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Are UK festivals doing enough to prevent sexual violence?

As festivals start to make their long-awaited return, the urgency and need to prevent and respond to sexual violence in these spaces remains.

Whilst the problem of sexual violence at festivals is not new, it is only the past few years that we have seen an increase in media reports and focus on survivor stories, which have helped place a particular spotlight on this issue.

In the summer of 2018, YouGov reported that one in five festival-goers had experienced sexual assault or harassment at a UK festival. This rose to one in three women festival-goers; with only  1% of women and 19% of men feeling able to report their experience to festival staff.

These statistics, whilst always shocking, are rarely surprising and support what we already know about the prevalence of sexual violence in the UK, where 92,000 women and 8,500 men are estimated to be raped every year (CSEW, 2018). Globally, the World Health Organisation estimates that sexual violence affects one third of all women worldwide.

This year alone we have seen another wave of public outpouring of rage and devastation about the reality of men’s violence perpetrated against women and girls here in the UK.

It is clear that sexual violence is a global social issue, which UK festivals can no longer ignore.

But how can festivals create a culture which addresses sexual violence effectively and continuously works to prevent and eliminate abusive behaviour in these spaces?

Challenging sexual violence myths and victim-blaming at festivals has to be a priority.

The festival environment is a hotbed for some of the most entrenched myths, which include blaming and questioning the legitimacy of sexual violence experienced whilst a woman is drunk, high, or dressed to feel attractive and have a good time. Clear public messaging across any and all festivals which challenge these myths and instead place responsibility with those who are perpetrating is vital.

As part of this, and inspired by Rape Crisis Scotland’s Top 10 tips to end rape, we created our own top tips to prevent sexual violence at festivals:

  1. Don’t put drugs in women’s drinks.
  2. When you see women having a good time by themselves, leave them alone. They’re fine without you.
  3. Just because it’s crowded, don’t think people can’t see or feel you there. Keep your hands to yourself and respect everybody’s personal boundaries.
  4. Never creep into a woman’s tent. You have your own and if you don’t, sleep outside with clothes on. And definitely don’t rape her.
  5. Don’t show your genitals to others without their consent. Don’t take pictures or videos of someone else’s genitals or body without their consent.  This is not okay.
  6. If you’re chatting to someone and they seem drunk or high, don’t rape or sexually assault them. And then look up the legal definition of consent.
  7. If you feel worried about someone because they seem out of it, make sure they are as safe as possible. Help them to find their friends. Do not touch them. If you can’t do this, tell someone else that the person needs help and move yourself away.
  8. Keep with friends! If you’re worried you might rape someone – let your friends know so they can help move you away from others.
  9. If you’re worried you might hurt someone carry a brightly coloured flag around warning people to stay away from you.
  10. Don’t rape.

Given festivals will see a disproportionate amount of sexual violence which involves drugs or alcohol, it is important that organisers and support staff have training which busts common myths, equips them with knowledge about the law, including the legal definition of consent, and builds confidence to respond empathically to survivors and signpost them to specialist support services on-site.

In 2017, dozens of Britain’s biggest music festivals held a website blackout to increase awareness of sexual violence at their events, as part of AIF’s Safer Spaces at Festivals campaign.

There was a huge amount of energy focused on tackling sexual assaults on-site and 76 festivals signed up to a Charter of Best Practice to address sexual assault at festivals.

The charter includes a commitment to take active measures to create a zero-tolerance environment to sexual assault – an environment that is survivor-led and encourages bystander intervention from all festival-goers when they see abusive behaviour.

They recommend that all festival sites should have sexual violence training for staff and volunteers, clear reporting policies and procedures, and visible specialist support services on site.

It is not clear however, what progress has been made by festivals since the launch of AIF’s campaign, and the momentum that we saw in 2017 does not seem to have been carried into the present day. Many festivals did not and have not signed up to AIF’s charter and many are still silent on the issue of sexual violence.

As festivals prepare to welcome people back, there will undoubtedly be important planning and discussions taking place about safety in response to Covid-19. This presents a vital opportunity for festivals to consider the safety of festival-goers, particularly women and girls, in response to sexual violence.

That is why we are calling on all UK festivals to renew their commitment to the AIF Charter of Best Practice and to take action to build a whole-festival response to end sexual violence.

For further information about training, consultation and support to address sexual violence, please contact our Training and Prevention Coordinator.

For information about specialist sexual violence support and resources please see the Rape Crisis England and Wales website.

This article was updated on 26/08/21
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