The Music Festival Where No Men Are Allowed

A disturbing wave of rape allegations at music festivals has led a Swedish radio host to plan a women-only music fest. But is that really the answer?

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Any human being who willingly chooses to attend a music festival opens themselves up to a million possible annoyances, from festival girls in flower crowns and feather headdresses to porta-potties to disturbingly life-like hologram headliners. But while music festivals have long been havens for douchebags, bad fashion, and cultural appropriation, they also have a growing reputation for more nefarious, criminal behavior. Reports seem to indicate that sexual assault and instances of gendered violence at music festivals are on the rise—although it’s hard to say if that’s the result of an increase in crime or an increase in awareness and reporting. And while awareness sounds like a step in the right direction, particularly when it comes to a crime that’s so consistently underreported, it’s hard to find any sort of silver lining in recent reports from the front lines.

In 2016, Sweden’s Putte i Parken Festival and Bråvalla Festival fell on the same weekend. At least 17 people were alleged sexually assaulted at Bråvalla Festival alone, and 27 cases of sexual assault were reported at Putte i Parken. Bråvalla headliners Mumford & Sons quickly responded to the ensuing controversy, issuing a strongly worded statement: “We won’t play at this festival again until we’ve had assurances from the police and organizers that they’re doing something to combat what appears to be a disgustingly high rate of reported sexual violence.”

Unfortunately, it takes more than four well-meaning folk musicians to pull off a successful boycott, and Bråvalla 2017 went on according to schedule. Festival organizers may very well have attempted to combat sexual violence (organizers did not respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment). But if steps were taken, results were lacking. Over the course of four days—June 28 to July 1—festivalgoers reported four rapes and 23 sexual assaults. In light of this alarming and rising assault rate, Bråvalla organizers ruled that the festival would not be returning in 2018. Festival organizers told AFP, “Certain men... apparently cannot behave. It’s a shame. We have therefore decided to cancel Bråvalla 2018.”

Sexual assault at music festivals has been a serious issue for much longer than it’s been a widespread topic of discussion. But while decisive, drastic action is clearly called for, shutting down an entire festival instead of deliberately combating the crimes it facilitates is a confusing approach. By canceling the festival altogether, Bråvalla organizers are actually acknowledging that something horrible is occurring on their watch. At the same time, they seem to be sending a message that they’d rather dodge culpability—i.e., not be known as “that Swedish festival with all of the sexual assault”—than attempt to do the work of creating a festival space that respects the bodily autonomy and personal boundaries of every participant.

After all, shutting down a festival doesn’t really “punish” rapists, who will undoubtedly adapt their criminal behavior to a different hunting ground. Instead of simply removing one potential venue for assaults, festival organizers could use this opportunity to more effectively target and combat criminal behavior through bystander intervention training, more on-site resources for survivors, and increased security, to name just a few tactics. But by eliminating festivals instead of addressing root causes, organizers find themselves on the edge of a slippery slope. The basic premise—rapists attend festivals, so don’t host them or attend them—taps into a victim-blaming logic. How many women have been told not to drink alcohol, wear a short skirt, or walk through a certain neighborhood, because to do so would be to invite an attack? This rhetoric places the responsibility on the victim, as opposed to the rapist, and polices their behavior instead of condemning criminal actions. Survivors should feel that the businesses and venues they’re giving their money to are taking real strides to find and stop their attackers—not bowing out because facilitating a good and safe time for festivalgoers of all genders is just too damn hard.

Of course, if organizers find themselves completely incapable of solving a problem—and if that problem is four rapes and 23 sexual assaults over the course of one weekend—it makes sense to suspend the festival until they can figure out what the hell is going on. But canceling one festival, or even canceling all of the festivals, isn’t a solution. In fact, it’s downright concerning, as if organizers are just giving up on the concept of multiple genders coexisting in one communal space, without said space descending into a den of sex crimes.

When it comes to actually addressing these issues head-on, there has been some progress. A 2015 Broadly article about U.K. music festivals’ “rape problem” quoted Fleur Gardiner from the Isle of Wight Council’s domestic-abuse team, who explained that, “In an ideal world, all festivals would support approaches such as ours, but that’s not the case.” Gardiner continued, “It’s a fact that when you raise awareness and offer support, victims will seek it out—which is what we want, but it can make it look like assaults have increased. I guess events are concerned about being seen as a festival that’s got a problem with sexual assault.” So it’s a good sign that, in the past two years, festivals have increasingly acknowledged that sexual assault is a real problem.

The “Safer Spaces at Festivals” campaign, which is spearheaded by The Association of Independent Festivals, seeks to raise awareness and streamline anti-assault protocol. As part of the campaign, participating festivals staged an online blackout in an effort to spread the word about consent and bystander intervention. The “Safer Spaces” initiative website states “there is no evidence to suggest that more of these incidents take place at festivals,” but still urges organizers to take responsibility and action, recommending policies such as “the provision of welfare services, 24-hour security on campsites and arenas, and close working relationships with police and other relevant agencies.” The website continues, “As part of the campaign, more than 60 members of the Association of Independent Festivals have also agreed to a series of practical actions outlined in a new Charter of Best Practice. This includes a zero tolerance of any form of sexual assault, a commitment to train all staff and volunteers in issues concerning sexual violence, to promote the principle of consent and to respond to any incidents with a victim-led approach.”

But Swedish radio host and comedian Emma Knyckare thinks she may have found a different answer.

After news broke of the Bråvalla cancellation, Knyckare tweeted, “What do you think about putting together a really cool festival where only non-men are welcome, that we’ll run until ALL men have learned how to behave themselves?” Just one day later, she announced on Instagram that her “man-free” festival would be manifesting itself beyond the internet, ideally happening next summer in lieu of the canceled Bråvalla fest. “In the coming days I’ll bring together a solid group of talented organizers and project leaders to form the festival organizers,” Knyckare posted, “then you’ll hear from everyone again when it’s time to move forward.” Asked to comment on her new project, Knyckare told a Stockholm tabloid, “Since it seems to be OK to discriminate against women all the time, maybe it’s OK to shut out men for three days.” And really, what could possibly go wrong? Men don’t lash out when they feel like they’re being left out, right?

Knyckare’s “man-free” festival isn’t novel. The Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, which inspired a fittingly critical Transparent episode, began in 1976. After almost four decades, the festival came to a close in 2015, owing in part to its controversial and trans-exclusionary “womyn-born-womyn” policy. Any women’s space in 2017 must rightfully take pains to distance itself from trans-exclusionary rhetoric. One new example is The Sisterhood—an “intersectional, queer, trans, and disability-inclusive space” that debuted at the 2016 Glastonbury festival, and offers music, workshops, and dance classes to “all people who identify as women.”

Still, women’s spaces—no matter how inclusive—can send a strange message to festivalgoers when they’re being advertised as an antidote to sexual assault. In the wake of the Cologne sexual-assault wave, organizers of Germany’s Carnival cordoned off a women’s only “safe zone” within the revels—implying, as Slate’s Christina Cauterucci wrote, “That the rest of the party grounds were fair game for victimizing drunk women.” Otherwise known as the “boys will be boys” approach to containing sexual violence. Plus, there’s the fact that women aren’t the only victims of sexual violence, and men aren’t the only aggressors. 

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To summarize: More and more festival options—including TERF-free lady fests—are good. Eliminating potentially fun events and decreasing opportunities for folks of all genders to enjoy live music is bad. And when it comes to sexual assault, simply shutting down festivals is, if not completely ineffectual, at the very least a shortsighted tactic. Instances of sexual assault will start decreasing when rapists are taught not to rape and bystanders are taught to intervene, not when women are told to stay in their homes and listen to records instead.