Natasha Penner was in the midst of celebrating her 30th birthday at a West Coast music festival when she accepted a drink from a newfound friend.
She felt after spending most of the day with him they had established some trust. But after she took a few sips, everything became a blur.
“I woke up 10 hours later naked in his tent,” she recalls of the 2014 incident. “I was definitely drugged.”
Still disoriented and confused, Penner was told by the man to leave his tent. Upon examining herself, she says she found signs she was raped.
Stories like Penner’s are putting pressure on organizers of music events — like this weekend’s Wayhome Music and Arts Festival north of Toronto, headlined by Frank Ocean, Imagine Dragons and Flume — to do a better job making their venues safer, particularly for women.
A study by the Sexual Assault and Partner Abuse Care Program at the Ottawa Hospital found that 26 per cent of sexual assault cases involving patients who attended the institute in 2013 occurred at mass gatherings. About 40 per cent of patients believed they were drugged and only 33 per cent said they knew the assailant.
Other assaults are more fleeting — it’s not unusual for female crowd surfers, for example, to encounter random hands emerging from the audience to tear at their clothes.
Stacey Forrester is a co-organizer of the Vancouver wing of volunteer organization Good Night Out, which works with venues to prevent and combat the sexual harassment women typically face at events like concerts.
She remains skeptical that promoters are fully committed to preventing harassment on their premises. She says if they were, organizations like hers wouldn’t have to dedicate their time to patrolling venues.
“For a long time, having someone grind on you or grab you in passing was just expected to be a normal part of going out or being in a mass crowd of people,” Forrester says.
“People who are in security positions still hang on to those beliefs. We see it … when we’re doing training. Even people who are entrusted with the safety of the crowd often buy into these rape myths.”
Montreal’s Osheaga music festival recently announced new measures in a bid to curb some of these incidents.
Co-founder Nick Farkas says female “Hirondelles” — translated into English as “swallows,” the birds representing love and compassion — will patrol festival grounds looking for trouble and offering assistance.
A similar initiative was launched at the Montreal International Jazz Festival last month to complement the mostly male security staff hired to ensure crowds don’t get out of hand.
“Historically security guards are often giant guys dressed in black and they’re not super approachable,” Farkas says.
“What we’re trying to accomplish with this is that people feel comfortable approaching the special team if something happens.”
Osheaga brought in the security measure following a firestorm of criticism last year. Concertgoer Melanie Doucet said she was drugged during the festival’s Red Hot Chili Peppers set. Doucet felt a date-rape drug kicking in and immediately reported it to security, but later said she felt staff could’ve handled the situation better.
Wayhome declined interview requests to discuss safety measures for women, saying they were tied up with preparations for the event.
“We are constantly trying to improve on lines of communication with our audiences to ensure they are aware of all channels available to provide aid in any scenario,” said Todd Jenereaux, an organizer at promotion company Republic Live, in an emailed statement.
Jodie Ortega, a Vancouver-based advocate for survivors of sexual violence, says the growing conversation around the safety of women at music festivals should be a cue to other events, concert halls and clubs that ticket buyers expect to see improvement.
“If public safety is one of their main priorities … then they have to take a step back and think of the bigger picture,” she says.
Ortega suggests venues take a cue from public transit operators that post signs saying that violence against bus drivers won’t be tolerated.
“There’s no signage like that on the front of a nightclub or the back of a concert ticket,” she says.
“Maybe it’s time to be completely blunt.”