We urgently need to talk about sexual harassment at gigs and festivals

·7-min read
Photo credit: Jessica Lockett | Getty Images
Photo credit: Jessica Lockett | Getty Images

Glittery cheeks. The feel of a bass guitar whooshing through you, as you push to the front of the stage amid a sweaty, ecstatic crowd. Flags flying high in the summer heat, drinks flowing, you’re surrounded by your best mates. It’s supposed to be the weekend of a lifetime but for too many, music festivals have become an occasion they’d rather forget.

To put it frankly, sexual harassment and assault is an epidemic plaguing the UK’s festival scene, with over 40% of women under the age of 40 having experienced some form of sexual harassment at a live music event. But just 2% reported the unwanted behaviour to police, according to a 2018 YouGov survey.

It's something that 26-year-old Laura knows about firsthand, after being sexually harassed at her first music festival in Reading when she was just 17. "I was so excited to go, but I was quite young and didn’t know what to expect," she recalls.

As Laura waited by the main stage with her male friends for the Foo Fighters to come on, she heard a group of guys laughing behind her. To her horror, when she turned around she saw a man directly behind her with his penis out. "He just stood there and didn’t say anything and wouldn’t move," she explains.

At first, Laura tried laughing off the encounter as a joke with the rest of her friends, but she couldn’t ignore how deeply uncomfortable she felt. "So we moved and the guy eventually just laughed with his mates and walked off."

It wasn’t until years later with the rise of the #MeToo movement that Laura realised that being flashed in that way was in fact a big deal for her. "I just thought it was this guy trying to be funny, so I just didn’t even think that it was something to report," she adds, which is why she's now urging others to listen to their gut instinct and report similar incidents, even if they feel small at the time. It could protect another person in future.

"But I don’t think it's just down to women either," Laura says."Men should be better educated on what is – and isn’t – harassment and call each other out."

Photo credit: Jessica Lockett | Getty Images
Photo credit: Jessica Lockett | Getty Images

It's a sentiment held by the likes of UN Women UK, along with the organisers of Strawberries & Creem festival, who are partnering to create the first-ever Safe Spaces Now initiative this month. They believe that educational resources are essential in affecting real, long-term behavioural changes and that more significant interventions are needed on the ground to make festivals safer for everyone.

Together, with thousands of people who've experienced sexual harassment, they have designed over 150 different measures which they hope will prevent harassment and assaults – and which they also hope will spark an industry-wide overhaul.

The Strawberries & Creem pilot (18 - 19 September) will be rolling out a variety of changes, including a Safe Spaces Now tent with information about rights, helplines and how to keep yourself safe. Bystander education materials on how festival-goers can safely look out for each other will also be sent to all attendees, alongside a code of conduct, before the event.

"We're also training the security guards and providing volunteer guardian angels who can help people needing assistance or advice, distributing information and working with transport to help people get home safe," says Claire Barnett, UN Women UK Director.

"We'll be using digital tools to help people understand what constitutes harassment, why it's a problem, and how they can safely intervene if they see friends, acquaintances or other festival-goers acting inappropriately too."

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

What else will stop sexual harassment at live events?

It’s a powerful concept which charity Beyond Equality is also passionate about bringing to the masses, by facilitating workshops for men and boys towards gender equality, inclusive communities, and healthier relationships. With a specific focus on school education, the organisation encourages "conversations about 'being a man' so boys can do better by women and girls, non-binary folk and each other".

Grassroots organisations such as Girls Against and Good Night Out are also working hard to pave the way for a better future at gigs and festivals.

The former organisation was founded in 2015 by a group of teenagers who all shared similar experiences of sexual assault and harassment at live events and is a leading safe spaces for people to speak openly about their experiences and aid recovery.

Most festival-goers are too afraid to report the crime due to "a fear of their experience being dismissed or responded to in an inappropriate way" says Bea, one of the co-founders of Girls Against. It's why her group push for better staff training, something she says simply "isn't seen as a priority and doesn't happen enough within festival management".

Photo credit: Jessica Lockett | Getty Images
Photo credit: Jessica Lockett | Getty Images

Organisers also need to put more effective policies in place in order to reprimand perpetrators, she recommends, such as "being ejected or banned from the festival or in more extreme cases, taking legal action".

A zero-tolerance approach, with serious repercussions, is an idea that 31-year-old Sophie* welcomes. The London-based financial consultant was celebrating her birthday weekend with friends when she was sexually harassed at her first festival in Scotland.

"I was dancing in the middle of the David Guetta set and it was quite packed," she recalls before she started to feel somebody rubbing up against her back. "At first, I thought it was an accident, but then it happened more frequently and he put his hand on my bum and I didn’t know what to do. I kind of just froze up."

Sadly, for Sophie it meant the end of her enjoyment of the event, as she grabbed a friend and ran to the toilets, not telling anybody what had just happened.

"I think it’s the shame we feel (as women) that often stops people from speaking up," she says, before adding "[and] I’ve had much 'worse' things happen".

This attitude, adopted by many of us, is all too common, and combined with the difficulty that can accompany tracking down and prosecuting those who commit such crimes, can lead to a perfect storm to silence victims.

But it can be done. Something proven by writer and campaigner Gina Martin, who has been working in gender equality and advocacy for the past five years, having famously pushed to make upskirting illegal in England and Wales in 2019. Her crusade to change the law came about after a man took a photo up her skirt as she attended a festival in London's Hyde Park.

However, her fight was far from easy and Gina agrees that sexual assaults at music festivals are now normal "[although that] doesn't make it at all acceptable or tolerable".

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

"I've been in multiple situations where I've reported unacceptable behaviour or groping [at a festival] and every single time I’ve been palmed off or told they couldn't do anything," she explains. "If that changed people would feel safer coming forward. For some reason, there's still a sense culturally that women and marginalised people are exaggerating their experiences at the hands or culture of misogyny and male violence. We're not. These kind of partnerships prove that."

It's a message emphasised by Claire Barnett, who says it’s great to see the industry stepping up and acknowledging the issue is real, and says this is only the beginning on the UN Women UK's campaign to help end sexual harassment. In any and all scenarios.

The organisation has also launched an open letter as part of its initiative, condemning harassment and abuse at live events and encouraging those in charge to commit to meaningful action. So far the letter has been signed by organisers from Glastonbury and ticketing app DICE, as well as stars like Paloma Faith, Clara Amfo, Laura Whitmore and Ellie Goulding (amongst others).

While there is still a long road ahead in order to end sexual harassment and assault on the music scene, there's definitely a significant change in the air and a willingness from festival organisers to listen, learn and take affirmative action. Meaning that hopefully one day, there'll be no more stories like Laura, Sophie or Gina's to report on.

* Name has been changed

For support or more information about sexual assault, visit the Survivors Trust. For additional support with mental health, visit Mind.


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