Sexual Assault Is Still Rampant At Music Festivals. Here's How We Stop It.

Photo: Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images.
Ana was standing with friends, anxiously waiting for Beyoncé to take the stage at Coachella in 2018. She was turning 21 at midnight and wanted to celebrate by watching one of her favorite artists. Before the show had even started, she felt a guy behind her staring at her. Then, she says, he ran his hand down her body from her shoulder to her butt, which he grabbed. “I felt so much anger that I turned around and confronted him, asking him why he did that,” Ana recalls in an email to Refinery29. “He started getting hostile. I asked him to get far away from me, and he began to call me names [and] called me ugly.” Ana says she held her feelings in at the time, but it ruined her night. This wasn’t her first time being groped at a concert — and these experiences changed the way she acts at live shows. Ana says she and her friends now dress differently, don’t drink so they can stay aware of their surroundings, stand in a group of girls or couples, and bring male friends with them to act as protection. “My love for attending concerts and festivals will never die, I just think there should be a way to fix this issue,” Ana says.
After last year’s report on sexual harassment and assault at Coachella in Teen Vogue and the larger conversation sparked by the #MeToo movement since fall 2016, music festivals seemed to kick into overdrive trying to fix the issue. Goldenvoice, the company that presents Coachella and Stagecoach, implemented a campaign called Every One to address verbal, physical, or sexual harassment and assault. It included “deeply trained Ambassadors” around the site at both festivals, Every One tents, gender inclusive restrooms, ADA access, and a logo to signify people and places trained to help those in distress. Those found to be committing any form of harassment or assault, the festival said on its website, would be immediately removed from the grounds and have their wristband revoked, with the possibility of state and local law enforcement getting involved.
Apparently, the outreach was not enough. The Desert Sun conducted a survey of women after both festivals and found that 1 in 6 women at Coachella and Stagecoach (both take place on the same grounds in California) in 2019 said they were sexually harassed, and two-thirds of respondents had no idea the Every One campaign and resources existed.

He started getting hostile. I asked him to get far away from me, and he began to call me names [and] called me ugly.

Relying on a branding campaign and volunteers may be insufficient — and some women who once loved concert and festival experiences may have given up forever. Tina, 27, stopped going to festivals after attending Bonnaroo in Tennessee in 2011. “What I noticed about Bonnaroo that stood out from other uncomfortable experiences was the fact that men would just completely help themselves to my body without knowing me,” she told Refinery29 via email. She recounts being grabbed by men and feeling their hands and fingers in her shorts when she tried to watch a set by Widespread Panic. She says she was continuously groped every time she walked through a crowd. The experience, Tina says, “kind of ruined festivals for me,” and today she feels uncomfortable being hugged or touched and has “weird phobias” in crowds now. “[I’m] forever paranoid,” she says.
Lili K, 27, is a vocalist who performed at Lollapalooza in Chicago in 2013 with Chance the Rapper. After a mix-up with her credentials, the security staff didn’t allow her to go into the VIP or artist entrances and sent her through the entire grounds of the festival to make her way backstage. On the way, she says her butt was grabbed three different times. As a result, she no longer attends festivals unless she’s got access to a safe space, like those offered by VIP and artist passes. “I think it was the boys will be boys, having fun mentality,” Lili says. “But it’s obviously not fun.”
But it’s not just men who have been the aggressors. Brianna Marie, 24, told Refinery29 in an email that at a Summer Walker concert at New York’s Bowery Ballroom this past March, she was verbally and sexually harassed by a woman. Brianna wrote that the woman cornered her against the stage after she rebuffed her advances, and that the confrontation turned into a fight. "Security was alerted, and I expressed to him my concern for safety. He basically laughed at me when I told him I was being sexually harassed by another woman — like somewhere in his mind it was impossible, or I chose this path because I 'chose' to be a gay woman,” she said. Brianna said she left the concert feeling embarrassed and helpless to do anything. What she’d like to see, she concluded, is more education for employees and concertgoers on respectful behavior.
Calling All Crows, an organization dedicated to bringing activism to live music, has been working with bands, venues, and festivals to help train their staff and the audience on how to intervene when they observe incidents of possible harassment and assault. Last year, they partnered with Bonnaroo to expand training of their on-site volunteers and staff to handle sexual assault and harassment. For 2019, Bonnaroo expanded its on-site messaging to help train attendees — and with some 80,000 attendees a year, all camping on the same farm grounds over the four-day festival, a lot of volunteers and training was needed.
“We’re expanding to have a crisis counselor in our main medical tent for the duration of the festival to address any issues that might arise,” Laura Sohn, the director of sustainability at Bonnaroo, explains to Refinery29. “We really started focusing on this work on a few years ago,” Sohn said. “It grew out of the #MeToo movement with us wanting to show solidarity and also recognizing that this was a problem for all of us in the festival industry that we hadn’t focused on in the past.”
For festival-goers, the question of how to handle witnessing sexual misconduct weighs heavily on the minds of many. Calling All Crows offers training and signage to help the layperson know what their options are. “Oftentimes, we think about being direct and calling out a behavior, but that’s only one of many ways you can intervene,” Kim Warnick, Executive Director of Calling All Crows, says. The group has bystander cards for audiences that encourage them to delay (check-ins with the person being harassed and stop the action), distract (ask an innocuous question or make a comment like, “don’t I know you from school?”), delegate (report it to a third party), document (take a video and give it to the person being harassed without sharing it), and be direct (confront the harasser firmly and concisely).
Lollapalooza, the final prong in the trifecta of major summer festivals, seems to be taking a tack similar to Coachella. On their website, several clicks in, one can find their Safety at Lolla page with instructions on what to do if you face harassment at the festival and declaring their “zero tolerance” policy. Festival-goers are directed to report instances of sexual violence or harassment at the nearest medical tent or to visit a table for the #OurMusicMyBody campaign co-run by Between Friends, a nonprofit that advocates for survivors of domestic violence, and Resilience, a nonprofit dedicated to working with survivors of sexual violence. In a 2017 study jointly conducted by the two groups, they found that 92% of women reported experience sexual harassment at Chicago music events. While having some on-the-ground resources is a step up from doing nothing at all, there may be an even more effective way to spread the message — and it’s not signs and branding.

U.K. punk singer Frank Carter dedicates a song to women in the audience so they can dance. He also asks men at the show to treat their counterparts with respect and kindness. Carter, who has witnessed forms of assault in the audience many times, says this tone-setting has changed the atmosphere of whole gigs.

There’s nothing that holds quite as much influence at a concert as an artist addressing their audience, Warnick says. They are literally the loudest voice, be it in a small club or the vast fields of a festival, and more capable of setting the tone and setting expectations for respect than anyone else. “If we’re able to get artists talking about who to report incidents to and to look out for each other, that messaging is going to be more effective than getting it from Bonnaroo, who people may or may not want to read their emails from. This is culture change work. We think of artists as some of the best messengers for this work,” Warnick explains. An artist telling their audience from the stage that resources are available and setting the expectation that their audience should respect each other can make a huge difference, according to Warnick.
Taking it to the next level and start a conversation with artists to teach them about the problem and encourage them to speak to the audience is something that Bonnaroo, for one, have not yet done. Sohn knows it’s a hole in the plans — one of several. “We are committed to this program long-term. As it expands and grows, that is something we can shoot to have as a goal next year,” she says.
For some women, the damage has been done. All of the women who spoke to Refinery29 said they felt they needed to stop attending music festivals or adjust their behavior to protect themselves. None of them had anyone intervene on their behalf. None of them felt there was a support system to help after they were assaulted. Training the crowds at festivals and shows is an important step that can help deter and diffuse situations, and hopefully direct those in need to available on-site resources. But the question remains: what will it take to get artists involved as advocates for their audiences? And when will festivals begin having those conversations with the acts they book, empowering them to wield the biggest and most powerful weapon at any music festival, their voices?
Frank Carter, a tattooed punk singer from the U.K., is working with Safer Gigs for Women to make his shows more inclusive of women. Early on in his gigs, he told Refinery29, Carter now dedicates a song to women in the audience so they can dance. He also asks men at the show to treat their counterparts with respect and kindness. Carter, who has witnessed forms of assault in the audience many times, says this tone-setting has changed the atmosphere of whole gigs. Having a conversation with the audience and encouraging awareness has made a difference, he says, both in how the crowd acts and who attends; he says attendance at his shows by women is up sharply. “True change won’t happen unless you’re proactive.”

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