• lauralouisemolloy

Sisters are doin' it for themselves: banning boys and the rise of female-only festivals

Almost deafening, the audience for Essex-born Rat Boy erupts into an indistinguishable rendition of “Sign On”, with small intervals of screams for the indie singer, destroying any opportunity for silence between guitar chords. The crowd of adolescents hangs on to Jordan Cardy’s every word and momentarily adopts his carefree attitude, screaming lyrics with a sense of ownership, as if each line was crafted to fit the narrative of their own lives.

As the darkness is illuminated with fluorescent yellow light and the crowds of denim clad teens disperse from Brixton Academy, the sense of euphoria in the air is undeniable. But in such a weary, post-mosh atmosphere, it’s uncomfortable to imagine that often, many don't walk away from music venues with the same sense of carefree enjoyment typically expected from a gig.

Stories of sexual harassment have become commonplace in the daily news, with seemingly constant revelations exposing industry after industry for years of misconduct. From allegations against the President of the United States to sexual abuse within sport and entertainment, the endless stream of scandals has provided for a controversial talking point. But with multiple reports stemming from Hollywood, it’s easy to feel detached from the issue, and many are unaware that these events occurs within their own surroundings on a daily basis. Though this is mostly being discussed in regards to public and professional environments, sexual harassment has found its way into concert and festival culture. Many are now stepping forward and dismissing claims that groping and other harassment is normal in these environments.

The epidemic has led to what many have considered to be drastic action in Sweden, as the country’s first female-only festival is set to take place from the 31st of August to the 1st of September this year. Created following five reports of rape at Bravalla Festival, the appropriately named ‘Statement’ Festival was crowd-funded, demonstrating the clear demand for spaces which exclude men, within the music scene.

Often leading the way in the modern music industry with artists such as Zara Larsson, Avicii and Tove Lo taking over the mainstream, Sweden’s actions have the potential to trigger a worldwide movement of gender regulated festivals.

But is this necessary? Like many young girls, student and frequent gig-goer Ellie Foster has witnessed harassment at a music venue: “When I went to Leeds Festival I saw a boy pull a girl's top down to expose her breasts,” she says, describing the kind of occurrences that have unfortunately become standard in concert culture. “I haven’t experienced it myself,” she says, though upon reflection adds: “that might be because most of the concerts I’ve attended, I’ve been accompanied by boys."

Sadly, Ellie, 18, isn’t alone in her disturbing experiences. In a survey conducted for this article, 73% of young girls questioned said they were aware of sexual harassment at music venues, and 45% had witnessed or experienced it themselves. Despite the clear awareness of the issue, 64% said they wouldn’t report it, giving reasoning such as: “I would be too scared to do so,” and: “Unfortunately I think our society is so used to it that we don't report it anymore.” There is also seemingly a lack of faith in venues to act on claims, as Ellie says: “I feel like the security at music venues should be looking out for sexual harassment as much as they look out for injury.”

Although many within the survey said they would not report sexual harassment at a concert, entertainment manager at The West Street Live in Sheffield, Mat Hume insists that venues wish to support those who feel in danger at a gig, stating: “We want everyone to feel safe and enjoy their night and actively encourage anyone who feels uncomfortable to bring it up with our team.”

So what actions are being taken? Mat elaborates, saying: “We are part of the Ask For Angela campaign, and we proudly support this with posters around the venue.” ‘Ask for Angela’ being an initiative in which customers are increasingly being encouraged to mention the name ‘Angela’ to staff if they feel unsafe. Despite venues like The West Street Live embracing the campaign, 100% of those surveyed were unaware of anti-harassment initiatives, suggesting that the methods are not yet as effective as originally hoped.

Although creating a space for only women seems to be an effective way to prevent harassment, the idea still draws controversy. Sceptics, mainly of the male gender, perceive female only festivals as ‘reverse sexism’, however, ‘Sick Ducks’ and ‘Indigo Cities’ musician Louis De Pol is supportive as both a male artist and a music fan: “An all female festival would be a great way of promoting the idea of female bands, and for the girl in the band to stop being a gimmick and selling point,” he says.

Louis points out that the culture of harassment is embedded deep in the music industry, and is not solely the responsibility of the fans, saying: “Some artists use their fame to take advantage of fans in the same way.” This comes as a response to allegations against Moose Blood drummer Glenn Harvey, who allegedly used his influential position to harass an 18-year-old girl. “They should be punished a lot more," Louis says, adding: “the problem is that labels won’t drop a big selling band on principle anymore because they don't make enough money to afford it."

Though banning boys may seem to be a product of our current political state, female only businesses have existed for generations. The Bridge, a female-only gym and charity, is an almost 100-year-old example of how these spaces can succeed.

Within the shadow of the Shard, The Bridge lies in a cultural hotspot, across the road from world renowned Borough Market and a short walk from London Bridge station. The key to long term survival in such a competitive area? Goodwill, at least that’s what operations manager Sarah Hicks thinks: “I guess being a charity gives us a unique point, people want to go somewhere and buy coffee where the money will go to someone who needs it.”

The cause in question is: “To reduce inequalities in health and wellbeing,” for women in the Southwark area. “Southwark is known for being really deprived," Sarah says, adding “there are really affluent areas but then there are people who need help."

Formed in the 1920s, only shortly after the suffragette movement, The Bridge was originally created in order to provide the kind of social area men already had, but for women. Sarah explains that the gym still prides itself on its rich history: “It was a time when women were coming to London for the first time after the war, they didn’t have a base like men did and needed the social connections.”

The cafe, stocked with every type of tea for an extremely health conscious demographic, combined with the modern interior and abundance of natural light, would almost allow you to forget that the charity is nearly 100 years old. Although, as Sarah points out, the role of the charity has altered throughout the years: “We’ve got some refugees here, people who have been abused and don’t want to be in a male environment.”

But it is not only those who fear harassment who benefit from female only spaces, as Sarah says: “We have muslim ladies who physically can’t work out in front of men, and also people who are lacking confidence,” she adds, “even if you’re completely happy with how you look, women tell us so many stories of bad experiences at mixed gyms."

Though small, the gym seems to be an extremely calm and positive environment, as women distract themselves from their midday cardio with sprawling views of central London. Sarah is keen to point out that the Bridge isn’t solely focused on providing a male-free space, but also uplifting women and creating positive change within communities. “It’s really ingrained in society that women aren’t in top positions," Sarah says, adding: “we’re trying to go for equality, but we don’t have equality now, we’re still not in politics and we’re not typically CEO’s."

Though each day seemingly rolls around with the inevitability of another harassment claim, it’s crucial that society does not become de-sensitised to it. Perhaps the shock factor of female-only festivals provides an effective way to prevent the topic from becoming mundane, as many turn to gender segregation as the only way to avoid harassment.

So what’s in store for the future? As Sarah Hicks points out, there is still room to expand the ‘girls only’ trend, into nightclubs: “I often feel like I can’t go clubbing because someone’s going to think I’m leading them on,” She says.

Ellie concurs: “I feel like the threat of sexual harassment is present everywhere, like in night clubs on a night out.”

From providing a haven free of the male gaze, to an opportunity for female artists to thrive and a social area for women, female only spaces have advantages beyond purely being a safe space for victims of harassment. Ellie Foster says: “Female only concerts could be a really successful event in raising money and awareness about sexual harassment.”

But an element of sadness comes along with the potential need to ban men, as Mat Hume perfectly articulates: “I personally would much prefer a festival where any gender, race and sexuality can all party together but I suppose we don’t live in an ideal world.”

With initiatives such as ‘Ask for Angela’ becoming more common, perhaps the future will restore the original purpose of a gig: to unite music fans, as Ellie points out: “It’s almost like a community, everyone is feeling the same things together.”

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