How One Woman Is Fighting To End Sexual Harassment At Music Festivals

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Music festivals are synonymous with summer. Long days spent on a grassy field, watching the sunset, dancing freely, and singing out our favorite lyrics. It’s a rite of passage — jamming to music while wearing tank tops with band names scrawled on them, sitting on blankets on the lawn (the smell of weed wafting around us), and braving the crowds in hopes of scoring a better view.

As we entered our twenties, music festivals became a kind of escape from ordinary life. An environment rich with community and brimming with an unspoken (but very tangible) sense of freedom. Large or small, these fests offer a reprieve from reality — where people make connections that would hardly feel possible outside of the festival setting.

But the scene isn’t without its flaws. Women are often groped and hit on aggressively. Grinding, hands brushing hips, fingertips on the small of the back — it’s never cool when uninvited. The level of non-consensual touching at festivals amounts to a serious problem.

In April of 2018, Vera Papisova, an editor at Teen Vogue, interviewed women at Coachella about sexual assault and harassment at music festivals. All 54 women she interviewed had experienced some sort of sexual harassment at the festival — including Papisova herself.

“During the 10 hours I was reporting on this story, I was groped 22 times,” she wrote.

A study this summer in the UK found that 43 percent of women under 40 experienced unwanted sexual behavior at a music festival. Of those who had experienced the harassment or assault, only seven percent reported it to festival staff, and two percent to the police. Those numbers beg two questions: Why is this happening? What can be done about it?

Maggie Arthur, Prevention Educator for Resilience, a rape victim advocacy organization, and co-leader of the campaign, OurMusicMyBody (a joint effort between her organization and Chicago domestic violence agency Between Friends) thinks in some ways, the specific culture created by these festivals is contributing.

“We’ve found that something the people who organize music festivals and those who attend the festivals have in common is an aim to create an almost sanctuary,” she explains. “Or a sort of insulated environment, safe from all the worlds’ troubles for a weekend.”

While organizers often hope the insular nature of their events will lead to the festivals being a haven of art and genuine connection, it also can create a troublesome-yet-cloistered atmosphere.

“The CDC outlines several risk and protective factors for sexual violence in any community,” Arthur says. “Some of the big ones are narrow definitions of masculinity, limited roles for women, privacy and silence, and structures of power and control. All four of these elements are rampant within music communities.”

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Here we are out in the thick of it!

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The OurMusicMyBody campaign was formed in Chicago in 2016. Cofounders Matt Walsh and Kat Stuerhk were seeing harassment and other gender issues pop up at festivals and in concert venues. And their experience wasn’t anecdotal. OurMusicMyBody conducted a survey of 509 festival goers in 2017 and 92 percent of women said they had experienced some sort of harassment at a festival — reporting 1286 separate incidents. It was clear that there was a culture of non-consent in the music community that needed to be addressed in order to make those spaces safer and more inclusive.

“OMMB would love for music festivals to be a place to go and fully immerse yourself into your musical community,” Maggie Arthur says. “We just want folks to do that in a way that doesn’t inhibit those around them and their ability to do the same.”

Like many festival goers, Arthur (who took over Stuerhk’s role in the campaign at the end of 2017) has experienced harassment when going to shows. She’s hesitant to talk about her own experiences, though — worried that a lone anecdote will take the focus off of the larger goal.

“We want to engage with fans about how to work together to create a community that values consent, accountability and supporting one another through bystander intervention,” she says. “I think this approach works because we recognize that everyone plays an equally valuable role in ending rape culture.”

One thing Arthur mentions is the isolation she’s felt being harassed at a concert, something OMMB works to combat by raising awareness of how many people are experiencing sexual harassment and providing a space to talk. Along with their policy-level work (helping venues and festivals put in place procedures to address harm to attendees or performers), they also set up tables at the festivals staffed by volunteers.

“We invite fans to make personalized buttons and we use this as an opportunity to engage with them about what consent means to them,” she says. “We often find ourselves offering a supportive ear when fans share their personal stories of harassment and harm.”

As this topic draws more and more media attention, largely thanks to OurMusicMyBody, we’ve begun to see a shift. Last year, Sweden’s music festival, Bravalla, decided to shut down for good after the previous year’s event resulted in four rapes and 23 sexual assaults reported to the police. At Coachella, the famed DoLab started employing a medical team during the festival, specifically trained to fight sexual harassment. They also brought in counselors to talk to support victims.

There’s a lot of work to do, but Arthur is hopeful that the next generation is getting the message about consent earlier and in a more comprehensive way than ever before. This summer she facilitated a workshop on OMMB for Girls Rock Chicago.

“Within the first ten minutes I realized that the students – mostly middle school and high school kids – knew far more than I had anticipated,” she says. “They were bringing up notions of intersectionality and structural harm that I personally didn’t fully grasp until I was in grad school! Not only does a program like Girls Rock give me so much hope for the future for young women and GNC musicians, but the fact that they are really teaching them to strive beyond equality to equity is truly incredible.”