While watching a festival performance last summer, Jessica’s enjoyment of the event came to an abrupt stop, when the actions of a male performer made her deeply uncomfortable. “[He] stood in front of me and started thrusting his crotch at me; I don’t mean in the crowd or behind a barrier, I mean stood directly in front of me and made eye contact. I am a survivor of rape, and I completely froze.”
Jessica has not returned to a festival since. “I didn’t even know who to contact to report that this had happened. He got paid that night for being part of that.”
Jessica is far from the only person to have an unpleasant experience at a live music event. Yvonne describes being accosted in a dense crowd at a major Dublin concert five years ago. “He touched my ass a few times before I turned around and told him to stop. He then did it again, so I turned around and smacked him on the head.
“I hadn’t been drinking, and I am not a violent person. He then went to hit me back, but the people around me stepped in, and my friend placed herself in front of me. It still fills me with disgust and anger to think about it now.”
Sexual misconduct has long been part of festival fabric. A 2018 study in the UK conducted on behalf of the Press Association by YouGov found that one in five festival-goers had experienced sexual assault or harassment. Only 2 per cent of those reported these instances to the police.
Sweden’s 2018 Bravalla festival was cancelled over high levels of sexual assault.
And this week allegations surfaced accusing Canadian prime minster Justin Trudeau of groping a reporter at a festival 18 years ago.
Jen Calleja is co-director of Good Night Out, a British voluntary organisation that offers training and advice to venues on procedures for sexual assault and harassment. The organisation has approached festivals, but received little interest. “Festivals will work on focusing on what the most likely and larger impact problems could be at festivals, so say like fire safety and overcrowding,” she says.
In June, the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre took a tent at the Body & Soul festival in Co Westmeath. It was one of two charity partners. "We wanted to generate conversation, debate anything at all that people wanted to say about sexual consent," says Shirley Scott, a policy officer at the centre.
She sees the Rape Crisis Centre’s presence at the festival as “preventative”. “It’s a message from the festival organiser that no type of sexual harassment or violence will be tolerated; it’s not part of the festival experience.”
Jen Calleja advises festival promoters to have a policy in place on harassment and appropriate behaviour. It is also necessary to train festival staff, so that security react appropriately and don’t laugh off complaints of sexual misconduct, for example.
Irish festival organisers seem to be making some moves on the issue, but despite multiple requests for interviews for this article, most preferred to issue a statement rather than discuss the issue with a journalist.
Pod, promoter of the Forbidden Fruit and All Together Now festivals, had not supplied any information at time of publication.
Melvin Benn, chief executive of Festival Republic, the promoter of Electric Picnic in Co Laois in September and Longitude in Dublin next weekend, says this is a "society issue, [not a] a festival issue". "Sexual harassment is a fact of all aspects of life as I see it, and a festival or festival atmosphere is most certainly not the only place it finds its expression.
“The level of reporting of it is very low, as it is in society but that isn’t to say it doesn’t go on. I’m certain it does.” Benn says he is working in both the UK and Ireland with Safe Gigs for Women, a voluntary group that helps foster a safer environment for women at gigs. He is “bringing all of the learnings of that co-operation to MCD’s festivals [in Ireland]”.
Tracey Wise of Safe Gigs for Women says at present they are discussing only Electric Picnic, but if this goes well they would consider expanding their Irish presence. “At the moment we are exploring whether we will be at Electric Picnic. If we are there, we will have a stall where festivalgoers can come and talk to us.”
If something occurs on site, their staff would be prepared to assist. “We would contact security and [let] security have the conversation with the person on how they want to proceed, but medical needs are first.” They would also publicise phone numbers for anyone considering making a complaint after the event.
Avril Stanley, founding director of Body & Soul, says: “[AS] a female-led organisation, we like to support and give a platform to many voices . . . We reached out to the Rape Crisis Centre whose work we respect.” Stanley makes clear that the centre “wasn’t designated specifically for things that had happened on site” but was “a supportive environment”.
Jen Calleja’s advice for those attending festivals this summer is to be informed about how to behave. If you witness harassment, don’t put yourself in danger but do seek out a member of security. If it is safe to do so “get between the person harassing someone and the victim, to check with the victim to see how they are and try not to engage with the person who is harassing them”.
Do not be afraid to report an incident, even if there is no obvious way to do so.
Tracey Wise of Saf Gigs says: “We know the bigger the crowd; the less likely someone is to intervene should something go wrong.”
She urges festival organisers to highlight that sexual misconduct will not be tolerated. “Have that message on your website and social media a long time before your event starts and keep pushing it.”
If you are affected by any of the issues raised in this article, you can contact the Rape Crisis Helpline 1800-778888