When Emma Friedman went to her first rock festival at the age of 17, she was so excited to get to see bands she loved. But as she was leaving, she recalls her mom made a comment like, “Are you sure you want to wear those shorts?”
Friedman didn’t think anything of it until she got groped at the festival.
“They were what I felt confident in and what made me feel comfortable,” said Friedman, who is now 20 and going to school in Asheville, N.C. “And then I was crowd-surfing and some guy was trying to be inappropriate.”
Friedman said her friend who accompanied her was groped so hard she bled.
Friedman is one of many music fans who have spoken up about sexual harassment and groping at musical festivals recently as the #MeToo movement has emboldened more people to talk about harassment in public spaces. With more attention on the longstanding problem but little statistical data on how often it happens, music fans and even artists are asking the live music industry to make cultural changes.
This year, Friedman went back to the same festival, called Carolina Rebellion, this time armed with a sign that said, “Stop Sexually Assaulting Female Crowd Surfers.” She said the response was overwhelmingly positive, from both women and men.
Some festivals are responding to complaints by training festival staff and volunteers on how to respond to harassment, adding booths or signs with information on where to report sexual violence, and having clearly posted anti-harassment policies.
Kim Warnick, who runs the campaign Here for the Music for the social activism group called Calling All Crows, worked with Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Manchester, Tenn., to give voluntary training to about 250 members of their staff this year.
Festivals like Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza and Austin City Limits have prominently posted policies on their websites and on festival grounds about harassment and how to report it. Laura Sohn, Bonnaroo’s director of sustainability, said they wanted to be proactive in their response to a growing cultural movement around #MeToo.
But Warnick said for the vast majority of festivals and venues, fans and even artists are left in the dark about their safety when they enter those spaces.
“Very few festivals and venues share these (safety policies) publicly,” Warnick said. “And even when we put it in a contract rider for a band, we’re still getting a lot of ‘We can’t legally share that with you.’”
Local police generally report a litany of drug and alcohol arrests after a major festival, but when sexual assaults are reported, which is rare, it generally becomes big news and can be damaging to a festival’s reputation.
Multiple women reported to police as being raped at the Woodstock ’99 festival, which was roundly criticized for overall violence and destruction. Sweden’s largest music festival, Bravalla Festival, was canceled this year after several reports of sexual assault at their 2017 festival.
There are a lot of barriers for people to report sexual harassment or abuse. Large-scale festivals, where tens of thousands of people are spread out over large campgrounds or fields, make it difficult for harassers to be identified. Similarly, victim blaming can also arise.
“A lot of people feel like, ‘Oh, I was drinking, so am I just going to get that blamed on me for being drunk or for not wearing enough clothing?’” Warnick said. “The challenge is that it’s a really inconsistent experience. You can’t reliably report and know that you’re going to be taken seriously.”
Some artists are including a requirement venues have anti-harassment policies as a part of their tour contract.
Others have spoken out on stage to try to stop groping that they can see in the crowd, including Drake. Pop singer Madison Beer said during a show once, she called out a man who was being aggressive to a woman in the crowd.
“She kept pushing him off, pushing him off, and he wouldn’t stop yelling at her and telling her to shut up,” Beer said. “I stopped the show and I was, like, ‘Leave her alone.’ Everyone applauded … I don’t even do things like that for a reaction or applause. I genuinely don’t like seeing that. I’ve definitely had my fair share of guys being a little too much with me, and they think just because they follow me on Instagram they know me.”
Shawna Potter, of the feminist band War on Women, has created a guidebook about creating safer public spaces after working with many venues in the Baltimore area. She said that she understands that smaller, independent bands don’t always feel like they have the authority to insist that venues make safety policy changes.
“There might not be a lot that you feel you can do without risking that opportunity in the first place,” Potter said.
Lara Haddadin, 23, has been volunteering with Our Music, My Body at Chicago-area festivals such as Lollapalooza and Riot Fest for the past three years. She said that anti-harassment policies are important, but staff training and having advocates show a festival isn’t just giving lip service to dealing with the problem.
“I think that a lot of festivals mean well, but do I think any festival or music hall is doing enough? No. I think there is always work left to be done.”