A fifth of festival-goers have faced unwanted sexual behaviour. Here’s how we stop it

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Many festivals still have no policies or procedures in place to tackle the alarming numbers of people being harassed and assaulted at their events.

Festival season is upon us once again and the next few months will see millions attending music festivals both around the UK and internationally.

But hanging over these fun and carefree events is the fact that in the last few years it has become apparent, through first-hand accounts, articles, surveys and awareness campaigns, that festivals are rife with incidents of sexual harassment and assault.

In response to the rise of reported incidents there was a social media black out by festivals in solidarity with victims of assault – a pledge for festivals to be safer spaces last year. Has anything changed? And what are festivals actually doing to prevent and deal with sexual harassment and assault?

A new poll by YouGov for the Press Association, which surveyed 1,188 festival goers, revealed that 22 per cent of all Britons who have been to a festival faced some kind of unwanted sexual behaviour, rising to almost one in three women (30 per cent), and almost half (43 per cent) of women under 40. Verbal sexual harassment and forceful sexualised dancing accounted for most of the reported incidents.

Alarmingly, only one per cent of women reported sexual assault or harassment to a member of festival staff (compared with 19 per cent of men) and only two per cent of festival goers who were assaulted or harassed reported the incident to the police.

When asked how satisfied they were with how festivals handled their report of assault, while 22 per cent said they were satisfied and eight per cent dissatisfied, 69 per cent said they either didn’t know or were neither satisfied nor dissatisfied, suggested by PA to indicate a lack of awareness over the safeguarding policy at the festivals they had attended.

While all festivals have safety procedures in place for staff to follow in case of dangerous situations like overcrowding, violent behaviour or fire, many still have no policies or procedures in place nor take any preventative measures to tackle the alarming numbers of people, and women in particular, being harassed and assaulted at their events. Due to a climate of disbelief in society in general, not knowing whether a festival has a procedure in place can only make reporting more challenging, stressful, traumatic – and even less likely to be reported and dealt with.

The Good Night Out Campaign, a volunteer-run campaign I help organise in London, has been training staff in bars, pubs, clubs, venues and student unions on professionally and empathetically responding to disclosures of sexual harassment and assault since 2014. We know from our work that woman and people identifying as LGBTQ+ are most likely to experience harassment, and that staff in the night-time economy, including those at gig venues and festivals, will often have had little to no training in how to handle disclosures of sexual assault. We now have divisions around the UK and internationally and, along with university Freshers’ Weeks, festivals are fast becoming a priority for us.

We recently set up a Dorset division of Good Night Out based at Bournemouth University in partnership with Dorset Rape Crisis, and a team of new GNO student organisers will be helping Dorset Rape Crisis have a presence at Bestival for a second year in a row.

Dorset Rape Crisis volunteer coordinator, Simone Gosden, believes that our presence there not only helps make it clear that harassment shouldn’t be part of the festival experience, but is also a great chance to help educate the policy-makers and activists of the future.

“By allowing a space for people to come and write down their experiences of harassment and assault for all to see and creating a space for a conversation about harassment myths it helps festival-goers recognise what is acceptable behaviour and helps them lend their support to survivors, she says. 

“What we’ve noticed is that people attending festivals often can’t recognise what constitutes rape or assault, but they can recognise consent, so we focus on light-hearted activities that explore issues of consent.

“We want to end the stigma of victim-blaming and this year we’re encouraging people to take selfies using #beyourownringleader to empower people to dress how they want to highlight how the way you’re dressed doesn’t mean you ever deserve to be harassed or assaulted.

“Festival-goers could one day be jury members, police officers, people working for social services, so getting them into the tent, even to just take a photo to share their support for survivors on social media, is great. It’s a chance to start a long term conversation.”

Good Night Out’s co-founder, Bryony Beynon, recently set up a GNO division in Australia and partnered with Laneway Festival, a one-day festival that travels to seven cities in Australia, New Zealand and Singapore, to help ensure that there was a procedure in place to deal with incidents this year:

“Festival safety policies are often based on risk – this means the action taken in response to an issue correlates directly to the likelihood of the festival being shut down as an unsafe site, insurance claims being made or legal action being brought against the festival by attendees.

“This often doesn’t allow for the fact that sexual assault might only impact one person – this might not even be physically, but psychologically it could be huge.

“In terms of policy, festivals need to acknowledge this in how they assess risk going forward and aim to be more preventative rather than reactive.”

Alongside compulsory training for staff and all vendors being informed of policy and the best ways to respond, a telephone number was created for those needing help without them having to seek out staff and the festival actively promoted bystander intervention.

“There needs to be more options for how to report. If you’re in a big crowd and something happens are you going to leave your location to locate a security guard?

“The Laneway 1800LANEWAY hotline is one of the first of its kind. It’s a line that people can call or text if they need to alert a central contact about anything to do with safety – the person getting in touch might need assistance themselves or they’ve witnessed something happen to someone else

“That said, there might not always be phone signal, which is where bystander intervention comes in. The festival put bystander intervention tips on their website and on their social media before the festival started, which reached attendees who might have never thought about what they would do in that situation before.”

Though it might seem unconnected, the way a festival markets itself and how diverse its bills are also contribute to how safe a festival can feel and lessen an atmosphere where harassment seems acceptable. A festival that is representative on stage and in promotional material creates a more inclusive atmosphere automatically.

And the more visible zero tolerance policies are – both online during and prior to events, and on posters around the festival – the clearer it will be to attendees, and would-be perpetrators, that the festival is prepared and takes harassment seriously.

Harassment is everyone’s problem, and through better safeguarding policies and actively upholding the idea that harassment is never OK we can make sure festivals and nights out are for everyone.

Jen Calleja is a writer and literary translator, and a co-Director of the Good Night Out Campaign London (@_goodnightout).

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