The morning the BBC published an article on sexual harassment at the Fringe Festival (23 August 2019, available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-49435737), I received six messages by ten o’clock. It was close the end of my time working as part of the ‘Street Team’ for a well-known events company and my shocked friends and family immediately sent me worried messages to ask if I was okay. My first reaction was to laugh. Taken aback, I realised that this had become the standard among my peers with whom I worked during the Festival — we often found ourselves laughing at the weird and ridiculous ways in which members of the public would treat us. Harassment had become the everyday, and so had joking about it — a coping mechanism to get over the fact that what was happening was not OK.
A majority of the twelve girls on my team (of twenty total staff) had experienced some form of inappropriate behaviour during the month. Undoubtedly, the scale of the Festival is unparalleled as 30,000 entertainers perform across 3,500 shows over 27 days (excluding people who flyer on behalf of acts), but this should not excuse the fact that ‘more and more’ accounts of sexual harassment are reported every year, according to the actor’s union Equity.
Once the first week was over, we were accustomed to a façade — having realised how mentally and physically demanding the festival was. Such a performance was expected, we had made a silent promise to maintain the same positive attitude on day-one as on day-twenty-seven. Working for a renowned company meant that we were all eager to impress our managers, but on top of this we were soon emotionally invested in the acts and shows that we represented. Not to mention a message from above informing us of thousands of pounds invested — and the pressure to make that money back.
Hysteria descended as thousands of tourists flooded the city, and men began to take advantage of the girls who stood for hours on the street handing out flyers. It became difficult to know how to react to inappropriate behaviour. Early on my first day, a man asked me personal questions, took my phone and plugged in his number, sending himself a message. He then said that he would come by each day until I went out for drinks with him and for me to pose in a photo. It was a rare when I was not asked similar things while working on the Royal Mile.
On another occasion, a man from a large group insisted that I should go with him, persistent that I must be free that night. If my friend hadn’t interjected, I am unsure as to how I would have removed myself from the situation. ‘The most support came from the other Street Teams. They would be the first to step in if something seemed sketchy in conversation. The harassment had a lot to do with our anonymity. The streets are packed during the fringe and to the public we were no one’ said Lynsey, a colleague of mine. The informality and scale of the festival only allowed this misogynistic behaviour to go unchecked.
‘There would be something new every day. While flyering, men would touch your arm, shoulder, waist and wink at you. We would never understand why physical contact had to play a part in their rejection of a flyer’, she added. ‘I would keep saying “no” and they would swear in my face’, another colleague told me. ‘This is a hard issue to mitigate. In most circumstances, men would be drinking on the street. I didn’t feel supported; I felt scrutinised and as though I couldn’t complain to my managers’.
This dilemma became commonplace. We couldn’t let someone escape with this ‘lad-like’ behaviour but we didn’t want to risk being reported either. Soon, I did not want to wear my company-branded t-shirt in case I reacted to someone in such a way that they would make me lose my job.
The job requires us to work in a public space, and herein lies the problem. Over three days, my friend and I were approached by the same man who would walk in laps around George Square and Bristo Square, and try to hug us. He would stand in front of me and shout my name and ‘I like you’, then promise his return the next day. Upon this, we both reported the incident and security were unable to do anything. As the man was not in one of the festival venues, it did not authorise their intervention. To make sure I felt comfortable, my manager then asked for my friend Rory to stay with me beyond his shift.
My colleagues and friends were made to feel belittled by other men. It was argued that someone aggressively complimenting them wasn’t harassment, that it should be seen as kindness and that a touch on the arm was harmless, not invasive.
It is down to the individual, regardless of their sex, to determine what is harassment. Companies at the Fringe need to explicitly state before you start work that this behaviour is inevitable, and need guidelines set in place for when this happens. The Fringe Society must make it clear that there will be zero-tolerance for sexual harassment and more support networks put in place. My experience has been tainted but I realise that it could have been worse. At work we would often joke that we would see the worst of humanity while we gave out flyers. Despite this, we also saw some of the best in the support we gave each other, in the kindness that members of the public offered and in the talented people who made up the feat that was the festival.
Image: LuxStorm via NeedPix