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Music festivals urged to do more to tackle sexual violence


The set up and culture of music festivals can create dangerous spaces where sexual violence and harassment can be perpetrated, according to new research.

The Durham University-led study found that the combination of size, layout, attitudes and behaviours at festivals can make these events conducive to sexual violence.

The researchers are calling on festival organisers and local authorities to make a real commitment to tackling this and to take it as seriously as other health, safety and environmental issues when organising their events.

The study, funded by the British Academy, is published in the academic journal Violence Against Women.

It follows a survey conducted in 2018 by the same research team amongst 450 festival-goers which showed that a third of women had been sexually harassed at a festival and eight per cent had been sexually assaulted. A YouGov poll in 2018 also found that nearly half of female festival goers under 40 had experienced sexual harassment.

In the current follow up study, 13 women were interviewed about their experiences at festivals in the UK.

It showed that sexual violence and harassment are normal everyday experiences at festivals for the women which ranged from unwanted attention, verbal harassment, groping, sexual assault and rape. The most common experiences were unwanted groping and touching whilst in the crowded stage areas or camping sites.

One participant described her experience and said: “I was in one of the venues stood with a friend, stood chatting, with a bunch of guys. I just felt a hand up my skirt who full-on grabbed my crotch.”

All the women talked about feeling the need to risk assess and adapt to help reduce the risk of sexual violence, in the same way as women often do in other public spaces. Some had stopped going to festivals all together, others went with male friends whilst others moderated their alcohol intake or avoided certain areas.

For one participant, an incident resulted in them avoiding festivals altogether. She said: “I’ve had to stop attending music festivals this year because I was having really bad anxiety attacks whilst there and ended up not enjoying myself. I think there’s also a slight fear, for me anyway, of something bad happening at festivals, and I can’t pinpoint exactly what it is.”

The lay-out of music festivals - with very crowded stage areas, campsites, public toilets, dark walkways between areas and poor surveillance – make many women feel unsafe and provide perpetrators with an ‘ideal’ environment.

The study also concludes that the culture of music festivals supports a toxic lad culture with heavy alcohol and drug consumption and the marketing of festivals as hedonistic and escapist.

As one participant said: “I think it’s a lot to do with the culture when you go to a festival. Some people have the attitude that it’s a lawless land. Which goes hand in hand with drug use which isn’t monitored much and it’s a happy-go-lucky do whatever you want attitude.”

There has been a boom in festivals over the last two decades with latest estimates showing that more than 700 festivals were attended by 7.1 million people, and that the proportion of women attending festivals is increasing.

Lead author Dr Hannah Bows acknowledged that the sample size in her study was small, but said that the experiences reported by the women were typical of other reports of sexual violence experienced by female festival-goers, as shown in previous and other independent studies.

Dr Bows, who is an Associate Professor in Criminal Law at Durham University, and Deputy Director of the Centre for Research into Violence and Abuse, said: “There are more women than ever going to music festivals, but they are not free to enjoy them in the same way as men. The way festivals are set up and the atmosphere they promote and tolerate means perpetrators of sexual violence are able to be ‘drive-by’ misogynists and escape anonymously.

“There has been some progress in recent years, but many festivals still refuse to make a commitment to tackling the issue or have made minimal efforts so far. Given that more than half of the audience of festivals are female, and women are the main victims of harassment and assault, all festivals need to recognise their responsibility and help to change the toxic culture.

“Everyone from artists to promoters, festival staff, organisers, sponsors, local councils and attendees themselves have a role to play in changing this culture.”

In 2017, 103 UK festivals committed to the Association of Independent Festivals’ (AIF) Safer Spaces At Festivals campaign, which is aimed at tackling sexual violence at festivals. The initiative sees festivals commit to a voluntary charter of best practice which includes allegations being taken seriously, acted upon promptly and investigated.

Other festivals are also doing their own campaign and policy work, but the researchers say progress is still fairly slow.

They suggest all festivals, not just some, should work with specialist support groups such as Safe Gigs for Women, to devise clear policies. These should include prevention strategies, how they record allegations and respond to them, a requirement to have specialist support on site and training for staff. They recommend that these policies should be mandatory as part of the broader safeguarding requirements festivals have.

Claire Bloor, Chief Executive Officer at Somerset and Avon Rape and Sexual Abuse Support (SARSAS), commented: “Everyone should be free to have a good time at festivals but unfortunately Dr Bows’ findings echo our experience of supporting people affected by sexual violence at festivals. We hope that following on from this research more festivals will work to create a culture of consent at their events. Sexual violence is not inevitable. Through improved policies, staff training, strong zero tolerance messaging, and support for anyone affected, we can make festivals safer for women.”

Judith Cummins MP said: “I welcome Dr Bows’ important report. Some of these multi-day festivals are bigger than major towns. An empty field one day can be filled with up to two hundred thousand people the next day – and no one would dream of leaving a city that size without adequate police protection or proper safeguarding provisions. Dr Bows’ report shows that women and young girls face significant threats to their safety at festivals.

“I am supporting higher standards at festivals to keep attendees safe, and have called on both government and festival organisers to get their act together to ensure that tackling sexual violence against women and young people at these events is their number one priority.”

The team hopes to conduct further research to examine which interventions to prevent sexual violence at festivals would be feasible.