Ultra 2016 Shows Us That Sexual Harassment and Assault Are Still Very Real Issues at Music Festivals

Sexual assault at music festivals is a reality for many women.
Sexual assault at music festivals is a reality for many women.
Photo by George Martinez

Of all the things I saw at Ultra this year — which included a man in a Hillary Clinton mask, a 50-ton fire-spewing spider, and porta-potties that were 87 percent urine — this was the most disturbing: I was walking up the path to the Live Stage behind a couple — one man, one woman. Both sides of the thick crowd rubbed past each other, a traffic pattern not unlike I-95 at rush hour. A young man approached from the opposite direction, and just as he passed the couple in front of me, he reached down with his left hand, grabbed the butt of the passing woman, and squeezed sharply, looking forward, not breaking stride. The woman snapped her head around but saw only bodies. The man she was with noticed her distress, and she shouted something in his ear. The two of them stood for a moment, glancing back at nothing but heads and torsos. With no one to aim their anger toward, they started slowly back up the hill — what else could they do?

That's one end of the spectrum.

Here's the other: On the second day of Ultra, Saturday, March 19, a 25-year-old Brazilian tourist stumbled up the steps of the Metromover's Park West station — roughly a mile north of Bayfront Park — on her way home from the festival. Deemed too intoxicated to ride the Metromover, she was refused entry. Then, a witness saw 41-year-old Carl Lee Wilt, a Miami-Dade Transit supervisor, carry her limp body into a utility room. The witness flagged down police, who arrived in time to observe Wilt emerge from the closet, zipper down, the 25-year-old Ultra attendee unconscious on the ground behind him. 

On Sunday, during a hearing for Wilt, Miami-Dade County Judge Nushin Sayfie said, "This is why we shouldn't let our kids go to Ultra — right here." The statement caused controversy — and rightly so. It was a blatant act of victim-blaming. The subtext of Sayfie's statement implied that if only the victim hadn't attended Ultra and left in an inebriated state, she wouldn't have been assaulted. But that line of thought is dangerous and offensive. There is only one person to blame for the assault that happened at the Park West station: the alleged assailant, Carl Lee Wilt. 

"We don't know specifically what Judge Sayfie meant by her comment, but we can say that our event organizers and internal security team, in conjunction with Miami Police and Fire, work very hard to provide a safe and secure event for our patrons as well as our neighboring residents and businesses," an Ultra spokesperson tells New Times. "It is unfortunate that the victim happened to be one of our patrons, and our prayers go out to her for a full recovery."

Sexual assault is an omnipresent risk for women everywhere, but it's an elevated threat at music festivals, where it can take many shapes, often perpetrated with a disturbing nonchalance. There is an entire reality at music festivals, and within large crowds in general, visible only to women. Over my three days walking around Ultra's festival grounds, as a man, I was groped zero times. That's probably not true for hundreds if not thousands of women who found themselves attending Ultra this year. But there's no real way to know. Because although we have some police reports and other official documents to highlight sexual assault at music festivals, the vast majority of the perpetrators whose crimes aren't so easily provable disappear into the crowd. 

Is Ultra doing enough to raise awareness about sexual assault?
Is Ultra doing enough to raise awareness about sexual assault?
Photo by George Martinez

The Ultra 2016 arrest reports (67 arrests in total) show no charges for sexual assault. The alleged rape at the Metromover was not included in that count because it did not happen in the immediate vicinity of Ultra. Former Miami Beach Police Chief Ray Martinez was the festival's head of security this year. There were 300 Miami Police officers working the festival, and Ultra threw in another 350 of its own security guards. 

"Event organizers expend significant resources in advancing drug and alcohol awareness and wellness campaigns including through onsite initiatives with various health and education partners," Ultra says. "Moreover, the organizers employ hundreds of security guards and off-duty police officers to assure that the event is safe and secure. In fact, this year, organizers had a substantial reduction in reported disruptive activity, and our security service team diligently works to provide a secure environment for our patrons."

The total number of arrests at Ultra was down from last year, and when compared with the 244 arrests that happened at Beyond Wonderland — an EDM festival that took place in San Bernardino, California, Friday and Saturday — Ultra's security looks solid. 

Still, the way we view safety at music festivals is narrow. Drugs typically hijack any conversation about the danger of EDM and dance music festivals.

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But the issue of sexual assault at these events has been gaining media traction within the past year. For the first time, Michigan's Electric Forest will provide a women-only campground in 2016, though the festival maintains its intention is not to protect against sexual assault, telling Thump, "This was born not from any concerns about safety as much as wanting to nurture opportunities for connection and inspiration."

On Ultra's own website, in the info section underneath the "Health and Wellness" tab, there are three blurbs meant to help keep attendees safe. There is a paragraph about hydration, one about Ultra's zero-tolerance drug policy, and another with advice on how to "help keep fellow festivalgoers safe," which advises:

If you see a person who is showing any signs of distress which may include: nausea, vomiting, headaches, confusion, blurred vision, racing heartbeat, shallow breathing, muscle tremors, inability to talk, discolored lips or has expressed to you that they are not feeling well, contact a security officer, a police officer, Fire Rescue personnel or an Ultra Music Festival Staff person for Medical Assistance immediately. Help us keep you safe and healthy.

Nowhere does it mention anything specific about sexual assault. Still, Ultra insists it is taking the necessary steps to protect its attendees. "Event organizers maintain wellness and safety programs and initiatives aimed at actively and affirmatively safeguarding patrons from various dangers, including those relating to potential sexual assaults, and intends to continue their efforts in this regard."

There is no simple solution to the problem, and it's certainly no recent phenomenon. But helping to fix the atmosphere, at least at music festivals, begins with education and awareness.

Ultra, and other festivals like it, need to establish themselves as leaders in this process. If there were half as much literature and signage about sexual assault as there was about 7-Up at Ultra, it won't solve the problem outright, but it just might help start a much-needed conversation, one that will pay off in the future. 

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