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Must Reads: After widespread complaints, Coachella is enacting a new anti-sexual harassment policy. But is it enough?

INDIO,CA -- SATURDAY, APRIL 21, 2018-- Sun setting at the Coachella Valley Festival during weekend
The sun sets on the Coachella grounds in 2018.
(Maria Alejandra Cardona / Los Angeles Times)

Music festivals have always been places for escape and community. But amid the groundswell of the #MeToo movement, the spotlight has grown to include not just artists but fests’ own longstanding problems around sexual harassment and assault.

Festival attendees came forward with their own experiences of widespread catcalls, groping and more serious crimes at nearly every major festival. One widely shared article in Teen Vogue collected dozens of stories of harassment at last year’s Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival from every female attendee interviewed. The Times reported similar stories from fans at Bonnaroo and other international festivals.

For the record:
12:05 PM, Jan. 04, 2019

An earlier version of this article referenced a 2017 Times report and stated that fans had endured harassment at South by Southwest and other international festivals. The South by Southwest incident occurred at an unofficial showcase at a club near the Austin, Texas, festival.

This year, Coachella announced its most thorough efforts yet to prevent and combat sexual harassment and assault. The program, which the Goldenvoice-produced festival is calling “Every One,” is a new endeavor comprised of fan resources and policies designed to not only prevent sexual misconduct but to improve how the festival deals with it.

Organizations and activists have long called for such policies and pressured events to work harder to fix these problems. Increasingly, those that stay silent are not only risking fan backlash but in danger of being out of step with today’s cultural climate.

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Representatives for Goldenvoice were not immediately available to comment on the new initiative. But after the Teen Vogue piece raised questions about how pervasive sexual misconduct is at the festival — and Goldenvoice’s own FYF Festival was derailed after accusations against that fest’s founderEvery One stands as Coachella’s most outspoken effort yet to tackle the problem.

“We are pushing ourselves and our guests to do better and to be better. We are taking deliberate steps to develop a festival culture that is safe and inclusive for everyone,” Coachella organizers wrote in a statement announcing the initiative.

The new steps immediately earned qualified praise from professionals in the assault-prevention field.

“I love that they’re outlining what they as a fest are taking responsibility for, and also what fans can do,” said Maggie Arthur, the co-lead of the activist group Our Music My Body, and a sexual violence prevention educator for Resilience, a Chicago-based counseling and advocacy group. OMMB is a collaboration with Matt Walsh of the domestic violence counseling center Between Friends.

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”Preventing sexual violence is also about respecting identities and culture. Violence begets more violence, and if you’re … ignoring racist or transphobic harm, you’re not actually helping. I’m stoked that they’re taking a holistic approach and offering round-the-clock support, as [harassment] doesn’t stop when the music stops,” Arthur said.

Coachella’s site noted that those found committing “any form of assault or harassment, be it sexual, physical or verbal,” are “subject to immediate removal from the festival site and law enforcement may be notified.”

“We are taking deliberate steps to develop a festival culture that is safe and inclusive for everyone,” reads the initiative’s goals. “Persons of any gender identity or expression, sex, sexual orientation, race, religion, age or ability are welcome at Coachella.”

LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 2, 2018: Ariana Grande performs during the Wango Tango concert at Banc of Ca
Ariana Grande performs during the Wango Tango concert on June 2, 2018 in Los Angeles, California
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

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While the festival has in the past posted a code of conduct that governs ticket-holders, the natural chaos and unpredictability of such events, which can often include alcohol, drugs and huge crowds, makes it difficult for fans to report incidents and hold harassers accountable. At least one fan was arrested for a sex crime during last year’s festival, according to local police.

Every One is a significant change in both scope and in visibility.

At this April’s events, Every One will deploy a team of “safety ambassadors” throughout the grounds to help lead guests to services, which will include professional counselors in both the main festival grounds and camping areas. New restrooms will include an expanded all-gender area, open to any gender identity, and specially marked locations around the site where fans can seek services or report incidents.

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Additionally, the festival posted its own expectations from fans, which sets basic ground rules such as “always ask for consent” and “be respectful of other people’s cultures.” Numbers and links to the National Sexual Assault Hotline, National Domestic Violence Hotline, and groups for suicide prevention, substance abuse and mental health are all prominent on festival informational materials.

Along with a notable effort to include more female headliners and support acts onstage, it’s a clear acknowledgement that fans are demanding more safety, resources and representation from the festival.

Arthur’s groups have previously worked on the Goldenvoice-operated Firefly festival and the popular Desert Daze festival in SoCal, along with major Chicago fests such as Lollapalooza and Pitchfork Festival. Our Music My Body has conducted its own online surveys of music-festival attendees, and reported that 92% of women and 30% of men said they had experienced sexual harassment or assault at festivals.

Still, even with the new measures, Arthur said challenges remain. The massive logistical undertaking of policing a festival like Coachella means that contracted security staff aren’t always trained in identifying and reporting incidents, or properly supporting victims of sexual assault at festivals.

“For us on the ground, that’s a barrier,” she said. “Our No. 1 concern is: are they asking staff to go through training or reading to enforce these policies? Even when you have awesome informational tents, people go to security first, so if they’re not on the same page, there’s going to be an absence of support.”

Arthur also noted that, as reassuring as it may sound for festivals to have zero-tolerance policies, the threat of an abusive partner being permanently removed from the fest could sometimes discourage victims from reporting.

But she was optimistic that a standard-setting festival like Coachella is being up-front about refining and publicizing its policies around harassment and assault.

“I’m really looking forward to seeing how fans respond and utilize these services,” she said. “This is potentially a really good place to start this work, because people ascribe to the ideals of the festival.

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“If this community is asking them to step up,” Arthur continued, “they’re more likely to listen. It could be a catalyst…and an incredible model for fests moving forward.”


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