Music Festivals Finally Take a Stance Against Sexual Violence

With the Safer Spaces initiative, some of the biggest weekend events in the UK have finally committed to tackling sexual assault and rape at their events.

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May 5 2017, 10:40am

Sixty British music festivals have made a public statement condemning sexual violence at their events. The founders of weekenders including Rob Da Bank's Bestival in Devon, Wiltshire-based indie festival End of the Road, Manchester's Parklife, and hedonistic Cambridgeshire bash Secret Garden Party have come together to promise that they'll put victims first when incidents get reported and work to educate attendees about the importance of consent.

"We want people to know that if you are a victim or a witness you will be backed up," Secret Garden Party founder Freddie Fellowes told Broadly. "We are all united in the fact we have to look after our audiences and declare that sexual harassment is unacceptable behaviour."

The new campaign, called Safer Spaces, is run by trade organization the Association of Independent Festivals (AIF). It's been developed with the help of Rape Crisis England & Wales, as well as consent campaign groups Girls Against, Safe Gigs For Women and the White Ribbon Campaign.

Each of the 60 festivals involved has signed a Charter of Best Practice restating their commitment to providing confidential welfare services, specialised training for staff and volunteers, and support for victims who report incidents. Twenty-eight of the festivals will also be blacking out their websites on Monday, removing their usual content and ticket services, to broadcast the messages "Zero Tolerance to Sexual Assault," "Hands Off Unless Consent" and "Don't Be a Bystander."

The move comes after years of pressure for festivals to be more vocal about the sexual violence that happens on site. In 2015, when Broadly reported on the ongoing sexual assault problem at events, organizers seemed scared to admit the problem even existed. Despite this, over the past few years there have been incidents at festivals across the UK. In 2016, police reported two women were raped at Reading Festival, in 2015 there was an incident at Secret Garden Party, and there were reported sexual assaults Essex's V Festival in 2015 and 2016—including one by a security guard.

Read more: Why Do So Many Women Keep Dying At This Music Festival?

AIF general manager Paul Reed explains that there was some trepidation from festivals about getting involved with a campaign on "such a sensitive issue," and that he's delighted with the number of events who have signed the charter. "It's something we've been discussing with members for 18 months—not because it's on the rise but because we clearly have a duty of care," he says, explaining that for many events it's more about publicly stating actions that are already in place rather than a new approach to dealing with assault. "By not talking about the issue it remains hidden and we need to be transparent."

From the Safer Spaces campaign. Photo courtesy of Safer Spaces

Some festivals have already taken individual steps to educate attendees about consent and to provide safer spaces for attendees. Glastonbury launched a women-only area last year and Isle of Wight domestic violence services have run a consent-education tent at Bestival for years. However, this is the first time that so many events have stood together against the issue. Reed hopes to change attitudes towards sexual assault and rape by collectively broadcasting to festival goers a message of "hands off without consent," as well as the fact that accusations will be seriously investigated.

"We want to influence audience behaviour, even that of bystanders," he told Broadly. "If you're there with a group of friends and one behaves like that, then tell them not to. If you see something happening then report it." He hopes the future years of this campaign will see centralized training about prevention, awareness and reporting procedures, as well as an on-site presence at many festivals. "I really think we can plant a seed in people's heads about how to behave," he says.

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Anna Cowan from Girls Against, a teen-led collective that fights sexual assault at live music events, helped advise the strategy. Her hope for the campaign is simple: a reduced rate of sexual violence at festivals and help for those who do experience it. "Personally, I wanted a very victim-orientated approach to their campaign," she says. "It's very important when doing this to make sure you stay very clear from victim blaming; but, I feel clearly advertising where support can be sought is a good way of ensuring safety for those who need it."

Her message is echoed by Secret Garden Party founder Fellowes who says he has learned from the reported incidents inside his festival gates that no two circumstances are the same.

"It's always very hard to deal with an incident as an organizer," he says. "We're not the police, but we do have to have the infrastructure in place to make sure victims feel supported and believed."