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When Emma Friedman went to her first rock festival at the age of 17, she was so excited to get to see bands she loved in a festival environment. But as she was leaving, she recalls her mom making a comment like, “Are you sure you want to wear those shorts?”
Friedman didn’t think anything of it until she got groped at the festival.
“They were what I felt confident in and what made me feel comfortable,” said Friedman, who is now 20 and going to school in Asheville, N.C. “And then I was crowd surfing and some guy was trying to be inappropriate.”
Friedman said her friend who accompanied her was groped so hard she bled.
Friedman is one of many music fans who have spoken up about sexual harassment and groping at musical festivals recently as the #MeToo movement has emboldened more people to talk about harassment in public spaces. With increased focus on the longstanding problem but little statistical data on how often it happens, music fans and even artists are asking the live music industry to make cultural changes.
This year, Friedman went back to the same festival, called Carolina Rebellion, this time armed with a sign that said, “Stop Sexually Assaulting Female Crowd Surfers.” She said the response was overwhelmingly positive with both women and men thanking her for her sign.
“I just want there to be a conversation and for people to feel safer and be able to enjoy concerts and festivals without the fear,” Friedman said.
Some festivals are responding to these complaints by training festival staff and volunteers on how to respond to harassment, adding booths or signs with information on where to report sexual violence, and having clearly posted anti-harassment policies.
Some artists have spoken out on stage to try to stop groping that they can see in the crowd, including Drake and Sam Carter from the British band The Architects. Pop singer Madison Beer said during one show, she called out a man who was being aggressive to a woman in the crowd.
“She kept pushing him off, pushing him off, and he wouldn’t stop yelling at her and telling her to shut up and all this stuff,” Beer said. “I stopped the show and I was like, ‘Leave her alone.’ Everyone applauded and was whatever. I don’t even do things like that for a reaction or applause. I genuinely don’t like seeing that. I’ve definitely had my fair share of guys being a little too much with me and they think just because they follow me on Instagram they know me.”
CHVRCHES singer Lauren Mayberry experienced it as a music writer when she was reviewing a show.
“I stood on a small square box table thing to look up to write on my notepad how many people were in this band and somebody put their hand up my skirt when I was doing that. That’s not a minority of cases. It happens a lot at shows,” Mayberry said during an interview in Chicago where her band was performing at Lollapalooza.
“I think it’s about power and taking advantage in a situation, which is a societal theme,” Mayberry said. “I think it’s good that more conversations are being had around those things off the back of things like #MeToo. I don’t know how you change these things other than trying to create a community and create security and back up women’s voices when they raise them.”
Some artists are leveraging their platforms by having anti-harassment policies as a part of their tour contract, or even giving fans a way to report harassment directly to the band.
Sadie Dupuis, the lead singer of the indie rock band Speedy Ortiz, set up a hotline a couple of years ago for fans to text if they experienced harassment and didn’t know where to turn. She said the most recent example of someone using their hotline was when someone reported that a person in the crowd was using transphobic language and harassing someone.
Shawna Potter, of the feminist band War on Women, has created a guidebook about creating safer public spaces after working with many venues in the Baltimore area. She said that she understands that smaller, independent bands don’t always feel like they have the authority to insist that venues make changes to their safety policies.
“There might not be a lot that you feel you can do without risking that opportunity in the first place,” Potter said. “By the time you make it to the stage, you’re already cashing in on that opportunity. So use that microphone. Let people know that even if they are harassed in that venue and you don’t know if that venue is trustworthy, let them know you can talk to you.”
Much of the discussion about addressing harassment in public spaces has been spearheaded by local anti-violence or anti-abuse agencies.
In Chicago, two anti-violence agencies in the city created a campaign called Our Music, My Body about three years ago. They help festivals create anti-harassment statements or public policies and show up to festivals to give people information about where to report violence or harassment.
Lara Haddadin, 23, has been volunteering with Our Music, My Body at festivals like Lollapalooza, Riot Fest and more in the Chicago area for the past three years.
“Every single place that I have been to, people have come up to us, mostly women, and said like, ‘I literally just got assaulted by someone, like a half an hour before I came to this booth,'” Haddadin said.
A music and social activism group called Calling All Crows started working on sexual violence prevention at shows. Kim Warnick, who runs their campaign, Here for the Music, worked with Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Manchester, Tenn., to give voluntary training to about 250 members of their staff this year and went on tour with the band Dispatch to train volunteers and venue staff on their tour stops.
“Harassment and assault aren’t new to these spaces, but they are newly talked about as unacceptable behavior,” Warnick said.
Festivals like Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza and Austin City Limits have prominently posted policies on their websites about harassment and how to report it, as well as signs throughout their festival grounds. Laura Sohn, Bonnaroo’s director of sustainability, said they wanted to be proactive in their response to a growing cultural movement around #MeToo.
But Warnick said for the vast majority of festivals and venues, fans and even artists are left in the dark about their safety when they enter those spaces.
“Very few festivals and venues share these (safety policies) publicly,” Warnick said. “And even when we put it in a contract rider for a band, we’re still getting a lot of, ‘We can’t legally share that with you.'”
Local police generally report a litany of drug and alcohol arrests after a major festival but when sexual assaults are reported, which is rare, it generally becomes big news and can be damaging to a festival’s reputation. At this year’s Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio, Calif., local police had two reports of sexual battery and one report of sexual assault over the two weekends of the festival.
Multiple women reported to police that they were raped at the Woodstock ’99 festival, which was roundly criticized for overall violence and destruction. Sweden’s largest music festival, Bravalla Festival, was canceled this year after several reports of sexual assault at the 2017 festival.
There are a lot of barriers for people to report sexual harassment or abuse. Large-scale festivals where tens of thousands of people are spread out over large campgrounds or fields make it difficult for harassers to be identified. Similarly, victim blaming or shaming can also arise.
“A lot of people feel like, ‘Oh I was drinking, so am I just going to get that blamed on me for being drunk or for not wearing enough clothing?'” Warnick said. “The challenge is that it’s a really inconsistent experience. You can’t reliably report and know that you’re going to be taken seriously.”
Haddadin said that anti-harassment policies are important, but staff training and having advocates on site show that a festival isn’t just giving lip service to dealing with the problem.
“They say zero tolerance, or we will not tolerate harassment, but they don’t say what steps they take if that is a thing that actually happens,” Haddadin said. “I think that a lot of festivals mean well, but do I think any festival or music hall is doing enough? No. I think there is always work left to be done.”
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