Activists Are Forcing Music Festivals To Take Sexual Assault Seriously

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Two weeks before their Central Coast electronic music festival Lightning in a Bottle, the L.A. concert promoters at Do LaB were busy with the usual tasks: prepping campgrounds, checking sound equipment and stocking up on psychedelic art.

But this year, they also held a new class for fans and staff that focused on fighting sexual harassment at festivals: “Creating Safer-Braver Spaces: Consent Culture & Social Care.”

Do LaB, which is a Coachella collaborator, will also have a medical team specifically trained to fight sexual harassment as well as counselors available for any victims. “All of Do LaB’s departments [train] on how to spot a person in need or a situation that might escalate,” said Erica Seigel, a coordinator for the festival safety firm involved. “The teams are trained to act quickly, provide support and create a safe space for anyone who needs it.”

For a new generation of activists fighting sexual assault in the music scene, that’s exactly what fans and promoters need.

Sara St. Hilaire vividly remembers the last time she went to the Bonnaroo festival in Manchester, Tenn., because a man followed her through the crowd and began touching her.

“This guy was creeping up on me and groping me, and I had to get away,” she says. That was seven years ago; she never went back to Bonnaroo. But the L.A.-based music marketer said she’s endured groping at more recent events too.

“One time a guy even lifted up my shirt in the crowd,” she said. “There’s a sense of community and ‘we’re all in this together’ that gets misconstrued at festivals. I remember being younger and not understanding that kind of thing as sexual assault. Society raises everyone to think ‘boys will be boys’ and it gets excused.”

Musician Ilima Considine says she was stalked by a man while on her way to her band’s unofficial showcase at a club near the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, this year. “What started as street harassment escalated into me being chased for five blocks, to the point that I picked up a rock off the ground so that I had a weapon.”

When she tried to keep the man from coming into the venue, she says, no one would help her.

“Most of the harassment we get, we don’t mention to anyone because we don’t want to get labeled as not cool or difficult to work with,” she said. “When we’re scared enough to mention it, we need to be protected without question.”

London festival promoter Alice Whittington thought being behind the decks DJing would afford her some protection. But actually, she said, “it means I am a sitting duck. A few years ago a guy entered the DJ booth and came up behind me, grabbed my hips and started thrusting up on me while saying really sick sexual things. It felt like the ultimate show of power because I felt I couldn’t react like I normally do.”

From the misogyny and coercion underlying much of the “free love” culture of the ’60s rock scene to the 40-plus reports of rape and groping at Sweden’s Bravalla and Putte i Parken festivals over one weekend last year, music festival culture has long included unwanted sexual advances and assault.

Now, as recent allegations against label executive L.A. Reid and the queer-punk band PWR BTTM have reignited the conversation about sexual harassment in the music business, a cadre of young activists are speaking out about incidents at festivals, using social media to share stories and pressure festivals to do more. From educational workshops and booking quotas to new ways of reporting threatening behavior and women-only stages, activists are demanding that organizers follow their lead.

And it isn’t just women being harassed. Garrett Ficacci said that at one San Diego event, a man offered to buy him a drink, but “I wasn’t being led towards the back bar. I was being led towards the women’s restroom. He pinned me against the door, locked it and immediately tore my shorts off.”

Music festivals are supposed to create a sense of freewheeling joy. But in large crowds sometimes fueled by heavy drinking or drug use, some men take advantage of anonymity; some even think it’s the point.

“There’s a lot of music that celebrates a lack of consent,” said Kelly Oliver, a professor of philosophy at Vanderbilt University and the author of “Hunting Girls,” a study of images of women and violence in popular culture. “Men take it as carte blanche — once you enter into a fest or party, it’s like she signed off whatever happens. If she’s dancing, it’s an invitation.” At music festivals, she added, “the [assault] reporting rate is low because [the women] buy in that they’re to blame.”

“When we look at music festivals, locally, nationally and internationally, we see similarities to campuses when it comes to social dynamics and rape culture,” says Stefanie Lomatski, sexual assault network coordinator for Project Soundcheck, a 2-year-old Canadian group designed to fight sexual assault at large events by training security and audience members about warning signs of harassment and how best to intervene.

As an example, she cited a 2015 photo that went viral of a Coachella attendee wearing a T-shirt that read: “eat sleep rape repeat.”

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