Chelsea’s 33rd birthday was going to be one she’d never forget. U2, her favorite band, was performing for two nights in Toronto, Canada, and the California native would be there to see both performances.
“That is my happy place. That’s my church,” she said. “I go there, and that’s just where I’m the happiest.”
These two concerts were far from her first. She had already reached double digits for U2 shows and had seen dozens of other bands perform since her parents took her to her first concert when she was about 3 years old.
“I was a very timid and shy child, but the loud music never bothered me,” said Chelsea, whom RIFF chose not to identify for this story.
Because she was a girl and petite, Chelsea’s mother taught her how to deal with aggressive men at concert halls. The defensive moves she learned ranged from throwing elbows to pushing back.
“[My mom] said, ‘Chelsea, you’re going to go to these concerts; this is something you’re going to have to deal with,’” she remembered. “Even the touching thing; I was taught that it’s just something that happens.”
As she got older, she also learned not to leave her drink unattended or accept drinks from strangers. It was a rule she never broke—until July 6, 2015.
Chelsea decided that at the first of the two U2 shows, she would hang out in the back of general admission area on the floor. She bought herself a glass of wine.
As she was dancing, Chelsea struck up a conversation with two seemingly friendly men. When she mentioned her birthday was the next day, they offered to buy her a drink. She resisted at first, but eventually relented. She was comfortable.
“This is my comfort zone. At U2 shows I’ve never felt victimized, I’ve never felt afraid, I’ve never met anybody who has been cruel to me,” Chelsea said. She let one of the men buy her another glass of wine. That is the last thing she remembers clearly about that night.
The morning of her birthday, she woke up in a cloud. Her room in her Airbnb rental was a mess. On her bed, she saw a used condom. The bed itself had collapsed. Her clothes were strewn all over the room.
“I thought maybe I got robbed. You go through so many different scenarios,” Chelsea said. “Then I saw the blood. My body was bruised, extremely bruised. There was blood on the sheets and there was blood on the inside of my leg.”
In shock, she tried to recall what had happened the night before—where she’d gone, who she’d seen—but it was all a blur. Chelsea still hadn’t fully realized what had happened to her when she decided to go about her birthday as she’d planned it: celebrating with her favorite band.
“As soon as U2 walked on stage, I just started crying. The security guard came over, gave me Kleenex and kept asking me, ‘Are you OK?’” Chelsea said. “It was a great show from what I remember, though I don’t remember a lot of it.”
On her way home to Fresno two days later, the realization hit Chelsea: She hadn’t been robbed. She’d been raped.
“I was embarrassed. I couldn’t even face myself in the mirror,” she said.
Harassment and consent
Chelsea’s story might sound eerily familiar to women who frequent concerts. Sexual assault or harassment at music venues isn’t a crime that’s tracked with empirical data, so there’s no clear answer about how commonplace it is. But based on anecdotal evidence, a large percentage of female concertgoers have experienced some form of it.
“Sometimes people get touchy at concerts, whether to move someone out of their way or to dance with them,” said Sadie Dupuis, who has addressed this topic as part of the band Speedy Ortiz, as well as on her solo project, Sad13. “But you always need a person’s consent to touch them.”
Hayley McGlone of Australia’s The Jezabels said she’s experienced verbal and physical abuse as a performer and audience member, as a teenager and adult.
“I don’t think that there is some inherent drive toward abuse in boys or men,” she added. “Both female and male sexuality and identity are controlled and repressed from infancy, and this sparks a divide between genders. That feeling of alienation for individuals can lead to aggression when people are in a setting where they feel they can let loose, such as a festival.”
Just in the past few years, incidents have been reported from Darmstadt, Germany to San Francisco’s Outside Lands and performances by Keith Urban, Beyonce and Mumford and Sons.
“Festivals are a celebration of music and people, a place to let go and feel safe doing so. We’re gutted by these hideous reports,” Mumford and Sons wrote on their Facebook page following reports of multiple assault at the Bravalla Festival in Sweden. “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.”
One of the most high-profile incidents in the Bay Area took place last September. The U.C. Berkeley Police Department received reports of three different sexual assaults during electronic dance music concert Mad Decent Block Party. Investigators say one case was determined to be “unfounded,” and the other two have been suspended because the survivors declined to pursue criminal investigations.
“We are prepared to re-open each of these cases upon request from the survivors or if additional evidence is discovered,” said UCPD Sgt. Sabrina Reich, who added that at least one of the victims is working with PATH to Care, an advocacy group that specializes in providing confidential resources to survivors.
Debjani Roy, deputy director of Hollaback!, an organization focused on building safe, inclusive public spaces, suggested that attackers feel emboldened by the concert or festival atmosphere.
“Historically, most of these places have been pretty male-dominated. Perpetrators feel as though they can take advantage of women around them, like it’s part of their night out,” she said.
In the U.K., four teenage friends founded Girls Against after one of them was sexually harassed at a gig. The group’s website allows people to share their experiences and receive support.
“The aim is to make sure everyone acknowledges that it is happening first and then do everything we can to reduce it happening,” said Bea Bennister of Girls Against. “There shouldn’t have to be rules on how to avoid sexual assault. Women should be able to let their guard down every night if they want to. This is never an invitation for sexual assault.”
“I was raped”
Once Chelsea had pieced together that she’d been a victim of rape, she fell into a deeper fog: depression. She shared what had happened to her with her father and a therapist, who both immediately suggested she enter alcoholism rehab.
“I could’ve had a Coke. I could’ve had a water. Why does it matter?’” Chelsea said.
Her mother had died from liver failure after years of alcoholism, so she understood her father’s concern. However, she could not comprehend the ultimatum he issued next: “If you don’t go to rehab, don’t call me back, ever.” Chelsea started rehab within days, always feeling like she was not getting the help she truly needed.
“Basically, nobody was talking about the fact that I was raped. Everybody was talking about the fact that I was an alcoholic,” said Chelsea.
It wasn’t until she found a new psychiatrist that she began to focus on the real issue: She had survived the rape and was now living with victim-blaming from those she loved most.
“For almost everyone I told, the first questions were ‘What were you wearing?’ and ‘How drunk were you?’ As if that is any license for someone to take that kind of action,” Chelsea said. “I was having a conversation with people and we were enjoying the music. I unfortunately let my guard down enough to let somebody buy me a drink.”
Chelsea lost her sense of safety at concerts and gained an almost constant fear of male strangers. After she dropped an item at a grocery store and a man picked it up for her, she snapped at him to get away from her. That response is common among survivors of sexual violence, according to Roy.
“We know there are deep psychological impacts that it can have, and it can cause anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder,” she said.
As Chelsea struggled with the emotions related to her assault, she started the process of bringing her attacker to justice. Within days of realizing what had happened to her, she called Toronto Police and reported that she’d been raped either the night of July 6 or the morning of July 7. What followed was an excruciating series of questions to which Chelsea didn’t have the answers.
Because she’d been drugged, she struggled to remember the men who bought and handed her that glass of wine, so she couldn’t be sure either of them was responsible.
“They said, ‘We can’t take a report if you don’t know who it was,’” Chelsea said. “Everyone said, ‘File a police report.’ Well, I couldn’t. I tried and they wouldn’t let me.”
It wasn’t until she started working with RIFF on this story that she decided to try again and officially filed a police report. This time, the person who took Chelsea’s call at the Toronto Police Department apologized for not taking a report during her 2015 call. She is now working with the Toronto and Fresno police departments.
While she was in rehab, Chelsea learned about the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board in Ontario, Canada, which “assesses and awards financial compensation for victims …. of violent crimes committed in Ontario.” Her doctors and friends wrote letters to the board about what had happened to Chelsea, and she provided a video deposition.
“I wasn’t able to say ‘rape.’ I would just say ‘the incident,’ and filling out paperwork for victims’ compensation really bothered me,” Chelsea said. She was awarded an amount that covered some of the income she lost when she entered rehab. No dollar figure, however, could truly compensate for her loss of security and trust.
The four D’s
Stories like Chelsea’s are what compel organizations like Hollaback! and Girls Against to keep fighting. The latter’s goal is to raise awareness about the problem to help extinguish it. That effort starts with concertgoers, but stretches to bands and venues as well.
“We are trying to establish a discussion between fans, bands, promoters, venues, security companies and any other relevant parties, so that everyone is aware that this is happening at gigs,” Bennister said.
That’s a sentiment shared by Hollaback!, the U.S. organization that aims to stop harassment in public places, such as mass transit and concerts.
“People feel like they can take advantage if it’s crowded or if there’s dancing or contact of any kind,” said Hollaback!’s Roy. “You really lose your trust in those spaces. They become a space of trauma. It’s unjust, it’s unfair and it’s tolerated.”
Both Hollaback! and Girls Against are working to educate venues and their staff on how to spot sexual harassment and what to do when someone reports an incident.
“They need to be equipped to respond in a way that’s survivor-centered. They should be sensitive to the needs of a person who has just experienced something like that,” Roy said.
Hollaback! is already working with hundreds of venues from Baltimore to London, providing guides for employers to implement, and is now focusing on how bystanders can stop harassment:
- Direct intervention: If it is safe to do so, confront the harasser and let that person know that what he or she is doing is wrong.
- Distract: Approach the victim and ask for the time or for directions. By creating a distraction, you will help deescalate the situation.
- Delegate: Ask for someone else to help. That can be another concertgoer or an employee.
- Delay: After the harassment happens, ask the victim if she or he is OK. Doing so makes the victim feel less alone.
“Of course we have to look out for ourselves, but it’s important to keep your eyes and ears open,” Roy said.
Artists take a stand
Artists worldwide have taken a stand to keep their fans safe.
In Australia, Camp Cope started the #ItTakesOne campaign, encouraging everyone in the music scene to address sexual harassment if they see it happening.
“[It] was inspired by ongoing conversations between us and other bands about how awful it feels to have someone get hurt, assaulted or upset at one of your shows,” the band wrote on its Facebook page. “We were all feeling very defeated by the continuous reports of incidents—nobody knew what to do, but we all felt so passionately about it.”
Their effort is gaining steam with support from fellow Aussies, The Jezabels, led by McGlone.
“It was proactively trying to encourage a change in general culture, rather than focusing on ‘name and shame’ feminism, which I think has also alienated a lot of men from movements that matter to us all,” she said.
Back in the U.S., Massachusetts band Speedy Ortiz took a stand against against harassing behavior by creating a text hotline (574-404-SAFE) for fans to use if they feel threatened.
“It’s much easier for us to find security, a venue employee or some other way to help than someone who’s stuck in the middle of a crowd,” Dupuis said.
When she released her first solo album, Slugger, Dupuis tackled the issue of assault and consent, including the song “Get a Yes,” the lyrics of which include lines such as, “I say yes if I want to/ If you want to you’ve gotta get a yes.”
“Twenty percent of women in the U.S. have experienced sexual assault,” she pointed out. “Our country has a hard time talking about the best ways to change that statistic. I wanted to introduce that topic in a positive light, to make a song that celebrates how exciting it can be to give and get affirmative consent.”
Statements aren’t just coming from female-fronted bands. Last year, the all-male The Blondies released Just Another Evening, the title track of which addressed the sexual assault and harassment lead singer and songwriter Simon Lunche said he witnessed at his high school.
The video for the song, which begins with a slate reading, “This video contains content that may be emotionally unsettling,” delves into the concept of consent while illustrating the dangers of rape and sexual assault.
“Honestly, it came out of a fear that something like that would happen to someone I really care about. The way that I dealt with that was by writing a song about it,” said Lunche, adding that he wasn’t even aware of how prevalent the issue was until the video’s release. “It really seemed to give people a voice. People seemed to connect with it, and it made them more comfortable sharing their stories and experiences.”
Other bands are responding to the issue of harassment or assault when fans voice concerns. For example, when a Peace fan posted online about two men trying to reach their hands into her tights, frontman Harry Koisser shared it, adding, “If this happens at a Peace show, tell me or security ASAP. If you think this is OK, then please, I beg you, do not come.”
Though more victims are coming forward, and more venues and artists are fighting back against those who assault or harass women, the issue is still prevalent within music culture.
“We’re still living in a time in which the old guard of the music industry skews male, white and straight,” Dupuis pointed out. “It’s imperative to believe and support survivors—even when the courts and the corporations make that impossible—and I think that will grow easier as the industry becomes less of a male majority.”
Girls Against’s Bennister pointed out, “Murder can result in a life sentence in prison, but this doesn’t stop it from happening,” suggesting there may not be a way to permanently and completely eliminate the threat of sexual intimidation in venues. The process begins with awareness.
“The more voices on all media calling for this, the more attention government and commercial entities like festivals and their promoters will give these issues,” McGlone said.
In the end, though, it boils down to a very simple idea, she says: “Look out for each other and ask your male friends to do the same.”
“Reclaim what was mine”
Chelsea has a support network of friends—and now family—who encouraged her to return to the environment she once loved: U2.
“I’m seeing my favorite band, I’m hearing my favorite music, I’m with my favorite people. I wanted to reclaim that,” she said, explaining why she chose to attend U2’s October 2016 show at the Cow Palace. “It gave me the ability to reclaim what was mine. It was no longer scary or ugly. I was comfortable.”
There are still people within Chelsea’s circle of friends who don’t know about why she closed herself off for months. “I was raped” doesn’t exactly flow off the tongue during casual conversation. Telling her story, she said, is her way of reaching out to those people she inadvertently pushed away.
“This is my way of saying, ‘Hey, it wasn’t you. I didn’t know how to tell you,’” Chelsea said. “There’s no easy way to say it, and there’s no appropriate time.”
An experience that could have broken Chelsea instead made her stronger. Now she wants to reach others like her.
“Find a way to empower yourself,” she said.
Reporter Celine Teo-Blockey contributed to this report. Follow journalist Brandi Smith on Twitter, Facebook and BrandiSmith.me. Follow Teo-Blockey at Twitter.com/CelineT_Blockey and Instagram.com/celineteoblockey.