Why Do So Many Women Keep Dying At This Music Festival?
Four women have died at Britain's BoomTown Fair festival in five years. A drug policy reform advocate speaks out.
Image by Boris Jovanovic via Stocksy
BoomTown Fair music festival in Hampshire, England, advertises itself as a "a pop-up city where the impossible is possible and the abnormal is normal." Attracting around 10,000 partygoers annually, it's widely considered one of the best festivals in the UK. But in recent years the festival's been plagued by a spate of drug-related deaths. And every one of the people who lost their lives had one thing in common: They were all women.
In 2011, 45-year-old Deborah Jeffery died after an ecstasy-induced heart attack. Two years later, 18-year-old Ellie Rowe lost her life after mixing ketamine and alcohol. In 2014, Lisa Williamson hung herself after an argument with her husband. It was the 31-year-old's first-ever festival and she'd taken a gram of MDMA the night before. The authorities deemed that the MDMA, along with the high temperature in her tent and lack of sleep, were responsible for her suicide.
On Monday, an 18-year-old girl from Buckinghamshire was found unconscious in her tent. A Hampshire Police spokesperson tells Broadly "sadly, despite efforts from paramedics and the on-site doctor, she was pronounced dead at the scene."
"We are absolutely devastated with the news that a festival attendee has tragically passed away," says a BoomTown spokesperson. "Our thoughts are with the young lady's family, friends and loved ones and we are currently doing everything that we can to support her friends here at the festival with teams on the ground and welfare staff helping anyone affected."
While it's too soon to speculate about the causes of her death (and her identity has not been made public yet), this most recent tragedy means that in total four women have lost their lives at the festival in five years. And drugs policy reform advocates are pointing to BoomTown as an example of how the existing policies are failing to keep people—and women in particular—safe.
I ask Danny Kushlick of Transform, the drug policy reform think-tank, why women might be more vulnerable at festivals then men. "There is evidence to show that women react differently, and this may be due to differences in female hormones. But it's also often to do with the fact that women have lower body weight, which means the drugs are more concentrated in ratio to body mass."
Experts have long known that women are more vulnerable to drugs such as MDMA (the pure form of ecstasy.) Women are twice as likely to get admitted to hospital after taking MDMA, according to the 2015 Global Drugs Survey. Speaking to Broadly in October 2015, Columbia University professor Gillinder Bedi said, "women appear to experience the psychoactive effects of MDMA more strongly than men, and they have more negative effects." Despite this, very little research has been done into how women react to drugs differently.
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"We've known for years that there's a problem at music festivals," says Kushlick, pointing to another factor behind the BoomTown deaths. "It seems to be younger people taking drugs at festivals who are dying, or people who haven't used drugs much before." While not everyone who died at BoomTown was young, all were relatively inexperienced drug users. Put simply, if you've never really done drugs before, it's much easier to get things horribly wrong.
Kushlick argues that festival organizers need to do more. "For a long time, there's been a kind of denial amongst festival organizers. We need to presume that, for some people, this will be their first time taking drugs. We don't encourage it, but we try and help them keep safe."
In their defense, BoomTown posted a pre-event warning on their Facebook page, cautioning their fans of the dangers of illegal drug use. I ask BoomTown whether they will change their policies in response to the deaths. "Public safety is at the heart of our event management planning and a full review into the events that have taken place over the weekend will be conducted," they respond.
Social factors to do with how women take drugs can also increase the level of risk. We know women are less likely than men to buy their own drugs directly from a dealer, meaning that they may not be informed about the strength or quality of what it is they're taking. Short of legalizing and regulating drugs entirely, Kushlick argues a harm reduction approach is needed. "That means giving out a lot of information, such as telling women—who are smaller—that they should be taking smaller doses."
Meanwhile, harm reduction pioneers such as Dr. Fiona Measham are leading the efforts to make festival-going safer for everyone—not just women. 2016 was the first year in which Dr. Measham's charity The Loop had on-site drug testing at a major British festival.
"We need to keep people alive", says Kushlick. "That's got to be our first priority."