YG performs on the Sahara stage at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio, Calif., on Sunday, April 14, 2019. (Photo: Thomas Hawthorne/USA Today Network)

Beneath the towering semi-circle canopy of the Sahara tent, thousands of people danced to the likes of Diplo, Wiz Khalifa, Kid Cudi and Dillon Francis at Coachella this year. The crowd bled hundreds of feet beyond the stage, a sea of people on the grounds of the Empire Polo Club in Indio. 

Rosie Makinen stood in the center of it all during the second weekend of the festival, with barely enough breathing room between her and the next person. It was hot, with temperatures creeping just above 100 degrees. Even when she closed her eyes, Makinen could still see the bright pink and lime green lights that filled the sky from inside the venue, flickering and bouncing and shimmering above. 

She doesn’t remember which musician she was there to see. But she does remember the distinct feeling of being grabbed. 

“This guy walked past me,” Makinen recalled. “(He) touched my lower back and butt area really fast. Those little instances, you almost question yourself because you know it isn’t OK, but it was so small, you feel like you can’t say anything about it. 

“I think that’s what the problem is,”the 21-year-old San Diego native continued. “It has become normalized and guys think it’s fine if they do it, and it is just unacceptable.”

Makinen is not alone in her experience. One in six women surveyed by The Desert Sun said they experienced sexual harassment, including unwanted groping or touching, at the 2019 Coachella or Stagecoach music festivals.

Desert Sun reporters surveyed 323 women, using electronic questionnaires, on the polo club grounds, during the three weekends in April. Of the 49 women who said they were sexually harassed, five said they reported the occurrence to festival officials. 

This year, producer Goldenvoice instituted a new anti-harassment and anti-assault policy to promote a safer festival environment. A centralized tent offered counseling services and assistance to those in distress, including victims of harassment and assault. 

Two-thirds of the women surveyed said they were not aware of the festivals’ new Every One campaign. 

The policy launched after criticism during last year’s festivals regarding reports of rape and sexual harassment. One Teen Vogue writer interviewed 54 women during a single day of the first weekend of Coachella; all said they had been sexually harassed at the event.

The Desert Sun reviewed rape statistics surrounding the 2018 festivals from local health care providers and police. Indio Police Department, the lead investigative agency for crimes at Coachella and Stagecoach, said it investigated one rape report in addition to two groping incidents on festival grounds in 2018. 

Data from the local Sexual Assault Forensic Examiner (SAFE) team — responsible for every rape kit done in the Coachella Valley — told a different story. Over the course of the three festival weekends in April 2018, seven people reported being raped at festival campgrounds, or at short-term rentals or private residences nearby, according to the SAFE team. 

Katie Pelland coordinates a team of nurses that examine sexual assault patients in the Coachella Valley.
Zoe Meyers, The Desert Sun

This year, the SAFE team performed a rape kit on one male victim during the second weekend of Coachella, according to lead forensic nurse and program coordinator Katie Pelland. Indio Police ruled that single report as unfounded after speaking with the alleged victim, according to spokesman Ben Guitron. 

The lower numbers of reported sexual assault cases show a step in the right direction, said National Sexual Violence Resource Center spokeswoman Laura Palumbo. But she cautioned against thinking the work in changing the culture of sexual harassment and assault is done. 

“I think there is a chance that those positive efforts (by festival producer Goldenvoice) and increased social pressures for men to not be one of the ‘bad guys’ had an impact,” Palumbo said. “But I really think that it is probably still too soon to say. We know that sexual harassment and assault are still under-reported.”

One in six women experiencing sexual harassment is unacceptable, Palumbo said. 

“Comparing one year’s numbers to another can’t give us the full picture,” she added, “but can give us a sense that there is a positive shift happening.”

Festival goers sit in front of the "Every One" safe-space at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio, Calif. on Fri. April 12, 2019. (Photo: Thomas Hawthorne/USA Today Network)

A ‘call to action’

Much of the Coachella and Stagecoach music festivals looked the same this year. 

“Spectra,” the 75-foot-tall rainbow tower and iconic symbol of the festivals, stood as a guiding compass for visitors who milled about. Expensive food again filled vendor spaces. The desert once more became a catwalk for bohemian (and patriotic) fashion trends among the approximately 825,000 attendees over three weekends.

Other things were new. Signs near the campground bathrooms with messages about consent made Makinen happy. She said, overall, she felt safe at both the festival and campgrounds.

“I’m not sure if the signs would really do anything though, especially when thinking about men who are oblivious and think they treat people so great but don’t,” she said. “But hopefully it created some awareness.”

Festivalgoers might have noticed the verbiage from Goldenvoice’s new policy if they slowed their pace and paid attention.

On winding paths from the expansive parking lots to the festival entrance, electric signs reminded visitors to ask for consent before touching someone. Others said harassment would not be tolerated. Some asked people to work to make the festival a safe space for all. 

“Everyone deserves to feel safe,” one sign read.

Amid the crowds, festival staff members called “ambassadors” wore teal t-shirts identifying themselves as resources for help. They walked around in small clusters looking for people in distress. 

But the epicenter of the Every One campaign, which mandated no tolerance of any form of sexual, physical or verbal assault or harassment, was a chic tent, staffed with licensed counselors, at the center of the festival grounds. 

Designed as a calming experience away from the chaos of the festival, the tent boasted air-conditioning in addition to modern pink, velvet couches and lush green plants. Bamboo chairs and ottoman poufs sat atop overlapping area rugs. The cool air mimicked that of a trendy yoga studio as essential oils were diffused. Green tea, rock lamps, adult coloring books and tissues stocked the shelves. 

Even when there weren’t many visitors at the tent, workers still talked at a whisper and apologetically tip-toed around the space.

When campaign director Veline Mojavro learned that one in six women surveyed by The Desert Sun said they had experienced sexual harassment, she said a single woman experiencing harassment is one too many — but she believed the number would have been higher without the Every One campaign.

“We feel the impact of our work,” Mojavro said. “People who received our services have said positive things and there have been people who just stopped by to say they appreciate that we are here.

“I think our pre-emptive work of building a new culture set the stage for a safer festival.”

The Every One tent wasn’t swamped with demand, Mojavro said, but saw a consistent stream of people coming in to seek comfort or assistance. Her team included just under 70 staff members between ambassadors and counselors.

Inside the tent, Every One staff connected people to medical treatment or local law enforcement as needed, though Mojavro didn’t provide definitive numbers. Most who received care were looking for emotional support or to speak to an on-site counselor, Mojavro said. 

Next year, she hopes to increase the awareness of the campaign with more signage on festival grounds in addition to social media marketing to create even more visibility.

“It’s really a call to action,” she said. “We need everyone’s help to make it work.” 

A look inside the Every One tent at the Coachella and Stagecoach music festivals. (Photo: Nicole Hayden, The Desert Sun)

How we reported this story

The Desert Sun surveyed women at the 2019 Coachella and Stagecoach to better understand the prevalence of sexual harassment at the festivals.

In the past, general data collection by nonprofits and advocacy organizations asked women if they had ever been harassed at any concert or festival during their lifetime. OurMusicMyBody — a national campaign that promotes harassment-free concert and festival experiences, and consulted with Goldenvoice on this year’s Every One campaign — conducted one such online survey over the span of a few months; 94% of women who responded said they had been harassed at some point during their life at a music event.

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