Durham University researchers find a third of female festival-goers have been sexually assaulted

Music festival
A study led by Durham University found the set up and culture of music festivals can create dangerous spaces where sexual violence and harassment can be perpetrated. Credit: Hanny Naibaho

A third of female festival goers have been sexually assaulted, according to North East researchers.

A study led by Durham University found the set up and culture of music festivals can create dangerous spaces where sexual violence and harassment can be perpetrated.

The researchers are calling on festival organisers and local authorities to commit to tackling the issue.

Lead author Dr Hannah Bows, an associate professor in criminal law at Durham University, and deputy director of the Centre for Research into Violence and Abuse, said: “There are more women than ever going to music festivals, but they are not free to enjoy them in the same way as men. The way festivals are set up and the atmosphere they promote and tolerate means perpetrators of sexual violence are able to be ‘drive-by’ misogynists and escape anonymously.

“There has been some progress in recent years, but many festivals still refuse to make a commitment to tackling the issue or have made minimal efforts so far. Given that more than half of the audience of festivals are female, and women are the main victims of harassment and assault, all festivals need to recognise their responsibility and help to change the toxic culture.

“Everyone from artists to promoters, festival staff, organisers, sponsors, local councils and attendees themselves have a role to play in changing this culture.”

The study, funded by the British Academy, is published in the academic journal Violence Against Women.

It follows a survey conducted in 2018 by the same research team among 450 festival-goers which showed that a third of women had been sexually harassed at a festival and eight per cent had been sexually assaulted.

A YouGov poll in 2018 also found that nearly half of female festival goers under 40 had experienced sexual harassment.

In the current follow up study, 13 women were interviewed about their experiences at festivals in the UK.

It showed that sexual violence and harassment are normal everyday experiences at festivals for the women which ranged from unwanted attention, verbal harassment, groping, sexual assault and rape. The most common experiences were unwanted groping and touching whilst in the crowded stage areas or camping sites.

One participant described being grabbed by the crotch, while another said she had stopped attending music festivals following an incident.

The lay-out of music festivals - with very crowded stage areas, campsites, public toilets, dark walkways between areas and poor surveillance – make many women feel unsafe and provide perpetrators with an ‘ideal’ environment.

The study also found the culture of music festivals supports a toxic lad culture with heavy alcohol and drug consumption and the marketing of festivals as hedonistic and escapist.

Dr Bows acknowledged the sample size in her study was small, but said that the experiences reported by the women were typical of other reports of sexual violence experienced by female festival-goers, as shown in previous and other independent studies.

Work to tackle the issue is ongoing. The Association of Independent Festivals Safer Spaces At Festivals relaunched their campaign and charter of best practice in May 2022 to tackle sexual violence, harassment and assault at festivals.

Over 100 festivals have signed up to the charter which states that all allegations of sexual harassment, assault and violence will be taken seriously, acted upon promptly and investigated.

The Safer Spaces campaign also encourages festival goers to play an active role in promoting safety by being an active bystander.

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