A growing number of women are reporting sexual assaults and rape at UK music festivals. Radhika Sanghani speaks to the organisers, ahead of Bestival in September, to find out how big the problem is - and what can be done
This weekend, thousands of people gathered in Essex to watch Calvin Harris, Ellie Goulding and Mumford and Sons at V Festival.
But while most were enjoying the music and atmosphere, one woman was allegedly raped.
The woman, in her forties, reported the sexual assault to police who have now arrested a 21-year-old man.
A month earlier, another woman reported being raped at Secret Garden Party in Cambridge. Festival-goers were asked by police if they'd heard her screams in the middle of the night, coming from a tent.
These stories are chilling, and a number of festival-goers have said how difficult they were to digest.
In the words of a friend: “The thought of someone possibly being raped a few tents away made me feel sick.”
But that’s the current reality of some music festivals in the UK.
This year at Glastonbury, three sexual offences were reported, and in recent years there have been a number of accounts of sexual assault.
Last year a 19-year-old woman was raped in a caravan at Reading Festival, and a man has recently been arrested on suspicion of sexually assaulting women at Wilderness music festival in 2013.
In 2010, two women were raped at Latitude – one was a 17-year-old who was assaulted in a tent, while a 19-year-old was raped by three or four men as she tried to find a portaloo.
These are just a handful of the most recent cases, and considering the fact that rapes are generally widely underreported to the police, they probably represent a small percentage of the truth about sexual assault at festivals.
If you look at the figures in the national context, they are not particularly shocking.
In England and Wales, approximately 85,000 women and 12,000 men are raped every year. That’s roughly 11 adults raped each hour, and nearly half a million adults who are sexually assaulted each year.
But for the women at festivals who are being raped, the national picture doesn’t matter.
Their individual experiences are horrific, and as Dave Boardman of the men against violence White Ribbon Campaign says, “It’s 100 per cent a problem for each of those women.”
The fact there's a growing problem is obvious. But the question all festival-goers now need an answer to is: what’s being done about it?
I tried to speak to several organisers of the UK’s most popular festivals but none of them got back to me – from that I can only deduce that they don’t have any particular safety measures that they want to show off.
Broadman, however, does. He’s leading the White Ribbon Music Project – a drive to get all major festivals, organisers, bands and producers to sign a pledge standing up to condemn violence against women.
It has already had 22,393 signatures but only a handful are from festivals, and none of the biggest events are yet to sign up. Broadman wants this to change, and explains that under the pledge, festivals would have to speak up about sexual violence, offer more support to victims and not sweep any incidents under the carpet:
“Often they think 'bad publicity' before they think ‘let’s deal with it’ whenever there’s an incident of sexual assault. We’re saying it’s actually good publicity for them to say ‘we’re doing what we can to keep women safe and get men to keep women safe’.”
Fleur Gardiner, domestic abuse co-ordinator for the Isle of Wight council, agrees.
She’s been attending Bestival - which takes place on the island around two weeks from now - alongside the island’s Domestic Abuse Forum. They have a stand at the festival to bust rape and abuse myths, as well as offer direct support to anyone who has been a victim of assault.
“Some festivals may be wary of this kind of approach because it might suggest their event has a problem,” she says.
“It probably takes a brave festival to do this. They might think it doesn’t go hand-in-hand with family friendly festivals on the surface, but really it shows a lot of responsibility.”
Bestival has itself had a problem with sexual assault in the past – in 2011 a 15-year-old said she was raped near the main stage. But although the festical didn't respond to a request for comment on this article, it has agreed to let Gardiner work with the police to help potential victims.
She thinks other festivals should take on similar measures – so long as they put the focus on wider education and not just on women:
“I’m really quite anti-women’s safety campaigns along the lines of 'be careful where you go and who you’re with'," she explains.
"That doesn’t help victims who have been assaulted to disclose. They feel if they’ve been drinking and separated from their friends, they’ll be seen as liable for having been irresponsible.”
The other problem with this attitude is that it spreads. A 29-year-old female friend went to Glastonbury earlier this year and told me she had a bad experience because she was too worried to enjoy it:
“I was with some new friends and they’re great but I didn’t think they’d look after me as much as my closest friends would have, so I didn’t really let go or drink much. I didn’t actually have that great a time.
“I was just really worried - especially walking around the campsites, which are huge. Imagine trying to find your tent alone at night if you were in a state. Anything could happen.”
This kind of reaction is pretty common.
Joan Smith, co-chair of the Mayor of London’s Violence Against Women and Girls programme, says it’s the worst possible outcome:
“That’s not what we want. There’s always this danger that women think 'the risk is too great', or 'I won’t enjoy it'. But it’s not their responsibility.”
Instead, Smith thinks local authorities and the private companies behind the festivals need to do more: “I think recently there hasn’t been enough conscious thought because we didn’t really understand the high figures of sexual assault.
“I think with any kind of public place were there’s a large gathering of people there needs to be a much greater awareness that opportunists will take that opportunity to attack women if they see they’re on their own.”
Gardiner sums it up saying: “Sexual assault is unavoidable wherever you get an excessively large crowd of people with a lot of alcohol in one place for the course of a weekend.”
Festivals may attract predators, who come to the festival knowing there will be vulnerable women, in the same way they might target nightclubs (as seen in the recently released grainy CCTV footage showing a woman being carried away from a club in Birmingham by a man, shortly before being raped).
But they are also perfect ground for opportunists who will take advantage of the relaxed atmosphere.
Some people have also criticised festival-goers for promoting a ‘rape culture’ – something that was discussed after a man was pictured at Coachella festival in California wearing a T-shirt that read: “Eat, Sleep, Rape, Repeat.”
This guy wins the award for worst fashion/lifestyle choices at@coachella. I'm not easy to offend, but this is shittypic.twitter.com/fyjod24nAx
— Jemayel Khawaja (@JemayelK) April 12, 2015
It’s why Gardiner thinks that the only way to really prevent sexual assaults happening at festivals is through a proper societal change:
“It’s a really long-term approach that’s beyond the remit of a festival. If you’re talking about reducing incidents with young people it’s getting education into schools. It’s changing societal attitudes so young people are better informed about what consent is.”
For now though, festival-goers have no choice but to hope that the festival they’re going to has made some extra safety provisions - and that if an incident did happen, organisers wouldn’t try and bury it as bad PR, but speak up.
As Boardman says: “Many women say that being a victim of sexual assault is bad enough but people ignoring it makes it worse.”
Let’s hope festival organisers are listening.