We Love A Summer Music Festival—But Are They Really Safe Spaces for Women?

Trigger warning: This article contains multiple references to sexual assault.

In the foreground, there is a sea of people at an outdoor music festival. The background of the photo is tall trees being hit by sunlight.

(Photo, iStock)

A few summers ago, I was dancing under the beer tent at a music festival in Southwestern Ontario when a security guard appeared in front of me, arms outstretched. I stopped dancing and looked around; my friends were nearby but not close enough to see what was going on. The guard approached me slowly until he was an inch from my face. Then he wrapped his arms around me tightly, pressing his body against mine. I patted him on the back, stunned, and pulled away. “Why are you giving me that weird look?” he asked. I told him I thought he wanted to search me. He responded by looking me up and down, leering at my body. “Do you want me to search you?” My heart started racing and my fight or flight instinct kicked in. I immediately booked it over to where my friends were standing, but the security guard kept staring at me, so I went to find my other pals at another stage. That night, when I told two girlfriends what happened as we took off our makeup, they looked at me with alarm. I had been uncomfortable before, but suddenly, I realized that what I had just experienced was straight-up harassment. Thankfully, when I reported the incident to the security company, they fired the guy. But my story is far from unique.

Sexual harassment at music festivals has been a problem for too long. At Woodstock ’99, there were reports that multiple women were raped. Last year, there were four rapes and 23 sexual assaults at Sweden’s Bråvalla Festival—the event was cancelled this year, with a press release explaining that, “Some men… apparently can’t behave. It’s a shame… We do not accept [sexual assault] at our festival.” Back in April, a Teen Vogue story about harassment at Coachella reported that all 54 people interviewed had been sexually harassed—as was the article’s writer, Vera Papisova. And earlier this month, a new U.K. survey found almost half of female festival-goers under 40 had experienced some form of harassment at a festival. It’s a Canadian issue, too: In 2016, a man was charged with sexual assault at Ontario’s WayHome Music and Arts Festival, and a recent NOW Toronto report by Toronto journalist Carly Lewis argues that the scene hasn’t improved since.

“It’s always been this bad”

Research shows women (especially women of colour) and queer and non-binary folks are at a greater risk for sexual assault. Victimization rates are five times higher for women under the age of 35. Add to that the fact that only 28 percent of Canadians understand what consent means, and it doesn’t come as a huge surprise that sexual assault is the only violent crime in Canada that is not declining.

That seems to be particularly true at concerts, where the audiences tend to be very male-dominated. “I worked in rap but I know that at rock shows too, the crowds can be aggressive,” says Erin Lowers, summit director for Manifesto, a community and cultural festival in Toronto. “Women are a small minority in a lot of those spaces and it’s just easier to get away with. Nobody’s ever policed it.”

That’s because men tend to hold all of the positions of power, says Veronica Lawrence, co-founder of Society for the Advocacy of Safer Spaces (SASS) in Calgary. “They organize the festivals, run the venues, run the record labels… Even though women tell them harassment and assault is happening all the time, they aren’t motivated to do anything about it.” Thankfully, she says, the internet and social media have created a space for marginalized voices to be heard.

Voices like Annika Reid’s: Now 35, the Torontonian was assaulted at Caribana in 2010. As part of playing mas, she had just passed a judging table when a group of spectators jumped a fence and descended on her and her friends. At one point, she couldn’t even see her fellow band members. “We dance with everyone, that’s part of the culture. But this guy put his hands inside my monokini and started touching my body. He was trying to put his hands in my vagina, right there in the middle of the crowd.” Two of Reid’s friends saw what was happening and fought the man off. “He thought it was justified because of what I was wearing, but that was just a total violation,” she says. “Some men think ‘Oh, she’s dancing and she’s wearing a bikini, that must be an invitation.’ But I’m just trying to have a good time and enjoy my culture.”

Can new safer spaces policies make a difference?

As part of creating safer spaces for attendees and artists alike, festivals across Canada are beginning to publish safer spaces policies to identify community issues and offer resources to anyone in distress.

Maud Salvi, executive director of Sled Island, a music and arts festival in Calgary, says that when she joined the festival in 2013, safer space policies weren’t on anyone’s radar yet. But it didn’t take long before community members became vocal about their concerns about how men were behaving at shows. So, Maude and her co-organizers reached out to the Calgary Sexual Health Centre with all kinds of questions about how they could create safer spaces. The result, a new Safer Spaces & Inclusion policy, which SASS’ Lawrence calls, “one of the most comprehensive” she’s ever seen, debuted last year. It’s a living document, which means it’s always being updated. Sled Island has also been contacted by several other arts organizations in Canada who are starting to give some thought to creating similar policies, Salvi says.

And Toronto’s Aerin Fogel co-created an entire festival—Venus Fest—specifically for women and non-binary folks, partly in response to the gender imbalances in music that can create toxic environments. “Part of Venus Fest is to share a vision of feminism,” she says. “Working with people who care and connect with the people around them is how we can look after each other as a community.”

However, it’s important to note that festival staff can’t ever really guarantee a completely safe space, Fogel says. But, “policies have the potential to make a long-term difference. It will take some trial and error, but it’s a big step.”

Education for staff and bystander intervention training for all 

Policies are indeed a good start, but they aren’t enough. Festival organizers need to provide education to the community, says Stacey Forrester, founder of Good Night Out Vancouver, an initiative that launched in 2014 to help clubs, bars and other venues handle—and prevent—harassment. “Every single staff and volunteer needs to be given a briefing on harassment, including what it might look like and ways to intervene.” Forrester says. Aside from assisting attendees, it’s also about empowering staff to feel like they can step in and their employer will back them up.

Bystander intervention training, where staff learn how to deal with potentially unsafe situations, is becoming a go-to tool for festival organizers like Salvi. Sled Island requires all permanent and volunteer venue managers to take the training each year. “It would be unfair to throw a volunteer into the crowd with a copy of our guidelines without giving them context,” says Salvi. “What does it look like if a situation is unsafe? And how can you go about trying to de-escalate?”

Festival organizers like Manifesto’s Lowers understand that approaching security can be anxiety-inducing for a lot of people, which makes training staff in bystander intervention and having active listeners strategically placed in the audience particularly valuable.

At Manifesto, all staff are given sensitivity and diversity training, and there are also signs placed on the doors of venues that state the kind of behaviour that will not be accepted from attendees. “Before you even enter the space, [we explain] what we expect. No harassment, no unwanted advances toward women,” says Lowers. The festival also hangs posters in all of the bathrooms that list emergency contacts.

This year, Manifesto is adding a new measure of safety by placing active listeners in the crowds at larger events. These listeners are certified counsellors and are available to anyone in distress. The festival is also introducing a designated safe space for individuals who identify as female, trans and gender-non-conforming. “It’s not necessarily about us controlling every action. We can’t do that, it’s impossible,” says Lowers. “But we can avoid a lot of dangerous situations by creating these spaces.”

Festival audiences can help too; if you notice someone in distress and you either can’t or aren’t comfortable with notifying someone else, you can try Good Night Out Vancouver’s bystander intervention tips. One important thing to remember: Keep your focus on the person in distress. “Give them that opportunity to take a moment, find their voice and take their power back,” says Lawrence.

With the arrival of this year’s festival season, I don’t feel the same excitement over spending sun-soaked days in bustling crowds. My experience and stories like Annika’s ring in my ears whenever I think about buying a ticket to Osheaga or even smaller local festivals like the one I went to last year. Instead of thinking back to the fun memories, my mind always goes back to my run-in with security. But folks like Lowers, Lawrence, Salvi, Fogel and Forrester offer a glimmer of hope; maybe I’ll be able to really enjoy a festival again some day—this time, with a supportive network in a safer space.

If you have been sexually harassed or assaulted, contact the Assaulted Women’s Helpline at 1-866-863-0511, find a rape crisis centre or women’s centre via The Canadian Association of Sexual Assault Centres or reach out to a resource in your province:

British Columbia: VictimLinkBC  (24/7 hotline: 1-800-563-0808) | Alberta: Association of Alberta Sexual Assault ServicesSexual Assault Centre of Edmonton (24/7 hotline: 780-423-4121) | Saskatchewan: Saskatoon Sexual Assault & Information Centre (24/7 hotline: 306-244-2224) | Manitoba: Klinic Community Health (24/7 hotline: 1-888-292-7565) | Ontario: The Ontario Coalition of Rape Crisis Centres; Assaulted Women’s HelpLine (24/7 hotline: 1-866-863-0511, or text #SAFE (#7233) on a Bell, Rogers, Fido or Telus mobile phone) | Quebec: Government of Quebec (24/7 hotline: 1-888-933-9007) | New Brunswick: Fredericton Sexual Assault Crisis Centre (24/7 hotline: 506-454-0437) | Nova Scotia: Avalon Sexual Assault Centre (24/7 response line: 902-425-0122) | Prince Edward Island: Prince Edward Island Rape & Sexual Assault Centre (call 1-888-368-8055 to request counseling, or contact the Canada-wide mental health crisis line for support at 1-888-893-8333)| Newfoundland: NL Sexual Assault Crisis & Prevention Centre (24/7 hotline: 1-800-726-2743) | Northwest Territories: Hospital-Based 24 hour Crisis Line: (867-920-2121 or Toll free: 1-800-661-0844) | Yukon: VictimLinkBC also serves the Yukon (24/7 hotline: 1-800-563-0808)| Nunavut: Nunavut Kamatsiaqtut Help Line (867-979-3333, available every night from 7pm-12am ET).


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