What should we do about sexual violence at music festivals?

Sexual harassment and assault at music festivals has received very little scholarly attention, but Dr Bianca Fileborn (@snappyalligator; University of Melbourne) and Dr Phillip Wadds (@phillipwadds; UNSW) are rectifying this knowledge gap. Here they report on their recent research project and suggest some ways that festival organisers and the music industry can make festivals safer spaces.

Imagine you’re watching your favourite band. It’s hot, sweaty, and absolutely packed. The crowd around you pulses with energy and collective enthusiasm. Of course, there’s much pushing and shoving as people try to get closer to the stage, while others thrash around in appreciation of the band. Amongst the general chaos – heightened by the fact that many have been drinking all day, and perhaps indulged in other substances – you feel someone groping you from behind. Did that happen? Was it intentional? Perhaps you were just imagining it? You turn around, but are met with a sea of faces, none of which are claiming obvious responsibility. Defeated and violated, you move to the back – further away from your beloved band, but with enough personal space to avoid wandering hands.

On the face of it, experiences such as this are common. We’ve seen a wealth of anecdotal reports in the media highlighting the occurrence of sexual violence at music festivals across the Global North. A push has also come from within the music industry, with campaigns such as #MeNoMore rallying against gender inequality and harassment in the Australian music industry post-#MeToo. Grass-roots activist campaigns have been spear-headed by bands such as Camp Cope, and the UK-based collective Safe Gigs for Women.

Despite this media attention, sexual violence at festivals has received, until recently, very little academic attention. In the last few years, however, a small but growing body of research has begun to confirm what has been anecdotally suspected: that sexual harassment and other forms of sexual violence are common at music festivals. UK and US-based surveys have illustrated a large minority of women (and some men) have experienced sexual harassment at festivals.

In Australia, concern around sexual violence at festivals is occurring amidst a broader moral panic about safety and drug use that has seen festivals heavily regulated or shut down while heightened public debate focuses on how best to manage these ‘risky’ spaces.

Image credit: Hanny Naibaho at unsplash.com

Image credit: Hanny Naibaho at unsplash.com

Our project

In light of growing concerns around safety at music festivals, and a general absence of research in this setting, our project set out to examine issues relating to safety and sexual violence at Australian music festivals. To do this, we:

  • Did an online survey with 500 patrons from a large camping music festival. We asked about their perceptions of safety at festivals, how common they thought sexual assault and harassment were at festivals, and their confidence to intervene as a bystander.

  • Undertook on-site observations at the same festival.

  • Interviewed 16 people who had experienced sexual violence (n=13), or who had responded to sexual violence (n=3) at any Australian music festival.

What did we find?

Feeling safe?

Despite broader social and political concern about safety at festivals, it is heartening to note that the vast majority of participants in our survey generally felt pretty safe: 61.5% usually felt safe, and 29% said they ‘always’ felt safe.

That said, men were more likely to feel safer than women (we did not have enough trans or gender diverse participants to comment on the experiences of these groups). Men were equally as likely to say they either ‘always’ (47%) or ‘usually’ (46%) felt safe, and 3% ‘sometimes’ felt safe. In comparison, only 20.4% of women said they ‘always’ felt safe, 68.8% ‘usually’ felt safe, and 8.4% only ‘sometimes’ felt safe.

Most of our interview participants also said that they felt safe at festivals most of the time. Unsurprisingly, experiencing sexual violence negatively impacted their sense of safety, and interview participants often reported feeling wary and on-edge not only at the immediate event, but in almost all future engagement with festivals.

How common is sexual harassment & violence?

Survey respondents thought that sexual harassment and assault were very common, with 95.1% indicating they believed that sexual harassment occurs at festivals, and 88.6% that sexual assault occurs at festivals. However, respondents thought that sexual harassment was much more common or likely to happen than sexual assault.

To a large extent, this also reflects the types of experiences that interview participants told us about. Incidents that we might think of as sexual harassment – verbal comments, incidental touching in the mosh pit – were by far the most common types of experiences shared, although some people also discussed experiences of sexual assault. However, this might also reflect the types of experiences that people felt comfortable discussing with us.

Most participants had multiple experiences, particularly of sexual harassment.

While it might be tempting to dismiss harassment as ‘minor’ or ‘trivial’, for most of our participants these experiences profoundly impacted them. For example, it changed how participants used festival spaces, with many now avoiding the mosh pit. Others changed how they dressed or how much alcohol they drank and were hypervigilant about their safety as well as their friends.

Most of our interview participants did not report their experiences to anyone at the festival. For example, they often said that the incident was ‘too minor’ or trivial to report, or that there was little that festival staff could do about it.

Because of the large crowds, it could be difficult to identify a perpetrator as they could easily disappear into the mass of bodies. The unavoidable touching that happens in mosh pits also created a level of ambiguity around ‘what happened’.  

The current approach to policing drug use at festivals was also a disincentive to reporting. Some participants felt that police were just there to look for drugs and wouldn’t be interested in reports of sexual harassment.

For the few participants who did report incidents, the response from festival staff and police was poor. One participant was overtly blamed for the incident based on what she was wearing. While some other participants received more sympathetic responses, there was rarely anything tangible done in response to their report.

What should we do?

Our findings point to sexual harassment and assault as common occurrences at festivals. So, what should festivals be doing in response to this?

Clearly, sexual violence is a serious and systemic issue. It is not something that music festivals can single-handedly prevent or solve. However, there are steps that festivals can take to help prevent this violence from occurring, and to respond appropriately when it does happen. Some ideas include:

  • Making sure there is clear policy in place outlining how reports of sexual violence should be managed, and how perpetrators should be dealt with

  • Ensuring that all staff receive training on sexual violence and how to respond to reports

  • Communicating to patrons that the festival has zero-tolerance for sexual violence, and letting patrons know where to go if they experience sexual violence

  • Encouraging a culture of respect, care and ethical sexual behaviour

  • Working towards closing the gender, race and sexuality ‘gaps’ in the music industry, as these broader industry inequalities form part of the backdrop that condones and normalises different forms of violence.