There's a Rape Problem at Music Festivals and Nobody Seems to Care
Sexual harassment and assault don't cease to exist once women get weekend wristbands and pitch their tents. So why aren't organizers doing more to protect them?
Photo by James Hope-Falkner
Sarah* was 16 when she was raped by a stranger at a festival. She'd tried MDMA with her friends, but wasn't feeling the effects and decided to head back to her tent. On the way, she bumped into a guy she'd been talking to in the arena. They flirted and headed to his campsite before starting to hook up. "It was consensual at first," she says. "But he started to push my legs open to the point where I thought they were going to break. I asked him to stop more than three times and he didn't. All I could do was just lie there and wait until it was over."
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In 2013, a UK Festival Census asked more than 3,000 people what they loved most about festivals. 'Music' and 'escaping normal life' topped the list; the report explained that the mix of escapism and the 'sense of community' built around events was what made them compelling for visitors. But it also might be the same sense of suspended reality that makes sexual assaults and rape seem unexpected. "I think there definitely is an idyllic view of festivals," Sarah says. "But in reality, they're just like society downsized--there are going to be the same pockets of people who are okay with doing harm to others."
I was at Secret Garden Party--a four-day Cambridgeshire festival that's as much about hedonism and dressing in costumes as it is about music--a few weeks back. After wearing a nipple-flashing outfit and voguing on a podium to electro, I staggered back to my tent alone in the dark without considering that I might be in danger. A few days later, I found out that a girl had been allegedly raped at the festival just the night before.
While sex crime is much rarer at festivals than theft or drug related offenses, the Secret Garden Party attack is not an outlier. It follows a string of cases at all kinds of festivals in the UK, from metal weekenders to house raves and arty folk-rock breaks. There were three sexual offenses reported at Glastonbury this year and two in 2014. Two men were arrested for raping a woman at Reading Festival last year, and there was also a rape at the festival in 2009. A male nurse was recently convicted for assaulting two unconscious women in the medical tent at Wilderness in Oxfordshire in 2013. A 16-year-old boy was convicted after attacking a 12-year-old girl at Secret Garden Party in 2010. In the same year, two women told police they were raped at Latitude in Suffolk. One of the victims was grabbed by a group of more than three men while walking from her campsite to the toilet.
These stories may just be the tip of the iceberg. A 2013 UK study found 85 percent of all serious sexual offences aren't reported to the police. Charity Rape Crisis takes emergency calls from the victims of sexual assault, including people at festivals. Helpline Operations Coordinator Dr Fiona Vera Gray explains: "Sometimes women are concerned if they have been taking recreational drugs or alcohol that they will be judged for this. Sometimes it is hard, if you cannot remember exactly what happened, for women to feel they'll be taken seriously when they report."
Female festival-goers I've spoken to have talked about guys spitting at them, shouting abuse at them and threatening to 'spunk on their tent.'
Society's current habit of trivializing, normalizing, ignoring, or laughing at sexual assault has started to seep through the festival gates. Case in point: the douchebag who wore a 'eat, sleep, rape, repeat' T-shirt at Coachella in April. Female festival-goers I've spoken to have talked about guys spitting at them, shouting abuse at them and threatening to "spunk on their tent." These attitudes can all prevent victims coming forward.
"We need to create environments where women are respected," says Dr Gray. "And where all forms of sexual violence, including sexual harassment, rape 'jokes', and discriminatory comments made about women's lives and bodies, are not tolerated."
Over the past four years, Bestival on the Isle of Wight has welcomed stalls from consent campaign group White Ribbon and Isle of Wight Council's Domestic Abuse team. The council runs a stall called 'Reclaim The Night' that gives visitors the chance to make jewelry with consent messages, as well as a safe space to talk about incidents. "When people find out what we're doing they're very interested," says Fleur Gardiner, the Safeguarding Adults Board Manager of the local council. "Many really don't understand consent, and that being drunk or scantily clad is not being responsible for rape."
Gardiner explains that the council started off solely raising awareness about consent at the festival, but changed its strategy as more and more people came forward to talk to them about their experiences of sexual assault. Its festival staff now includes an independent sexual violence adviser, domestic abuse experts, and sexual health nurses.
"In an ideal world, all festivals would support approaches such as ours, but that's not the case," says Gardiner. "It's a fact that when you raise awareness and offer support, victims will seek it out--which is what we want, but it can make it look like assaults have increased. I guess events are concerned about being seen as a festival that's got a problem with sexual assault. But, by embracing approaches such as ours, they would actually be making their festivals safer spaces."
White Ribbon consultant Dave Boardman is running a campaign to get more live music venues and festivals to support their pledge: "Never commit, condone, or remain silent about violence against women." He explains they want to help festivals train staff and volunteers to recognize potential situations and ensure all incidents are investigated and reported.
The music industry must not make matters worse by pretending incidents are one-offs.
"Many things happen at festivals that organizers don't want to publicize. We want them to openly acknowledge problems and make it clear they are doing something about them," he says. "We want the whole music industry to be open about issues as a first step to doing something about them. The music industry must not make matters worse by pretending incidents are one-offs."
But there are other reasons for festival organizers' quieter approach. Laura* is a music industry insider who was working on a festival when word got out that there may have been a rape. "Our immediate reaction was to control the news rather than tell everyone," she says. "I understand why people would want to know--I would want to know myself--but it's important when dealing with sensitive issues to contain the incident. We need to ensure the victim is protected and enable police to carry out their duties in the quickest and most effective manner. And we don't want scaremongering rumors traveling around the site."
A spokesperson for MAMA, the company behind Wilderness as well as The Great Escape in Brighton and Lovebox in London, adds: "We take every precaution to ensure the safety of our festival goers. We work closely with local police forces and our own security teams to ensure an appropriate level of security and police presence, in and around the festival site."
Thing is, while festival safety guides provide explicit advice about theft and drugs, every one of the online information guides I looked at skipped out the words 'rape' and 'sexual assault' in favor of vague advice about not walking anywhere alone. None of them featured a reminder about consent.
Latitude's website, for example, includes a list of gender-neutral personal safety tips that don't mention rape or sexual assault, but appear to allude to it. Tips include "keep your wits about you--that means not drinking too much or taking other substances", "be really clear about what you say 'yes' and 'no' to", and "if you meet someone new... take a picture of them on your phone and text a mate."
"The advice is heavy-set with blame," says Nathalie Gordon founder of consent campaign group #ThisDoesn'tMeanYes. "I mean, what the hell, it's making it seem like 'if you don't follow these guidelines, bad things could happen--so that would then be your fault.'" Latitude did not respond to requests for comment.
Miranda*, 25, felt like she was blamed when she got assaulted by a friend after blacking out drunk in his tent at a festival. "It's hard to know what happened, but I remember being face down in the grass and the stewards asking my friends if I'd taken drugs, but they seemed to be looking down at me rather than helping," she says. "I woke up sick a few hours later and found my friend trying to touch me. I hated being so drunk and not in control of myself. I never thought someone would want to have sex with someone in my state."
I didn't really understand what had happened to me for about six weeks. It's not like the stereotype of a stranger in a hoodie in a dark alleyway.
It's telling that neither Miranda nor Sarah could have been avoided being assaulted by not walking home alone in the dark. Why should women have to worry about or curtail their behavior--not getting drunk or going back to a crush's tent--when they've headed to a festival to escape reality and have fun? Men wouldn't think twice about doing it. "Women (and men) have every right to make what might seem to be unwise choices," says Fleur Gardiner. "Get drunk, take their clothes off, go off and dance with people they've never met before without being raped or sexually assaulted."
It's also telling that neither of the women reported their experiences to police or festival staff. Miranda says she felt responsible for her actions, and Sarah says she didn't even realise she'd been raped at the time. "I didn't really understand what had happened to me for about six weeks," says Sarah. "It's not like the stereotype of a stranger in a hoodie in a dark alleyway."
"It is important for everyone to raise awareness that men who choose to rape can be anywhere," says Dr Gray from Rape Crisis. "As no one can ever be 'on guard' at all times, nor should we have to live our lives like this, this means that the responsibility for preventing rape lies with these men making different decisions."
Or as Sarah puts it: "Tell guys to not be dickheads, basically."
* Names have been changed.