How Men Can Stop Harassment at Festivals Like Coachella
This article was originally published on April 26, 2018.
“It’s scary, and you can’t trust the random people around you to help you. And with those bigger men, it’s just harder and it's scarier to say something to them because they might get angry and violent. Like if you’re not nice, they might hurt you.” – Reagan, Coachella attendee, 16 years old.
Last week, Vera Papisova was groped 22 times during the 10 hours she was at Coachella interviewing women for Teen Vogue. Her topic? Sexual harassment at music festivals. Of the 54 women she surveyed, all 54 for said they experienced some form of violation at the festival.
Some, like Papisova, reported many instances in a single day. The women shared stories of groping, lewd comments and apathetic male bystanders. They also shared their strategies for avoiding these behaviors, such as staying in groups, wearing backpacks and avoiding dense crowds.
The idea that women must defend themselves while expecting no support from the men around them was one of the most tragic aspects of this damning account. Above all, the article depicted the iconic music festival as an event where women came to see their favorite music and have fun with their friends, but left feeling like prey in a holding tank.
My fellow men, what the fuck are we doing in our public spaces?
Women come to festivals to celebrate and end up swimming in a sea of predators. It’s past time for men to take collective action on this issue. That means demanding action from organizers, engaging with other men about their behavior, and yes, it also means taking a deep look at ourselves.
Coachella, Get Your House in Order
It starts at the top – and that means it starts with Goldenvoice.
I applaud Teen Vogue for lambasting Coachella for providing zero sexual-assault literature and offering no information about how to get support if you are the victim of sexual assault at the event.
There are much less lucrative festivals doing a far better job protecting their most vulnerable attendees. Do LaB, who hosts a stage at Coachella, has a much more sophisticated approach to women’s safety, including workshops about consent at the start of their festival, a medical team specifically charged with combating sexual harassment, onsite counselors and a coordinated effort by all safety teams. Canada’s Shambhala Music Festival has been offering women’s safe spaces and other dynamic harm reduction services for many years.
And it’s not just alternative festivals on the progressive West Coast that are taking this issue seriously. Last year Electric Forest enacted a women-identified only space called Her Forest. The Michigan festival stirred up controversy with this move but also stimulated conversation. Following suit, last year Bonnaroo opened up a women’s camp called SheRoo, and will continue to expand its programming in the coming years.
When festival organizers enact these policies they also set the tone for their events. They make a statement about what is permissible and what is not. Coachella continues to pretend that there isn’t a problem and makes huge sums of money from their young attendees. Frankly, that is predation in itself.
Gustaf Josefsson Tadaa, one of the organizers of the Nordic Burn and Stockholm’s Urban Burn, places part of the responsibility on the way festivals like Coachella market themselves: “Telling people to not assume that the girls you have sold them in your advertising are not for sale just doesn’t work.”
Since the Teen Vogue article, I’ve witnessed many arguments online that run along the lines of, “What did you expect? It’s Coachella, it’s basically a beacon for predators.” I observed one online conversation in which a man lectured my friend Ash Lorona, a live event professional and outspoken advocate of women’s safety at events. He told her she should vote with her money and avoid Coachella entirely.
“I’m not going to boycott live music. Instead I’m going to stand up for my right to enjoy it,” she said, furious.
Coachella is the highest-grossing music festival in the world and the organizers need to be held accountable in the interest of all the women attendees. Furthermore, Coachella is a cultural trendsetter, so it’s exactly the place to take a stand. My hope is that this Teen Vogue article inspires organizers to take this issue far more seriously this festival season. It’s past time.
Beyond Calling Men Out, We Must Call Men In
Many times in her article, Papisova talks about the lack of support women experienced from apathetic fellow attendees. This is partially explained by the bystander effect, where the presence of more people diffuses the responsibility of an individual to help.
Men, it’s time to stop making promises to “keep an eye out” and “make more of an effort.” We need to take concrete, proactive measures to help our sisters feel safer.
I propose roving posses of protectors – not for vigilante justice, but to create a vibe of safety for the women around us. Let’s take an hour a day to rove around the festival in a group with our eyes out for inappropriate behavior and with the intention to engage men compassionately. The goal is not to add to the stereotypical machismo by stirring up confrontation, but instead to engage our fellow men in teaching moments and provide victims with some relief. We can insert ourselves into a seemingly inappropriate situation with something as simple as, "Hey, do you two know each other?"
We can also serve by modeling consent by always asking before touching even when we feel consent is implied. It can be a fun game! I once walked around Boom Festival in Portugal with a peacock feather I called my Consent Wand asking if people would like to be tickled. “Oh, you don’t want to be tickled? I thought I’d ask…”
When I give talks at festivals about Healing Masculinity I often say that dealing with these behaviors is much more effective if we go beyond calling men out for noxious behavior and start calling men into a circle of accountability. When you shame a man for creeping on a woman you have saved the day, but only in that instance. Shaming is not a long term solution. It’s a bit like the "teach a man to fish" adage. We need to call men into a circle of brotherhood and trust.
I know this is a major undertaking at a music festival, but I have seen it work wonders. There is a nobility to engaging with a man about his behavior without meeting him aggressively. He is probably feeling the deep loneliness and alienation that are so prevalent in our times. I believe that men really do want healing and that many of them don’t have the emotional strategies to engage with the opposite sex in a healthy way.
In an environment where the masculine itself is increasingly seen as predatory, we can leverage the desire for social validation to encourage men to reverse the bystander effect through public self-awareness.
Let’s reframe what it means to be a "real man" from having notches in our belts to carrying the sword of the humble warrior. By this I do not mean becoming the white knight for a damsel in distress (this is itself a sexist trope that disempowers the feminine), but rather honoring of the true yang by lifting up our brothers and teaching them to help build a safer world.
In turn, other men will see the success achieved by being genuine, caring, fun, and prioritizing consent, and they will learn it as a better model.
The Spoiled Bunch
We have to take a hard look at how predatory our culture is towards women and girls, and towards the feminine itself. The destructive conditioning of mainstream internet pornography and exploitative advertising wires our brains to see women as objects. Our lack of emotional literacy and strong role models means that many of us don’t actually know how to talk to women. Hookup culture further obfuscates the erotic as an opportunity for real and vulnerable contact. We are complicit, and the path forward truly begins with a reckoning with ourselves.
In discussing sexual harassment and assault, people often talk about bad apples, as if the avalanche of sexual transgression is the work of a only few outliers. In fact the full quote is “a few bad apples spoil the bunch.” This is because, as fruit ripens, it produces ethylene, and enough of this gas can over-ripen all the fruit. The behavior of the Weinsteins and Trumps of the world is simply the most obviously rotten fruit within a culture teeming with the commodification and consumption of the feminine.
Our binary fantasy of good and evil began to crumble with the revelation of Aziz Ansari’s woke misogyny earlier this year, an event that was dubbed by James Hamblin of The Atlantic as a Rorschach test of how we see sexual assault in our culture. I doubt any man can search through his own sexual history and confidently claim that he has been infallible in his communication around consent. Our culture is simply too toxic.
A Place Where We Can Be Ourselves
The core wound in masculinity is its definition as the superior opposite of the feminine. Because of pithy comments like "boys don’t cry," young men are policed into rejecting aspects of themselves that are considered feminine for fear for being seen as a wuss or a fag. This slices out a young man’s entire emotional literacy and empathy at a young age as he strives for an unattainable and toxic form of manliness. Women come to be seen as an “other” to be conquered. If we are to heal the abusive relationship between the masculine and feminine without, we must integrate the masculine and feminine within.
Ironically, music festivals are the very free-flowing, immersive environments that make such integration possible within a concentrated time frame. Alternative festivals and, increasingly, mainstream events are environments where attendees are encouraged to experiment with identity and express themselves with more dynamic range.
Much of men’s fashion at music festivals involves playful gender-bending with glitter, bright colors, and delicate fabrics. Different states of mind, which are increasingly common, are also opportunities to explore the archetypes of the self, particularly when done safely and with the support of a community. Indeed, part of the attraction of festival culture is that it’s a place where we can be ourselves and experiment with what that means.
At the same time we must be mindful of the false utopianism of making an effort to change behavior only at festivals. Rape culture is all around us and men are being called to model real change in every environment. “You can’t change a culture if you only expect to change it within the festival perimeter,” says Mel Pearson, founder of the woman’s safe space The Nest at Rainbow Serpent Festival in Australia. “If we hear people being sexist or telling rape jokes regardless of where you are or if it’s online, as leaders we should be calling that behaviour out.”
The True Yang
There are festivals like Bass Coast in Canada that are as fun, raunchy and raw precisely because women feel safe enough to embody sexual freedom. A loose vibe creates a good time, but a vibe can only really be loose if everyone feels safe. The irony is that the very thing that alienated men crave most when acting out is a connection with the embodied feminine. If we men take up the warrior’s responsibility, we will create a richer experience for all.
Festivals can be a battleground where we take on the culture at large. Young people often report music festivals as life changing experiences. Brothers, if we step up to set a higher standard for women’s safety at music festivals, we can change culture. Let this be our hero’s quest.
And people are stepping up! The popular Desert Hearts festival, which takes place this weekend at Los Coyotes Indian Reservation in Southern California, released an announcement this week reminding attendees of their zero tolerance policy on harassment at their event and that they would rigorously enforce it. They declared “...most importantly, remember that we are the change we wish to see in the world about how to be loving, kind, and respectful to one another. It starts first with you, with us, to create a larger change in the festival community and the world we share with one another.”
Finally, if you want to go really, really deep into an exploration of gender dynamics and the problem of the predator in modern culture, I invite you to take a journey with the profound wisdom of Master Zhenzan Dao, transgender Daoist monk of the MogaDao Institute in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It will blow your mind.
Eamon Armstrong is a speaker, writer, and champion of integrated masculinity, honed in the laboratory of global festival culture.