurrah. HerForest, on the other hand, as Electric Forest's communications director Carrie Lombardi told me over the phone, "is open to anyone who identifies themselves as a woman."
According to Electric Forest's website, HerForest was created to provide a supportive and empowering environment for its female community. "What we noticed through the years is the real love and connection that was happening between women [at Electric Forest]," Lombardi said. "We saw HerForest as another initiative that could provide an opportunity for connection."
A women-only space might also seem like a promising step towards preventing sexual harrassment or assault against female attendees. However, Lombardi denied this was the motivation behind creating HerForest. "This was born not from any concerns about safety as much as wanting to nurture opportunities for connection and inspiration," she said, adding that women's safety "hasn't been an issue at Electric Forest."
Even so, sexual violence is a growing concern for many festivals. Statistics on the total number of assaults at these events are difficult to find, but over the last few years, rapes have been reported at multiple festivals around the world, including at Electric Zoo in New York and Made in America Festival in Philadelphia in 2013. Last August, Broadly investigated many recent instances of alleged sexual assault at UK-based festivals with the headline, "There's a Rape Problem at Music Festivals and Nobody Seems to Care."
In order to provide a safe space for women, Canada's Shambhala Music Festival—the only co-ed festival besides Electric Forest with a female-only program that I could find—has a special tipi in their "Harm Reduction Zone" where female-identifying people can find refuge if they've gotten separated from their friends, had an unwanted encounter with another person, or just need a space to rest. Women can even sleep there if they feel unsafe returning to their camp.
"We know, of course, the only people with the power to prevent or reduce levels of sexual violence are the perpetrators."—Katie Russell, media coordinator at a rape crisis organization
To find out how effective female-only campgrounds might be in fighting sexual assault, I reached out the UK-based umbrella organization Rape Crisis England and Wales, which is comprised of 40 different programs that aid victims of sex crimes. "In recent years there's been quite a lot of reporting of sexual violence that takes place at music festivals," said Katie Russell, Media & Communications Coordinator at Rape Crisis. Russell said programs like HerForest are a good idea—but only if it's something women are asking for.
She also cautioned against victim blaming. "[Female-only campgrounds] smack a little bit of curfews on women, placing restrictions on their movements and their behaviors, when we know, of course, the only people with the power to prevent or reduce levels of sexual violence are the perpetrators," Russell said. Rape Crisis is trying other ways to reduce sexual assault at festivals, like running videos to raise awareness of the problem. This, Russell said, would help "send strong messages to would-be sexual violence perpetrators that it won't be tolerated."
Organizers of other festivals I spoke to were similarly wary about the idea of gender-specific campgrounds, if for other reasons. Mikey Lion, one of the founders of the Southern California festival Desert Hearts, worried that a female-only camping space would divide attendees. "For Desert Hearts, what we want to do is have the most all-encompassing campground possible, have everyone completely immersed with each other," Lion said. This may be easier for a festival like Desert Hearts, which hosts about 3,500 people in their campgrounds each year. Electric Forest's attendees last year numbered approximately 45,000.
Unsurprisingly, the online response to HerForest has been mixed. On a post on Electric Forest's Facebook page, some angry young men were incredulous that the program would prevent assault. "Maybe you shouldn't get all fucked up on only God knows what drugs and run around half naked in a fucking forest or find some friends that actually care about you and will watch your back. It's called being responsible," wrote one Facebook user. Other men wondered why there was no male-specific camp, and demanded to know why they weren't being given their own safe space. Other commenters pointed out that Albert and others' victim-blaming messages are part of the reason women feel the need for a safe space in the first place.
Still, festival-goers of both genders also chimed in with their support for the initiative. "Great idea," wrote one male commenter. "Every girl deserves a safe place to sleep and relax! I apologize for all the guys who can't understand why this is a wonderful addition."
While festival organizers, rape crisis organizations, and some male attendees might be skeptical about the campgrounds' benefit, I wanted to hear from the group for whom this initiative would affect the most: the female campers themselves. Those I reached out to on Facebook mostly focused on what it is like to camp alone as a woman. "If I was going solo this year I definitely would stay in the [HerForest] camp!" said Anna Schunk. She described experiencing harassment at the festival in 2015 while walking to faraway campgrounds by herself at the end of the night. "I stayed alone in General Admission last year and had a long walk by myself," she said. "Walking alone, [I didn't feel] completely safe. I dislike cat calls and getting yelled at."
Accounts from female campers contradicted Lombardi's assertion that sexual harassment hasn't been a problem at Electric Forest. "I have heard of issues at EVERY festival I've been to, and this is a great start to fix that problem," said Schunk. "There were a few times where a 'bro' type frat boy would dance on me, or scream in my ear asking for my number," added Haileyann York, referring to a previous experience at Electric Forest. "I did witness a girl completely trashed dancing in the crowd. Some guy came up to her and kept grabbing her butt and being really disgusting. She tried to pull away but he held on. Everyone around her immediately grabbed him off."
"I have heard of sexual harassment issues at evert festival I've been to, and this is a great start to fix that problem."—Anna Schunk, female camper at Electric Forest
York gave me a different reason for preferring a female-only camping experience. "In June I'll be around six months pregnant, and I'll be going to the Forest alone," she said. "The HerForest program gives me a peace of mind. I'll have other women around, maybe even other mothers to hang out with and help me when I need it!" York says she's always felt safe at the festival and is staying in the HerForest campground for "health and connections rather than a fear for my safety."
Still, women's safety is an issue that music festivals need to address. Programs like HerForest may be a step in the right direction, providing camaraderie and connection between women who may otherwise feel uncomfortable going to a festival alone. However, as Russell from Rape Crisis pointed out, in order to prevent sexual assault, it may be more effective to target the perpetrators themselves. If HerForest can provide a new way for women to find friendship, connection, and a sense of well-being in a festival setting, it will be a success. But if music festivals want to prevent sexual assault and harassment, they're going to need a different, more ambitious approach.
Follow Sophie Weiner on Twitter