Reading and Leeds Festivals have long been a rite-of-passage for British teenagers. Taking hold over the Bank Holiday weekend, beginning the day after GCSE results are released, the pair – Reading for the South, Leeds for the North – have offered the opportunity for adolescents to celebrate with music and alcohol stolen from their parents.
It’s unlikely that many are packed off with a briefing on sexual violence at festivals along with the baby wipes and sleeping bags. And yet, there’s a long and pervasive history of sexual misconduct at live music events such as Reading and Leeds, even if barely anyone is talking about it. I know, because it happened to me.
I was 15 years old and in heaven when I first attended Reading. But the weekend took a turn for the worse when I stumbled into The Vaccines’ set in the NME tent. Drunk on sleep deprivation and cheap vodka, I absorbed the lesson that men could be cruel for the first time.
My body was quickly throttled into a mosh pit I really did not want to be a part of. As I was kicked to the ground, I was stamped on by muddy shoes; no one noticed me down there until the song and the crowd receded. In several other crowds, men forced their hands down my pants and groped at my chest. Later, as I waited for Blink 182 to take to the stage, my leg began to burn with what felt like bee stings. As I turned around, I realised I was being urinated on. The man apologised while still relieving himself into my wellington boot.
Surprisingly, none of this put me off from returning two years later. Instead, these anecdotes became great tidbits, proof of how “wild” the weekend really was. When it came to celebrating my AS results, there felt like no better alternative than Reading Festival 2012. To return was to experience more of the same: tiny brackets of time in which I feared for my life, dull banter, sewage without the sewers. No urine in my boots this time, to be fair.
However, by day two, I had to leave. I’d met a boy. We both came to a Grimes show alone and we danced. When I felt him push his erection into me, I told him, truthfully, that I had a girlfriend. When he backed off, I thought he was extraordinary, a kind of saint for nodding his head when I asked if we could be friends, instead. I seemed to have lost all of mine.
When we went back to my tent to smoke, he zipped it shut. He asked for a hug, but as I leaned in he took off my shirt and sat on it. He stared at me in silence as, uninvited, he unzipped his trousers. I felt a mixture of fear and revulsion before I forced myself to look at him, to truly understand what I was being confronted with. I let out a laugh but he looked stern. When he hadn’t received the sex he was expecting from the weekend, he sought it in me and took it out on my body. I kissed him as a form of compromise, now truly feeling the weight of terror. I was paralysed as he stripped off my clothes and forced himself into me.
By the time I came to he was long gone. I lay in my tent, in shock, for hours before finally making the journey home. I didn’t report what had happened. Partly because I wouldn’t have known how, and partly because I needed to leave the campsite as soon as I could. I needed my mum. I told her I was ill as Florence & The Machine’s set – which I desperately wanted to see – was broadcast live on television. Something died in me that day. I’ve never been the same.
A study released last year suggested that such horrific events were not unusual at festivals. YouGov found that 30 per cent of female festival-goers and 40 per cent of attendees under 40 had faced unwanted sexual behaviour. The most common was “unwelcome and forceful dancing”, how my assault began, but 11 per cent had been sexually assaulted.
Two years after my assault, a young woman was raped in her caravan at Reading Festival by a teenage boy and middle-aged man. I began to wonder how many incidents went unreported. I also wondered how the festival might change now that it had a public obligation to do so.
The festival’s press team told me that “safeguarding is a massive priority for Reading and Leeds Festival,” and that they have a number of initiatives on site, including a Safe Gigs For Women station.
True, the past half-decade has seen a slight increase in reporting sexual assault at festivals. Organisations such as White Ribbon and Safe Gigs have been working with festivals to help them implement safeguarding policies, as well as educating young people on the importance of consent and bodily autonomy. There is more research into how the issue of rape culture at festivals can be spotlighted and subsequently reduced.
But, had this existed when I attended, I still don’t think my rape would have been prevented. Nor do I imagine that this will change the expectations of any teenager attending the festival this weekend.
This is, sadly, because assault at festivals has become so commonplace as to have been near-expected. It’s been “normalised as a hazard of attendance”, says Rosemary Hill, a trustee of White Ribbon and Senior Lecturer in Media Studies at the University of Huddersfield.
She has noticed one common theme seems to run through the majority of festivalgoers, which is the idea that sexual assault “just happens" at festivals – to the extent that “victims often do not feel it is worth speaking up.”
As a result, Hill says, “we can safely assume that there is sadly a great number of serious incidents that go unreported.”
Part of the problem is the inherent gender bias of festival culture. Hill points out that women are far more likely to be the victims of sexual violence. There have been several studies showing that “sexual harassment and assault plays a part in performing masculinity and homosocial bonding amongst men,” and this is amplified in a festival setting in which men are challenged even less for their violence against women.
More research is being done: Dr Hannah Bows at Durham University and Dr Bianca Fileborn are currently developing our understanding of just how far this goes within the festival scene, and although their research is as yet unpublished, Hill tells me that there’s a much larger problem than previously thought.
But while Hill maintains that safeguarding and disclosure policies have improved in recent years, she says it’s not enough. And I agree: the whole culture needs to be uprooted, and a few more stalls on a festival site won’t do that. Music festivals need to be actively prioritising young women’s needs and safety.
It might be tempting for any parents reading this to ban their daughters from attending the festival. But really, this comes down to the need to raise better sons, too. Teach them about consent. Teach them about the power imbalance in their favour. Teach them to empathise with women as they do with other men. Above all, before you send him to a festival, make sure that he doesn’t have the capacity to traumatise young women.