Festival season is a time of joy, sunburn and sloshing about in muddy fields. However, this booming industry – which attracts millions of attendees each year and contributed to the £4bn revenues generated by the UK’s live music industry in 2016 – has a dark side. From family-oriented Latitude to the largely tweenage V festival, few British festivals seem to be immune from allegations of rape and sexual assault. Between 2014 and 2016, eight sexual assaults were reported at Reading festival, a post-GCSE venue for many teens. In 2013, a male nurse was convicted of attacking two women in the medical tent at Wilderness. Just last week, police announced that “inquiries continue” regarding a sexual assault on a bridge close to Glastonbury’s Silver Hayes dance field, and an alleged assault by a security guard at London one-dayer Lovebox has also been well publicised.
While many attacks happen out of the way of the main arenas of such events, others occur in the thick of the festival; in 2011, a 15-year-old alleged that she had been raped close to the main stage of Bestival on the Isle of Wight. I was also at the festival that year, and while thankfully I had a safe trip, I was flashed as I exited a toilet, again close to the main stage. Along with more serious cases, the incident compounded my fear that maybe festivals weren’t the safe, escapist realms I had hoped they were.
It is not an issue exclusive to Britain, either; earlier this month, news outlets around the world reported on a spate of sexual violence at Sweden’s largest festival, Bråvalla, which has been cancelled for next year after allegations of four rapes and 23 related attacks. In response, the comedian Emma Knyckare announced her intention to hold a “man-free rock festival”. Answering her critics, who claimed that this amounted to anti-male discrimination, Knyckare told the Swedish tabloid Aftonbladet that “since it seems to be OK to discriminate against women all the time, maybe it’s OK to shut out men for three days?”
But is banning men from festivals really the way to deal with things? This is a question I put to Fiona Stewart, the managing director and owner of the Brecon Beacons-based Green Man festival. As the country’s only female festival-owner, Stewart has had to find her place within a male-dominated industry over the years, first heading up the Big Chill. Women’s safety is a subject she feels strongly about. “I’m not really into any kind of exclusive situation anywhere,” Stewart says of Knyckare’s plan, before adding that she does understand how that specific case may have necessitated a more hardline approach. “I would be sympathetic to the people who’ve created that [rule], because they must feel under tremendous pressure”.
As for security at her own festival, Stewart oversees the whole operation, carefully choosing who will work on the ground from a number of different organisations. “Green Man has got quite a gentle reputation, but with anything like this it’s actually pretty robust and vigorous. We have a very proactive attitude towards assault,” she says. “It’s not a reactive thing.” She assures me that if I were to find myself alone at the festival at 2am, there would be lighting, security points and stewards within easy reach. Whether as a result of her measures or happy coincidence, reported assaults at Green Man are virtually nil.
If Stewart represents an industry view, then Girls Against is very much the voice of grassroots efforts. The group – which campaigns on and offline for increased festival and gig safety – comprises teenage girls from across the UK, such as Bea Bennister, who has just finished her A-levels. She tells me the group’s most important endeavour since forming in 2015 was being a part of the Safer Spaces Campaign, run by the Association for Independent Festivals (AIF) and launched this May. As part of the initiative, Girls Against helped them to “instigate a 24-hour ‘blackout’ on festivals’ websites and social media to raise awareness of sexual assault”, as well as implementing a new safety charter (its tenets: “Zero Tolerance to Sexual Assault. Hands Off Unless Consent. Don’t Be a Bystander”). Among the signatories were Bestival, Secret Garden Party, Boomtown Fair and End of the Road.
While it was a project that caught the media’s attention, Bennister is focused not just on prevention but also on what to do once someone has been the victim of an attack, adding that she finds it “increasingly important that we continue to work as a support system to help victims and guide them in their next steps after an assault”.
Glastonbury festival offered only a brief response to my questions on its strategies for preventing any attacks, directing me to a webpage where the advice was limited to “keep with friends” and “avoid dark areas”. But the festival drew praise this year for helping someone find their feet again after an assault. In a blogpost that racked up thousands of shares on Twitter, entitled An open letter to Glastonbury, from a victim, Laura Whitehurst detailed how the organisers of the festival had helped her to attend this year’s edition, after she was sexually assaulted by people she had planned to go with. As well as making special arrangements for her travel and camping, she was also given a letter that allowed her access to extra help from security if required. Ending her letter of thanks, she said that the organisers had “made me feel like a survivor again”.
Although cases such as this and the AIF campaign are moves in the right direction, there is still more to be done. “There is definitely room for improvement,” says Bennister. “It is clear that proper security training needs to be the big push, but it is increasingly difficult to contact these companies, let alone get them to agree to more training. I think festival organisers are unsure what to suggest, so ‘stay with friends’ and ‘move if you feel uncomfortable’ are common solutions that may not be helpful in all situations.”
As for Stewart, she stresses that everyone has their part to play in making sure festivals are safe environments, founded on a culture of respect. “I don’t see this as a male or female issue issue, I see this as a human issue.”
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