This article contains references to sexual assault.
Lizzie* was at Bestival to celebrate the end of her school years when she was sexually assaulted. She was standing in a bustling crowd watching Dizzee Rascal with her best friend Kate when someone approached from behind and pushed their hands under her skirt and inside her panties. Another man grabbed his friend’s behind. Lizzie and Kate left immediately, not even turning to face the group behind.
“We ended up seeing the Bombay Bicycle Club put on a little gig on a bandstand in a field instead, and for a while we changed the narrative, saying if that hadn’t happened, we wouldn’t have seen this amazing set,” Lizzie said. “I hadn’t thought about what happened for a long time until I read someone else’s account and thought, ‘It happened to me too.’ It was so obligatory, it was part of the experience growing up. We normalize these things because it’s happened to so many of us. If it was really rare, then maybe we’d find it more shocking. .
Lizzie, who was 18 at the time, was shocked but relieved it hadn’t gotten worse. “We all say this too often, but it could have been so much worse,” she recalled. “When I left I think he probably moved on to the next girl – it was more the energy that there was. It wasn’t about me. I was the back of a pretty big head and ass, that’s all I was. I remember thinking, ‘What does he get out of it?’ He didn’t get his thrill through sexual pleasure, he got it through violence.
Stories of sexual assault have been making headlines for the past few years (despite the pandemic). According to a 2018 study, one in five festival-goers have experienced sexual assault or harassment at a UK festival. YouGov poll. That number has risen to one in three female attendees, with only 1% of those women reporting the assault or harassment to a member of festival staff, either before or after the event.
Rape allegations have been made at the defunct T in the Park and Secret Garden Party as well as Glastonbury, Reading, Creamfields and Latitude, although this list is by no means exhaustive. Swedish music festival Bråvalla was canceled in 2018 after four rapes and 23 sexual assaults were reported there in 2017. Sexual violence is not limited to rape. In 2017, Gina Martin was waiting to watch The Killers on British Summer Time in Hyde Park when she discovered a man had taken a picture of her underwear under her skirt. She led a viral campaign to make upskirting illegal and in 2019 it was officially made a criminal offense in England and Wales.
Of course, the pervasive problem of sexual assault and harassment extends beyond the grassy festival grounds. Festivals are a microcosm of society and reflect the experiences that women go through in their daily lives. Dr Hannah Bows of Durham University has been researching sexual violence at festivals since 2017. Based on her small survey, she estimates that up to 250,000 women are assaulted at festivals each year. The nature of them varies from cat screams, unwanted touching in crowded spaces to tracking and rape in campsites.
“As women, we are so used to these daily micro-intrusions on our space, our autonomy and our bodies. We are used to being ogled, we are used to sex jokes, harassment and sexism,” she says. “All of these things are normalized. One of the things we found in researching this issue is that sexual harassment at festivals doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It’s related to the experiences that women go through in their daily lives.
That said, she says there are factors that make festivals fertile ground for writers. The first deals with the messaging of festivals as places of freedom and hedonism where anything goes. “It all comes with the idea that the rules that apply in normal life might not apply – drugs and alcohol are more actively encouraged and more readily available,” she says.
“There’s a different tone about what’s accepted, which can make it hard for people to stand up and say it’s not okay.” The second question is how festivals are designed. “The sheer size of festivals creates procedural difficulties – an author has anonymity in a large crowd.” If a woman is assaulted, it’s not easy to call. “You then have to find safety and by the time they have, will they really be able to find this person?” In that sense, festivals are ideally designed for offenders,” says Dr Bows.