Alex Bruce-Smith was forging her way through the crowds at Coachella two years ago when she felt the unwelcome sensation of a hand grabbing her butt.
Bruce-Smith, a news reporter from Australia, whipped around and spotted the man she thought had grabbed her, only to watch him disappear into the crowd.
“I was just fuming because I couldn’t do anything,” the 28-year-old told The Daily Beast. “I was like, ‘That happened and now there’s no consequences.’”
The journalist was not alone. Last year, Teen Vogue reporter Vera Papisova spoke to 54 female Coachella attendees, all of whom said they had been sexually harassed over the course of the weekend-long event. A survey of 500 concert-goers conducted the same year found 92 percent of female respondents had been sexually harassed at some kind of music festival.
Due to last summer’s outcry, and the growing influence of the #MeToo movement, it’s little surprise that Coachella decided to launch a new anti-sexual-harassment initiative for this year’s festival.
The program will deploy trained safety ambassadors throughout the festival grounds and set up tents with counselors for anyone who needs “extra support or a quiet moment away,” according to a new page on the festival’s website. Organizers did not respond to questions about what kind of training the ambassadors and counselors would receive.
The festival also announced a new “zero tolerance” policy for any form of sexual, physical or verbal assault or harassment. Those who violate the policy will be subject to immediate removal from the festival and possible revocation of their nearly $600 wristband.
“We are taking deliberate steps to develop a festival culture that is safe and inclusive for everyone,” the website states. “Persons of any gender identity or expression, sex, sexual orientation, race, religion, age or ability are welcome at Coachella.”
To that end, Coachella will also offer gender-neutral restrooms at this year’s festival—which struck some as ironic, given founder Philip Anschutz has donated heavily to anti-LGBTQ causes in the past.
Matt Walsh and Maggie Arthur, organizers for the advocacy group Our Music My Body, said they were happy the new misconduct policy extended to all kinds of harassment, not just sexual. They also applauded the festival for asking attendees to hold friends accountable for their behavior, and for introducing an anti-harassment policy in the first place.
But the activists also wondered how the ambassadors, counselors and security guards were being trained, and how the new policy would play out on the ground.
“It’s very easy to say we are against harassment, but how are you making that happen?” Arthur said. “So often we see zero-tolerance policies as the end-all be-all, but in practice they don’t really take into consideration what the person who’s being harmed wants or needs.”
Other music festivals have been grappling with the issue as well. Chicago’s Lollapalooza and Riot Fest both released similar anti-harassment statements last year, and Michigan music festival Electric Forest has started offering women-only campgrounds. In 2017, St Jerome's Laneway Festival in Australia launched its own sexual harassment hotline for reporting misconduct.
But Bruce-Smith said many music fans around the world look to Coachella as the pinnacle of the festival experience. She hopes that these changes will inspire other festivals to make similar reforms.
“Anyone making [these] steps is a good thing,” she said. “Whether it goes far enough I guess we’ll see this year.”