Sexual Harassment Was Rampant at Coachella 2018
Trigger warning: This article contains multiple stories describing sexual assault.
The annual Coachella music festival always promises a few things for my social media feeds: selfies in front of a ferris wheel, an array of photogenic and overpriced foods, and extravagant pool parties that are somehow always hosted by Shay Mitchell.
This year, thanks to an invitation from SAFE, a sexual-health app that lets you show your verified STD status, I experienced my first Coachella adventure over the course of the first weekend. And it exceeded expectations: accidental sun-kissed naps on the lawn, forgetting to think about what I looked like while I was dancing, the mile-long zombie march through the desert from the designated “entrance” to the actual entrance (bring cash and take a pedicab), and, as one friend described it, “running into people you didn’t even know you knew.” The lineup was incredible, the weather was milder than usual (so I’m told), and of course there was the much-discussed Beychella—which I can confirm was life-changing.
Despite all of that, this year’s Coachella experience was also full of moments I never saw on Instagram: being repeatedly violated by strangers. In the three days I was at Coachella, I only spent a total of 10 hours at the actual festival, where I watched numerous performances and interviewed festivalgoers about their experience with sexual assault and harassment for Teen Vogue. During the 10 hours I was reporting on this story, I was groped 22 times.
One guy followed me across the field to the Mojave stage, where I was meeting a friend to see FIDLAR. When my friend left to see another band, I stayed behind, and this guy came up behind me and whispered, “You’re a goddess” and then rubbed his hands on my hips and butt. I knew it was the guy who followed me over earlier because I recognized his Pablo merch. This is why I usually wear a backpack in concert settings — it forces distance between the stranger behind me and my body.
On Saturday, I was front row at the Outdoor Theatre, leaning against the metal grate to take an epic photo of David Byrne to send to my dad. Someone behind me grabbed my butt with both hands. I didn’t see who it was, and I felt so uncomfortable that I gave up my front row spot and moved to the back of the crowd where I would have more space behind me. I never got the picture.
When I was waiting in line for a sweet potato taco on Sunday, a man poked me in the stomach and asked me if I do Pilates. I said no, and then he asked, “What’s the secret behind that six-pack?” and rubbed my bare stomach with his hand.
Of the 54 young women who spoke to Teen Vogue for this piece during the weekend-long event, all of them had a story of sexual assault or harassment that occurred this year at Coachella. Many of these accounts reveal patterns of predatory behavior harassers exhibited throughout the festival, and many of the reports I collected sound nearly exactly the same. Here are some of their stories, condensed for clarity.
"Of course sexual harassment happens here,” said Ana, 19. “It happens to us at all concerts. At Coachella it is so many people that men will get away with touching you, and they think we don't notice. It happened to me many times already, and I notice every time.”
“It never goes further than a touch on my butt or my back, but it’s not an OK place to be touched,” said June, 20. “Would you do that to a coworker? Or another guy? Then don’t do that to me. This is my third day, and it’s probably happened to me 40 times this weekend.”
“In a really big crowd, you want to have a good time, and you want to dance,” said Phoebe, 20, “It’s just really uncomfortable to feel someone right behind you, touching you or rubbing you. It happened to me a lot at Post Malone.”
Sexual misconduct is unfortunately a common experience at festivals, with one surveyfinding that more than 90% of female concertgoers have been harassed at a music event. In 2015, a photo of a man wearing a vile “Eat, Sleep, Rape, Repeat” shirt at Coachella went viral, a literal analogy for rape culture, which the Marshall University describes as "an environment where rape is prevalent and sexual violence against women is normalized and excused."
Not only did festivalgoers tell Teen Vogue multiple stories about older men preying on young women, but a festival environment and setup feels like an invitation for men to behave this way, sometimes in groups. Do men see a woman's presence at a music festival, particularly a dancing woman, as a substitute for consent?
“It’s actually happened a handful of times today," said Logan, 23. "If you’re in tight quarters, and you’re getting closer to the stage, guys will always come up and start grinding with you to see if you’re into that sort of thing.”
“As I was walking, a guy grabbed my butt cheek," said Anna, 27. "This is the sort of environment where I think people assume it happens a lot, so you can get away with participating in it.”
“Me and my friends were just dancing yesterday during The Weeknd’s set,” said Aaliyah, 21. “A few guys came over and just poked us and started dancing with us and wouldn’t leave us alone. They kind of swarmed us. Then one was putting his face in our face, seeing if we’d kiss him, but he went down the line.” She continued, “I think they think that since we wear what we want to wear, they are entitled to touch us.”
“There have been a couple of times where I’ve been stopped and a guy has been like, ‘What are you doing? Come to my hotel,’” said Ashley, 21. “They move a little too quick and are really aggressive. When you’re not with your girls, there’s a lot of potential for something dangerous to go down. We literally will not separate, and if we do, it’s in groups, so that way no one is ever alone.”
“Just the way people touch me when you’re walking through a crowd. Why are you touching me there? We’re trying to have fun and fit in here,” said Reagan, 16. “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’s experience was similar to my experience as well: The night before I had been called a “heinous bitch” by a guy whom I'd declined to kiss on Saturday in the VIP section.
In another instance, I was waiting in line for the bathroom and heard Tyler, the Creator start his set on the main stage behind me. A stranger walked up to me and said that he loved my leopard-print suit. I thanked him, and he proceeded to say he’d love to get in the bathroom stall with me. When I told him not to talk to me like that, he exclaimed, "Whoa, that's a lot of attitude for a no-name model." Nobody around me did anything to help.
One of the difficulties of not having proper cell phone service is it can be hard to find your friends (generally the only moments where I felt safe or comfortable throughout the weekend), so that means you have to rely on bystanders.
“I was standing in line for water,” said Chantal, 19. “A guy picked me up and put me over his shoulder. I’m really small, so this happens to me a lot. Sometimes there are really great bystanders. There will be guys who will say, ‘Hey, get away from her,’ and it’s really cool when they do that.”
Incidents of sexual harassment at festivals are not limited to Coachella, of course. In 2014, according to the BBC, two men were arrested for allegedly raping a woman at the Reading Festival in England. In 2016, The Washington Post reported that attendees at Sweden's Bravalla Festival were given bracelets with the reminder: “Don’t grope.” The bracelets were issued in response to several reports of alleged assault at the event. In 2017, the same festival's organizers said they would cancel the following year's event after more than 20 sexual assaults were reported. It had been the largest music festival in Sweden.
In January, Pollstar announced that Coachella continues to be the highest-grossing music festival in the world. In 2017, it grossed a record-setting $114,593,000.
Sexual assault is known to be prevalent at music events, but like most music festivals, Coachella doesn't seem to provide sexual-assault literature for the people attending. When I search the Coachella website for "sexual assault," there are zero results — and that includes the FAQ section. Furthermore, every year ticket buyers receive a wristband box, and according to several attendees, this year's box had a pamphlet about the festival, which contained no information about how to get help if you are sexually assaulted.
There are some groups that have tried to help, like the UK's AIF Safer Spaces campaign, which encourages concertgoers to intervene if they witness harassment taking place. In Chicago, home to Pitchfork and Lollapalooza, among other festivals, a sexual assault awareness campaign called OurMusicOurBody sprang up as a result of a collaboration between local nonprofit organizations Between Friends and Rape Victim Advocates. Some festival organizers are listening. In 2017, Lollapalooza launched a “safety” page addressing its policy on sexual harassment at the festival. Do LaB, a Coachella collaborator, has provided training on sexual assault to fans and staff and provides on-site medical professionals who specialize in sexual assault at the six-day festival Lightning in a Bottle, according to the Los Angeles Times. Despite all of this, the overall culture still has a long way to go. Music festivals are meant to be spaces for people to relax, make new friends, and enjoy music, but the harsh reality is that many people attend with the expectation that they will not be safe in these environments.