Sexual violence an issue summer festivals need to address

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[Sexual assaults occur more often at large gatherings in the summer months, according to research. PHOTO: Refinery 29 UK]

On the last weekend of June, eight women were treated for sexual assault at Ottawa Hospital. Six of them were under 20, two or three of the attacks occurred at festivals and the others happened at parties before festivals.

They weren’t isolated incidents. Sexual assaults have been reported at music festivals around the world: Bravalla Festival in Sweden over the weekend, Electric Zoo in New York, Made in America Festival in Philadelphia, Reading and Glastonbury Festivals in the U.K. and Craven Country Jamboree in Saskatchewan.

Most people associate summer festivals with music and fun, but activists say they can also be the site of sexual assaults and that festivals aren’t doing enough to prevent them.

“Sexual violence is an issue that festival organizers desperately need to address,” Shannon Giannitsopoulou, co-founder of the activist group Femifesto, tells Yahoo Canada News.

The eight sex assaults in Ottawa is quadruple the usual number, the Ottawa Citizen reported. Ottawa police said they were investigating nine or 10 reported sexual assaults from that July 25-26 weekend, including one alleged to have occurred at the Escapade dance-music festival at the Rideau-Carleton Raceway.

The statistics are alarming considering the summer months in Canada mean lots of similar festivals and parties to come.

Research done by Dr. Kari Sampsel, director of the sexual abuse and partner abuse care program at Ottawa Hospital, supports the idea that sexual assaults occur more often at large gatherings in the summer months.

Sampsel’s research, done two years ago, showed that there are peak periods for sexual assault: Canada Day, university frosh weeks, Halloween, New Year’s and summer festivals.

In studying the data from more than 200 sexual assaults, she found that more than a quarter of them happened at large gatherings like festivals and holiday parties. The survivors were often young, intoxicated and unfamiliar with their attackers.

And odds are the true numbers are even higher than reported, during peak times and otherwise. The number of reported sexual assaults is assumed to be much lower than actual because most are never reported to police, according to Statistics Canada.

“We know that most sexual assaults are not reported to police, but a quick online search will reveal the many stories being shared by survivors about the sexual violence that was enacted against them at summer festivals,” Giannitsopoulou says.

Keeping everyone safe

“Assaults happen at festivals, but they happen in other places too,” Kira-Lynn Ferderber, project lead of Project SoundCheck, tells Yahoo Canada News. “One difference is that at festivals, there are all these people standing around who can potentially notice what’s going on, and step in to prevent violence.”

Activists like Ferderber and others say the festivals themselves can do more to prevent sexual assaults, and to provide support for survivors when they do occur.

“I do believe that when festivals happen there is a way that organizers can take to the stage and engender respectful behaviour, just like encouraging people to drink water on a hot day,” Kevin Vowles, community engagement manager with White Ribbon, tells Yahoo Canada News.

The messaging can be as simple as reminding attendees that everyone is sharing a confined space so it’s important to respect each other’s bodily autonomy, Vowles says.

“Festival organizers could also take a hard and clear line and indicate to participants that sexualized violence will not be tolerated and encourage people to report if they experience it or see it,” he says.

Sidrah Ahmad, a member of Femifesto, agrees and says organizers should make attendees aware of where to report sexual assault if they experience or witness it, and how bystanders can intervene.

“Festivals should partner with campaigns against sexual violence that are happening across Canada like Draw the Line and give free booth and table space to these campaigns to bring their materials,” Ahmad says.

Empowering people to intervene when they see something that looks dangerous is important, Ferderber says.

“Sometimes we see something dangerous at a big event and think someone else will do something, so we don’t have to,” she says. “The truth is, everyone can play a role in preventing sexual violence. It can be as simple as walking up to someone you are worried about and asking them how they are doing.”

While alcohol and drugs can play a role in some sexual assaults, they aren’t the reason why they occur, Vowles says.

“We know that often times alcohol is used to facilitate sexual assault, including rape, and that people should watch out and keep each other safe. But sexual assault and rape don’t happen because people have consumed alcohol,” Vowles says. “They happen because people, mostly men, don’t have respect for women’s bodies, and feel entitled.”

And addressing sexual assault at festivals shouldn’t be done in a way that blames those who experience it, Giannitsopoulou says, while ignoring the responsibility of the perpetrators.

“When addressing the epidemic of sexual violence at festivals, the B.C. RCMP warned that women ‘should be cognizant of the fact that in a crowd, there could be people who will take advantage of you when you are intoxicated and vulnerable.’” Giannitsopoulou says. “This is a classic example of survivor blaming.”

Working for change

There are organizations that work to prevent assaults at Canadian festivals. For example, Project SoundCheck provides bystander intervention training to festival staff and volunteers in Ottawa.

“We teach people what risk factors to look for, and how to intervene in a non-confrontational, non-violent way to help keep everyone safe,” Ferderber says. “Volunteers and staff play a special role because there are so many of them at an event. They can act as the eyes and ears of organizers, security and paramedics.”

And some festivals are doing a better job of addressing the issue of sexual assault and putting measures in place to prevent it. Giannitsopoulou mentions the Shambhala Music Festival in British Columbia, with a woman-staffed safe space and crisis support, as one that is doing better.

This issue needs to be seen as just as important as others around safety at large summer events, Ferderber says.

“Festivals already address fire safety, emergency evacuation procedures, heat exhaustion so why not rape prevention?” she says. “If events refuse to address this safety issue, we need to ask why.”

Men also have a role to play in making festivals safe for all attendees, Vowles says. They can make themselves aware of women’s boundaries, avoid touching without consent, speak out against sexism among their peers, and model good behaviour, he says.

“Men can be allies to women by intervening if they see sexual harassment or assault happening,” Vowles says. “We recognize that women are capable of standing up for themselves, but we also believe that allyship is about speaking out and standing up for other people’s rights when they are violated.”

But ultimately while most sexual assaults are committed against women they can affect any gender, and a safer environment at festivals is better for everyone there, Giannitsopoulou says.

“Everyone deserves to be safe,” Giannitsopoulou says. “We need to change the way we talk about sexual assault to put the onus on perpetrators to not commit the violence.”

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