As SXSW Music Begins, What Can Organizers Do To Prevent Sexual Assault At Festivals?

Mar 12, 2018

To stay safe at music festivals, Liliana Díaz and her friends question one another – constantly.

“Like, ‘Who’s she’s talking to? Who is that? Did she just meet him?… Hey do we know him? Do we not know him?'” 22-year-old Díaz  said Saturday as she wandered around a SXSW party hosted by the Austin-based dating app Bumble.

Díaz and her friends aren’t alone. For women at these events, the stakes can often be high – especially when drugs and alcohol are involved. And, as the first SXSW Music Festival in the “Me, Too” era begins, the larger question of how to protect women at large-scale festivals looms.

It's hard to definitively answer whether sexual assault or harassment is more prevalent during SXSW, though.

Austin Police Department statistics show 81 cases of rape were reported in March of last year – the second highest monthly rate in 2017. The year before, people reported only 49 cases – the second lowest monthly rate in 2016. These crimes are counted in the month they were reported, not when the incident occurred, which makes quantifying it even trickier.

"We protect around stages falling but we don’t always protect and consider the importance of people’s bodies."

Outside Austin, several music festival organizers have acknowledged that sexual assault is a problem, and there is some data suggesting sexual violence is more prevalent at festivals than other places.

Last year, organizers canceled the Bråvalla Festival in Sweden after concertgoers reported more than two dozen alleged cases of rape and sexual assault during the festivals in 2016 and 2017. One analysis of all sexual assault cases reported to a hospital in Ottawa in 2013 found that more than a quarter of assaults took place at large-scale events, like a music festivals.

“The large groups, the use of alcohol and drugs, the anonymity, the opportunity [can all lead to sexual assault],” said Kelly Oliver, the W. Alton Jones Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University. Oliver is the author of Hunting Girls: Sexual Violence from The Hunger Games to Campus Rape, which examines the prevalence of rape on college campuses and popular culture’s portrayal of sexual violence against women as an inevitability.

Beyond the fact that a dark room mixed with alcohol can lead to violence, Oliver said, sexual assault at music festivals can be attributed to how society views women’s bodies, especially when women are dancing and having fun.

“When some young men see women enjoying themselves, maybe wearing a skirt or dancing, they think that’s an invitation and they can do whatever they want,” she said.

Men may also see happy women as an affront, Oliver says, as a sign that they do not need men to feel fulfilled.

“When women are expressing their joy and their own embodiment … some men feel like they’re entitled to that joy, that it belongs to them,” Oliver said.

Stefanie Lomatski says solving the issue of sexual assault at music festivals requires a larger, societal change.

“We protect around stages falling but we don’t always protect and consider the importance of people’s bodies,” said Lomatski, who manages Project Soundcheck, an organization that works with organizers in Ottawa to reduce sexual harassment and assault at festivals. 

Lomatski says there are concrete things organizers can do to make festivals safe – like training festival workers how to spot sexual assault and intervene, as well as not inviting artists whose lyrics may promote violence against women.

Other groups, like Portland, Ore.-based C.A.R.E.S. (Compassionate and Respectful Engagement Squad), hand out anti-assault business cards that say “Consent is sexy” on the front and define consent on the back, saying “Anything other than yes is no.”

Credit Courtesy of C.A.R.E.S.

Lomatski said while women like Díaz will continue to find ways to protect themselves, festival organizers need to be more active in preventing sexual assault. SXSW organizers did not respond to an email asking what they do to decrease the likelihood of sexual assault.

“The onus shouldn’t be on the person to create these safety mechanisms," Lomatski said. "People might do that anyway, but really the onus is on the festival to know that this space, research is showing us that it’s high-risk and so there’s an accountability piece woven within it.”