I am a woman who goes to lots of festivals. Right now, I’m frustrated. When I fork out £150 for a ticket, I expect it come with the feeling that organisers actually want me there as much as male attendees. I want to see women on stage and I want to feel safe. Last year, I was let down on both fronts.
In August 2015, I wrote a investigation for Broadly about the festival scene’s disappointing reaction to a string of sexual assaults at events. Those incidents ranged from the gang rape of a teenager in 2010 to a list of alleged assaults last year. I noticed a real sense that talking openly about consent was seen as bad for business. In fact no major UK festival website featured any explicit information about their sexual harassment policy, though one included the vague message ‘be really clear about what you say “yes” and “no” to’. I’ll be sure to remember that when a guy twice my size forces his hand up my skirt.
The picture was that women were disrespected at festivals in several ways. There was a growing sense of lad culture, from the idiot who wore an ‘eat, sleep, rape, repeat’ T-shirt at Coachella to the woman who told me that men had threatened to ‘spunk’ on her tent at Secret Garden Party. And, though less of a concern than sexual assault, the lack of female representation on festival bills was dire. Only 14 percent of performers at major UK festivals last year were women.
But it’s 2016 now. On the eve of another festival summer, I wanted to find out what improvements had been made, so I contacted all the major festivals to see what they were doing to become more female-friendly. The outlook was disappointing. Amazingly, one response told us about the introduction of an ‘onsite spa’ this year. I don’t think it’s too much of a leap to hypothesise that sexist prejudices like this are spawned from the lack of visibility of female artists at festivals.
Encouragingly, there have been some positive changes. End of the Road has two female headliners: Bat For Lashes and Joanna Newsom. Founder Simon Taffe explains: ‘It’s boring at events when you’ve got too many men in check shirts. Who wants a macho festival?’ Plus, a group of female music insiders have launched Scotland’s new weekender Pandora Fest. It will be held at an eleventh-century fort and has a women-only line-up, except for the odd bloke in a band. The Isle of Wight Council has also been running a tent at Bestival for four years with the aim of rasing awareness about consent as well as providing a space for victims of assault to talk to sexual violence advisors. This year it will be popping up at the Isle of Wight festival for the first time. Organiser Fleur Gardiner explains that sexual assault at festivals is both very present and massively under-disclosed: ‘Things that you just wouldn’t get away with on the high street or on the beach seem to go unremarked upon.’
Fleur’s message is reiterated by 17-year-old Hannah Camilleri, one of the founders of Girls Against who promote conversation about groping at gigs. She urges festivals to publically condemn sexual harassment. ‘It would make people feel safe,’ she says. ‘And if you feel safe you’re much more likely to have a good time.’
Women are so used to normalised misogyny that we’ve been dealing with it quietly at festivals for years, but our tolerance ends now. We want to be able to take drugs, hook up and lose our friends while feeling as safe as guys do. This means reminding guests that events have a no-tolerance policy on assault. It means introducing better security training. This is my message to festival organisers: by only having male acts on stage, and by not looking out for women’s safety, you’re telling women that your event isn’t for us. Start treating us with respect or we’ll stop coming.