how fans are using tech to solve music festivals' sexual assault problem

From the Tupac hologram to Oculus Rift encores, technology is changing the entire festival experience. But the most disruptive innovations might be those devised by young (and usually female) attendees.

by Hannah Ongley
16 May 2016, 3:20pm

Coachella's hologram count was down approximately 100% since 2012, but even to those not present it felt very 2016. Performances were live-streamed via 360-degree video, and fans could access interactive artist profiles and create custom shareable avatars. Virtual reality experience Coachella Explorer allowed attendees to relive the experience using Oculus Rift, and the official Coachella app offered everything from wristband activation and shuttle tracking to meal planning and friend finding. All this contributed to over four million Coachella-related tweets and almost half a million photos shared by approximately 99,000 smartphones. Technology is completely changing the music festival experience.

One thing that isn't such an exciting sign of the times is the culture of sexual assault that remains pervasive in festival settings. But that isn't to say that technology with the potential to disrupt it doesn't exist. Jaqueline Ros is a young tech entrepreneur with first-hand experience of today's dangerous rape culture. After her sister was sexually assaulted twice, Ros started developing a coin-sized wearable called Revolar, which allows potential victims to contact their friends or family in situations where reaching for a phone might not be possible. Ros describes her product as "careable technology," emphasizing that its only job is to keep its owner safe. Most importantly, Revolar is an empowering invention rather than another thing to add to a long list of things potential victims should or shouldn't do/drink/wear to keep safe. "I want you to wear and enjoy [outfits and] social settings that make you feel happy," says Ros on her website. "I want fear to never hold you back from making incredible memories with friends or loved ones. Life is full of moments where we doubt whether it's safe or not safe for us to do something. I want you to live your life to the fullest — whatever that means for you." This is in stark contrast to festival guidelines that teach "don't get raped" rather than "don't rape."

It was also a personal experience that led to the creation of intersectional-feminist social media safety group Girls Against. Hannah Camilleri, one of Girls Against's five teenage founders, was inspired to start helping other potential victims after she shared her own experience of sexual assault at a Peace gig in Glasgow last year. "I think I just wanted to let my friend Chloe know that the issue was very real and I wanted to keep her safe," says Camilleri, explaining her decision to share her experience on Instagram. Her Instagram was tweeted at the band by Chloe, and Peace responded on their own account by telling anyone who thought the behavior was acceptable should not attend their shows. Camilleri maintains that "reporting" an assault on social media can help eliminate the fear of being victim-blamed. "Once people realize that there are over 13,000 people supporting them, sending them love, and offering their help, it greatly outweighs the possibility of being victim blamed," she says. "By publicly discussing examples of assault and educating loads of people on what really goes on with real life examples, it's making victim blaming a lot less acceptable."

Girls Against are quick to remind people that their campaign isn't just for female-identifying victims. On their Tumblr they note that they support "all victims" of harassment, and Camilleri tells us this has been one of the most satisfying parts of rallying for justice. "It makes us really proud of ourselves when someone who has maybe struggled with their identity feels comfortable to come to us and confide in us," she says. "It makes us feel a little proud of the changing views our generation is championing." The internet is often criticized as being detrimental to face-to-face interaction, but it's exactly this quality that can make social media an attractive avenue for people who don't fit the stereotype of sexual assault victims. This is an ethos shared by Ros. "I want young women, the LGBT community, and truly everyone to feel capable to live their authentic lives," reads a quote on her Instagram. Sexual assault is about power relations rather than gender, and it's not just cisgender women who know the reality of this.

Discrimination of assault victims based on their physical appearance is what led Nathalie Gordon to co-found her own digital campaign, #thisdoesntmeanyes. The hashtag was not directly aimed at empowering women to wear what they want to music festivals, but it feels particularly appropriate in this environment, where women are frequently social media-shamed for wearing revealing clothing. Gordon is particularly frustrated by the victim-blaming language often used in festival guidelines for preventing sexual assault. "Most people are compounding the victim blaming problem not necessarily because they actually think rape victims are to blame but because victim blaming is actually kind of difficult to get your head around," she explains. "Telling women, at a festival for example, 'Watch out when you walk back to your tent alone at night' or 'Probably best if you go with a friend just to be safe' sounds really helpful — it doesn't sound mean or intended to offend."

Instagram has been a natural platform for #thisdoesntmeanyes, "purely because it's where women are more commonly expressing themselves, owning who they are and naturally feeling good about themselves," says Gordon, "We wanted to harness this organic behaviour." Hashtag activism often gets a bad rap, but not all hashtags are created alike. The problem is ensuring these images to get just a fraction of the attention that Justin Bieber received for tipping a bucket of cold water over his head in the name of ALS.

This requires that the products and platforms reach people beyond the audience they target directly. Gordon says that it's the "active but still passive" bystander that we should be turning our attention to. "The Bystander is the person with the power to say, 'No, that's not cool/ don't do that/ don't say that.' They know what is wrong, they need to feel like they have the ability to do something about it," she says. "It will happen — progress takes time." Gordon and Camilleri both claim that misogynistic backlash to their work has been surprisingly minimal. "It's something we expected from the very beginning and something we don't take very seriously," says Camilleri. "We just kind of laugh it off and think about the people sitting on their phones attacking us when we're actually changing something."

It's hardly impossible to find evidence that tech and the internet effect change. Perhaps the most pertinent example of this has been the case of Kesha and the heartening outpour of support through social media. The problem is effecting the change before the offense, not after. "We need to flood the media, the internet, magazines, and newspapers with positive messages about consent and respect for women and for men," says Gordon. "If Kim Kardashian decided to start tweeting about sexual consent you bet your ass people would listen… We live in a world where we feed off culture — we need to make sure the right messages are out there coming from sources people, young people particularly, are listening to." 


Text Hannah Ongley
Image via Flickr Creative Commons

sexual assault
Girls Against
wearable tech