How can sexual assaults at festivals be stopped?

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V Festival crowd 2017Image source, Getty Images

This weekend, festival season kicks off for many in the UK, with thousands of people expected to attend Parklife in Manchester and Field Day in London.

Around the world, millions of people are preparing to go to similar open-air music events this summer such as Exit Festival in Serbia and Lollapalooza in Chicago.

But for some people, what should be a fun and sociable event can turn sour and there have been numerous reports of sexual violence and harassment.

For example, a rape and spate of sexual assaults reported at Bravalla, Sweden's biggest music festival, in 2016 and 2017 led to its cancellation until men could learn to "behave".

Reports of widespread sexual harassment and assaults at California-based Coachella in 2018 drew further attention to the issue.

In the UK, incidents have been reported at many major festivals including Latitude, Secret Garden Party, Reading, Creamfields and Glastonbury, although few have resulted in a conviction.

While crimes committed at festivals - including sexual violence - hit the headlines every year, there has been little research into the scale of the problem.

To help address this, we are visiting three UK music festivals this summer to talk to staff about how they identify and respond to sexual violence.

This builds on a pilot project we launched at festivals last year, where we asked participants about how safe they felt, and whether they had experienced sexual violence. This was followed by an online survey, where 485 recent festival-goers reported their experiences.

About a third of women told us they had experienced sexual harassment and 8% had been sexually assaulted at a festival within the previous 12 months.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Bravalla Festival in Sweden was closed down after a number of sexual assaults were reported

A separate YouGov poll yielded similar results, with 22% of 1,188 festival attendees reporting some form of unwanted sexual behaviour. This rose to 30% for women, who in 2016 made up an estimated 60% of festival-goers.

These figures are unlikely to tell the full story. Despite increased awareness of sexual harassment and violence at festivals, documenting sexual violence is very difficult.

In England and Wales, only about one in five rapes and sexual assaults is reported to the police, meaning official data is an unreliable measure.

Common reasons for not reporting incidents include embarrassment, shame, fear of not being believed, of responses by the police or courts, or fear of repercussions from the perpetrator.

The nature of festivals can make these fears worse, or create extra challenges.

Festivals usually take place in temporary venues where the layout can change from year to year, meaning victims may not know where to report a crime or access help.

Many have a low police presence, often hiring private security companies to manage safety on site, making it difficult to know who to turn to.

Some victims have said that drinking alcohol or taking drugs prior to being attacked led them to blame themselves, or made them unwilling to speak to police.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Coachella Festival launched its "Every One" policy this year, pledging zero tolerance toward sexual harassment

These factors, plus their relatively short timeframe, may be why we found lower levels of harassment at festivals than recorded in other similar public spaces, like bars and clubs.

For example, a 2015 Drinkaware study reported 54% of women and 15% of men aged 18-24 had encountered sexual harassment on a night out over the past year.

Equally, it may be that festivals are safer than other public spaces, with our study finding nine out of 10 "usually" or "always" felt safe.

However, there were certain places on site where people felt less secure, including walkways to campsites and the camping areas themselves, and in crowds around stages.

These were places where people may become separated from their friends, security or welfare services, while campsites may be less well-lit than other spaces.

Despite feeling generally safe, there were significant wider concerns about sexual harassment and violence at festivals.

Overall, a quarter of people said they were very concerned about sexual harassment and a further third were moderately concerned.

There was a marked difference by gender: 68% of women said they were very concerned or concerned about sexual harassment taking place compared with 48% of men.

Image source, Getty Images

To develop a better understanding of the nature, extent and responses to sexual harassment and violence at UK festivals, this year we will talk to people on site who are likely to hear about or witness attacks - such as security, welfare and bar staff.

Separately, we will interview past victims to learn more about their experiences, whether they reported and what the response was. We will also speak to bystanders to find out how they responded to incidents.

This will be followed by another, larger online survey, specifically focusing on sexual harassment and violence.

Image source, Getty Images

Similar research to ours is currently taking place in Australia, while a number of UK festivals have already taken steps to prevent and respond to sexual violence.

At least 76 festivals worldwide have signed up to a best practice charter, pledging to take a zero tolerance approach to harassment, and train staff to prevent incidents and support victims appropriately.

Others have introduced specialist sexual violence services on site, while this year Coachella brought in trained ambassadors to try to combat harassment.

These efforts, alongside global movements like #metoo, may encourage more victims to report incidents.

However, we also need to discover the most effective ways to deal with allegations as responding inadequately to reports of sexual violence is known to cause additional trauma for survivors.

A cultural shift is also needed, where everyone - festival organisers, artists and attendees - takes on collective responsibility to call out and prevent incidents.

For many, festivals offer a chance to escape the mundane for a few days.

Safer festivals benefit everyone, and ensuring they are safe places where everyone can enjoy themselves is paramount.

About this piece

Hannah Bows is assistant professor in Criminal Law at Durham University, where she is also deputy director of the Centre for Research into Violence and Abuse. Her project investigating sexual violence at UK music festivals is being funded by the British Academy.

You can follow her on Twitter here.

Edited by Eleanor Lawrie