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Coachella’s new programs target sexual misconduct. Are they working?

INDIO, CALIF. -- FRIDAY, APRIL 12, 2019: A hand of ‘The Astronnaut looms over the festival grounds
Poetic Kinetics’ astronaut sculpture looms over the Coachella crowd.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

The Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival has long been known as a place to go see and be seen, but this year’s edition gave visibility to a long-standing problem of sexual misconduct at massive music events.

The weekend marked the debut of Every One, a new initiative designed to prevent and combat sexual harassment, assault and other harmful behaviors at the festival. The program also extends beyond sexual misconduct, offering support to anyone of any identity who may be in a crisis, feeling uncomfortable or in need of mental health services.

For the record:
11:50 AM, Apr. 19, 2019 An earlier version of this post incorrectly identified Every One clinical coordinator Paula Helu-Brown as Paul Helu-Brown.

Posters scattered among the Coachella grounds indicated a push for change. They offered slogans like, “Water. Sunscreen. Consent.,” along with the definition of consent.

“Just knowing that that’s there really makes me feel more secure,” said Dominique Gonzales, 18. “I’m glad that people are starting to say something about it and not push it under the rug anymore. It was really cool to see those signs.”

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Every One emerged in part as a response to articles published over the last year spotlighting the pervasiveness of sexual misconduct at festivals, including one widely shared Teen Vogue article detailing dozens of instances of sexual harassment and assault at Coachella, which will repeat again this weekend.

At least three incidents went to the police in 2018, festival founder Paul Tollett told The Times. There were no cases of sexual assault reported to police over the first weekend of this year’s festival, according to Ben Guitron, a spokesperson for the Indio Police Department.

FULL COVERAGE: Coachella 2019 »

Yet whether misconduct incidents have gotten better or worse over Coachella’s 20-year tenure, or how that compares with Goldenvoice’s country-focused Stagecoach festival later this month, is difficult to gauge from police data alone. Nationally, the vast majority of sexual assaults —nearly 80% — are never reported, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network.

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Guitron also noted that victims sometimes decline to pursue further action after reporting an incident, while others may not come forward for weeks or even months after the events.

The discrepancy between the number of reported incidents and the dozens detailed in the Teen Vogue article highlights the need for both easily accessible reporting resources and preventive action that programs like Every One are striving to provide.

The campaign includes two on-site counseling centers — one centrally located by one of the festival’s main art pieces, the Spectra tower, and one in the campgrounds, where attendees can seek private, confidential support from a staff of trained counselors.

It’s an institutionalized mentality that guys think they can do whatever they want to girls, and I don’t think a festival can control that
Coachella attendee Kaja Bojic, 21

Every One also deploys a team of “ambassadors” throughout the grounds to help deter bad behavior, and to whom fest-goers can report misconduct or otherwise seek help amidst the crush of the crowd. Coachella organizers Goldenvoice promoted the campaign on its social media and in festival guidebooks.

Still, connecting the resources and messaging of a pilot program like Every One to a crowd of 125,000 can be difficult to navigate.

“The biggest challenge on the clinical side has been not knowing what to expect, such as when we would have more guests, or what the specific needs would be,” said Every One clinical coordinator Paula Helu-Brown.

And yet the majority of women with whom The Times spoke were unaware that resources like Every One existed in the first place, an issue that may have less to do with visibility than the ingrained cultural normalization of bad behaviors.

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“Maybe this is messed up to say, but I feel like this stuff is normal,” said Kaja Bojic, 21. “But I know that’s not the case for everyone, which sucks. The problem goes deeper than any festival. It’s an institutionalized mentality that guys think they can do whatever they want to girls, and I don’t think a festival can control that.”

INDIO, CALIF. - APRIL 14, 2019. Thousands of pewople jam the Empire Polo Grounds in Indio on day th
With efforts like Every One, festivals like Coachella hope to awareness around issues of sexual harassment and assault.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Every One is the latest in an emerging crop of “safe space” programs and consent campaigns attempting to change that mentality at large-scale events, the need for which has become particularly visible in the post-#MeToo era. Gatherings like San Diego Comic Con and Burning Man have both employed consent campaigns for years, while newer programs like Our Music My Body and Safer Scenes have gained traction providing sexual misconduct prevention resources at music-focused events like Lollapalooza and Riot Fest, among others.

“I’ve been to other festivals like Rolling Loud and Day N Night, and it was way worse there,” said Hannah Herr, 18. “Everyone is trying to dance up on you and grab you.”

Experiences among the women at Coachella were mixed. All had experienced sexual harassment or assault at music festivals in the past, and many said they were met with unwanted catcalling or touching over the weekend, particularly in the crush of the crowd.

“I’ve had someone grab my ass in the crowd, and I turned around and I didn’t even know who it was because there were so many guys standing behind me,” said Holly Wiemann, 21. “So how do you call that person out? How do you report that? You can either call them out, or move.”

Others said that despite some unwanted attention, they still noticed an overall improvement.

“I definitely think Coachella has progressed,” said Ryley Gordon, 23. “The first year I attended the people were really different and aggressive, but these last two years I feel like it’s changed a lot. The crowd is more respectful.”

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As if on cue, this conversation with a reporter is interrupted—twice—by an apparently inebriated male attempting to hit on us and offer us his open drink. We decline. He eventually gets the message.

Several female fans said they noticed a sharp difference in how they were treated depending on whether they were with male companions, pointing to a need for men and other allies to be more proactive about changing each others’ behavior.

“I haven’t experienced anything crazy this weekend, but I think that’s because we’re with guys, to be honest,” Herr said. “Last year I was with a couple of girls, and you’d hear guys whispering things behind you, or running up behind you trying to grind on you. I hope what the festival is doing [with Every One] is making them think about it more. I am starting to see guys calling out their friends and thinking about it more general, but this is how women have had to think forever.”

Most of the women interviewed said they would be keen to use Every One’s resources if needed in the future, but also emphasized the need to continue the cultural conversation—and focus on preventing misconduct in the first place.

“They should make the message louder, or have artists say something during sets,” said Desiree Barton, 27. “DJs already say stuff like ‘take care of your friends tonight.’ How about, ‘Keep your hands to yourself.?”


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