Katie Pearson has been harassed and sexually assaulted in music venues for as long as she's been going to them. At age 21, she was digitally penetrated by a man at a music venue; this year, at age 32, she was groped and harassed by a man at another music venue. After reporting the last incident to a security guard, Pearson was kicked out of the club, along with her attacker. A month earlier, she was slapped on the ass by a stranger at a festival.
While the last two venues took steps to rectify the situations when Pearson—who works as a DJ and promoter in Melbourne, Australia—complained, the frequency of these incidents speaks to a painful truth that the country has largely ignored—until now. Sexual assault in Australia's licensed music venues has become such a problem that the state government of Victoria has approved a task force to deal with it.
Pearson is one of the 16.4% of women in Australasia—a region that comprises Australia, New Zealand, the island of New Guinea—that the medical journal The Lancet has found to have been sexually assaulted by someone other than their partner. This February, a man ejaculated onto a woman's back in the crowd at Melbourne's St Kilda Festival. In January a man assaulted a woman in her tent at Rainbow Serpent Festival. In 2012 three teenagers assaulted a 16-year-old girl at Pyramid Rock Festival. In 2013 Luke Lazarus anally raped an 18-year-old woman in the alley behind his father's nightclub in Sydney after telling her he was taking her to a VIP area.
After Pearson shared her and others' stories with the state government of the southern state of Victoria, Jane Garrett, the minister for consumer affairs and liquor licensing, approved a task force to investigate it. "Melbourne has a fantastic live venue culture," Garrett wrote over email, "and this action is about making sure it's safer for everyone to enjoy."
Although countries with lower reported rates of assault have enacted similar task forces, none has specifically established a unit dedicated to investigating sexual assaults at music venues. In the UK, where the rate of assault is 11.5%, the National Union of Students conducted an extensive report on sexual assault for female students aged 16-24, finding that one in seven women had experienced serious physical or sexual assault in her lifetime. In the US, where the rate of 13% is still lower than Australia's, the White House established a task force "to protect students from sexual assault" over a year ago. It found that one in five women is sexually assaulted at college. In response to the task force, Vice President Joe Biden acknowledged that "freedom from sexual assault is a basic human right."
"The culture is so ingrained and normalized that venues and events often believe they are already doing everything they can to deal with harassment and assault in their spaces," Izzy Combs, who works at a nightclub in Sydney, said.
In April of this year, Combs started the online campaign #freetomove after getting fed up with the sexual assault she experienced in clubs for many years. "I was picking up glasses on the club floor when a male patron roughly shoved his hand down my pants," Combs wrote in a post launching the initiative. "As I dropped the glasses, he let me know that he'd 'get' me if I ever told anyone." In the post, Combs also quoted her friend, who said she was "literally bitten and scratched on the face because I didn't want to go home with a guy from a club."
Combs believes that Australia's abnormally high rate of assault is down to a culture of accepting it. "As a woman—and especially as a young woman—you can pretty much expect to be yelled at, groped, and leered at on any given night out. It's almost part of our Australian identity." This leads to a general feeling that speaking out is "un-chill," she tells me.
Doctor Bianca Fileborn agrees. She recently completed her PhD on young adults' experiences and perceptions of unwanted sexual attention in licensed venues, having been drawn to the subject after her own encounters. "I had a period of time in my early twenties where virtually every time I went out I experienced some form of sexual harassment," she says
In her survey of 230 young people, Dr Fileborn found that 80.2% viewed unwanted sexual attention as common in pubs and clubs in Melbourne. Additionally, 96.6% thought that unwanted sexual attention happened in licensed venues. "The cultural acceptance or tolerance towards sexual assault is definitely a contributing factor, as this can send the message that violence against women is acceptable," she says. She noticed the problem was even bigger than she'd imagined when she realized how much attention violence between men was getting. After several high-profile assaults resulted in death, last year the Australian state of New South Wales instituted a mandatory minimum eight-year sentencing policy for a new "one punch" law.
For her part, Combs started conducting informal interviews of venue owners and promoters throughout Australia. She asked about the steps they took to ensure their spaces were safe and posted some promising responses online. But she tells me not everyone came to the party. "I received one response from a Sydney partying collective detailing how they already had an accepting culture and suggesting that others lead from their example," Combs says. "I attended one of their parties the following weekend, and my friends and I were repeatedly groped, harassed, and humiliated in the middle of the dance floor, some of the worst I have ever experienced."
For Pearson, her February assault was the last straw. "I just thought, fuck it!" she exclaims. "I'm too old for this bullshit now! It's got to change. I'm not getting kicked out of a bar because I keep getting sexually assaulted by dudes. I'm not going to stand for it."
Pearson posted about the incident on her own Facebook and on the page for LISTEN, a collective for gender equality in Australian music. A co-founder of the lobby group Save Live Australian Music and a member of the Live Music Roundtable, which proposes policy to the state government, Helen Marcou saw the Facebook post and offered to help. "[Marcou] said, 'I think the government will want to listen to this, and we could actually make some change,'" Pearson recalls.
Marcou mentored Pearson in writing a discussion paper that was then presented to the Live Music Roundtable, proposing a government task force to examine the issue of sexual assault in music venues. The next thing they knew, it was approved. "It was something that I'd always hoped for, but I never thought it could happen this quickly!" she says.
While the problem of sexual assault obviously goes further than bars and festivals, and while a task force won't immediately spell out the end for all predators, it still felt like a huge win. Dr Fileborn says it's a good start. "It's very important symbolically that both the government and venues are saying that this behavior won't be tolerated, and that women have the right to be safe and free from sexual violence in these spaces."
Although it will be "12 to 18 months" before the task force comes into effect, Pearson says it can't come soon enough. "It's just so long overdue," she says.
The task force will combat the problem in multiple ways. First, the group will work on improving education to cultivate a greater understanding about what constitutes harassment; men have to be educated about respect early on and consistently. In one of Dr. Fileborn's studies, a male respondent thought that the inclusion of "staring" as a type of sexual harassment was "unfounded." "I think this can be particularly difficult for some men to understand when they don't necessarily know what it's like to feel sexually vulnerable," she says.
Venue staff also need to be adequately trained in how to deal with assault. Another study by Dr Fileborn shows that 50% of participants "thought that venues didn't respond very well to incidents of unwanted sexual attention." And as Combs found in her interviews, some even admit to having "laughed off" the problem.
Training won't be within the task force's jurisdiction, says Pearson, but she hopes to "advocate for updates to security training" that helps staff identify and appropriately deal with assault—and not just of women. A wide range of LGBT organizations will be consulted to ensure all people are accounted for.
Although the problem is rampant, Pearson is hopeful about the task force's possibilities. She cites the UK campaign Good Night Out as a successful example of awareness-raising; the campaign has seen a Leeds club night go from urging partygoers to "violate a fresher" to encouraging people to report harassment and assault. At the end of the day, licensed venues and festivals are in the business of providing good times. It's in venues' best interests to get their butts in line, because women can't have a good time when people are touching ours without consent.