Skip to main content

Silhouette of a woman in a crowd cheering on a music band

The set up and culture of music festivals can create dangerous spaces where sexual violence and harassment can be perpetrated.

That’s according to a new study led by our Durham Law School which found that the combination of size, layout, attitudes and behaviours at festivals can make these events conducive to sexual violence.

The researchers are calling on festival organisers and local authorities to make a real commitment to tackling this and to take it as seriously as other health, safety and environmental issues when organising their events.

Experiences of festival-goers

The study follows a survey conducted in 2018 by the same research team at Durham amongst 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.

As a follow up, 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.

Lay-out and toxic culture

All the women talked about feeling the need to risk assess and adapt to help reduce the risk of sexual violence, in the same way as women often do in other public spaces. Some had stopped going to festivals all together, others went with male friends whilst others moderated their alcohol intake or avoided certain areas.

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 concludes that 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.

In 2017, 103 UK festivals committed to the Association of Independent Festivals’ (AIF) Safer Spaces At Festivals campaign, which is aimed at tackling sexual violence at festivals. The initiative sees festivals commit to a voluntary charter of best practice which includes allegations being taken seriously, acted upon promptly and investigated.

Other festivals are also doing their own campaign and policy work, but the researchers say progress is still fairly slow.

They suggest all festivals, not just some, should work with specialist support groups such as Safe Gigs for Women, to devise clear policies. These should include prevention strategies, how they record allegations and respond to them, a requirement to have specialist support on site and training for staff. They recommend that these policies should be mandatory as part of the broader safeguarding requirements festivals have.

The team hopes to conduct further research to examine which interventions to prevent sexual violence at festivals would be feasible.

Find out more

  • The study was funded by the British Academy led by Dr Hannah Bows in Durham Law School working with Alishya Dhir in our Department of Sociology and Dr Aviah Day from Birkbeck, University of London.
  • Follow Dr Hannah Bows on Twitter
  • You can find out more the work of our Centre for Research into Violence and Abuse
  • Our Law School is a world leader in legal education, ranked 7th in The Complete University Guide 2022.  Our award-winning academic staff deliver a cutting-edge, research-led curriculum through small-group teaching that is much prized by employers. Our graduates go on to great things and include some of law’s leading figures, for example, current or previous members of the UK Supreme Court, the Court of Appeal, and Members of Parliament. Feeling inspired? Visit our Law School webpages to learn more about studying with us.