Mashing in

Charlotte Cook shares her experiences as a female festivalgoer, and why she won’t stop fighting to make beer a safer place

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PLEASE BE AWARE... This month's Mashing In contains a frank and potentially distressing account of serious sexual assault. 

Truthfully, I don’t know how to start this article. I was asked to do a write up of this year’s Great British Beer Festival – hosted by The Campaign for Real Ale – as I was volunteering on the Learning and Discovery section, a place where the public can come and try beer and cider, chat to producers and hopefully go away having learned something. It’s a great idea, and having done it before, I was happy to give up my time. However, this will be the last time I set foot in a CAMRA event until I can see an improvement in safety for all of those attending. 

Beer festivals can be a trying place, especially if you’re presenting or interacting with the public. People get increasingly drunk throughout the day, and with that comes inappropriate behaviour, tiresome entitlement, and the increasing desire to head home for a nice cuppa. At a festival that serves hundreds of (very excellent and varied) beers, drunkenness is to be expected and this is what bar staff and other hospitality professionals deal with daily and, truthfully, there’s very little that can be done. 

I’ve worked GBBF before, and this year the Learning and Discovery section was given a prominent and open space, a big improvement from the smaller boxier area at previous festivals. This was all very positive; the beer went down a treat and I spoke to some genuinely interested and engaged people. The selection of beer across the festival was also incredible, and the US cask bar was a brilliant addition that I hope will be maintained. There truly was a beer for everyone there, but that’s about where my enjoyment of the day ended. 

First, before the doors had even opened, I was approached by a steward who asked if I knew how sheer my dress was, and that they had a duty of care to let me know. I was wearing a vest and shorts under the dress, so about as fully covered as it’s possible to be, but even if I wasn’t, that duty of care is to prevent me from being harassed. I don’t believe the steward acted through malice, but it was thoroughly misguided and demonstrates that the people who are meant to be there for our safeguarding aren’t being trained fully or regularly enough, and that the message isn’t even permeating through the first few layers of the organisation. 


One of the men put his hand in my face as a gesture to “shut up”

That wasn’t the nadir of my day of shit though. During one tasting, where I was explaining my beer to a group, one of the men put his hand in my face as a gesture to “shut up” and turned to talk to his friends. I walked away and alerted a volunteer, who got a steward and an organiser who went to speak to the man. They then brought him back over to me, ostensibly to apologise, but I had zero interest in an apology only given to prevent ejection from the festival. I said he had to go.

This is my industry, my space and fundamentally my art and creation. This person didn’t respect me enough to allow me to talk. He has no place staying at an event and to have him brought back for informal resolution when he’d already breached every standard of acceptable behaviour was poor. I was at work, I should be afforded basic dignity whilst working, and that’s all there is to it. The volunteer and steward were helpful, but this is not enough. 

I WON’T SHUT UP

I am a rape survivor. It occurred at an industry event, and it ruined my life for several years. I didn’t want to be in crowds, I was jumpy to the point of being unable to continue living in London for a while, and I left my head brewer job to move up north because my brain couldn’t take another day of anyone asking me any questions. It took months before I could stop feeling physically sick at a man being in my personal space, even on crowded tubes or other spaces where they couldn’t help it, and the smell of anything masculine induced a truly visceral and exhausting reaction. Even at the crisis centre, where a friendly social worker told me it was “almost over now” as a doctor swabbed for someone else’s DNA inside my cervix, I was thinking “I shouldn’t have left my drink alone”. 

This is clearly an extreme example, but what some people think of as banter or funny conversation is, for me, a reminder of weeks of post exposure prophylaxis for HIV, three doses of the hepatitis B vaccine and months of therapy for PTSD that has not gone away. It also permanently altered my relationship with sex, pleasure and allowing anyone to get close. That’s a part of my autonomy that is sacred to me, which someone violently took away, and at first I didn’t want it back. The thought of being close to another human was so painful that I preferred to withdraw and actively hang back, cocooning myself from allowing anyone to take anything more. It took four years and a lot of therapy to be back to a semblance of myself. 

Sexual assault doesn’t end when the attack stops, it’s something etched into the very core of your being, and you carry it with you for the rest of your life. To see how flippantly men can behave when emboldened by booze and a mass entitlement unleashes a fury in me that cannot easily be tamed.


There has been a lot of talk about codes of conduct at festivals over the past year

I had to claw myself back to me. To wear the shiny and bright clothes that I eschewed for leggings and jumpers for years, to dye my hair from my natural mousy brown back to the long blonde mane that I prefer, to wearing makeup, to going out again. I am immensely grateful to my friends who stuck by me through that time, even though I was a small and dense sphere of dark energy, radiating stress and confusion and an anger without direction. 

This is why I talk about making beer a safe space. I’ve been to the lowest point a person can get to within this industry, and no one else should be subjected to the nearly unlivable hell that I clumsily navigated for several years. That life was choking me, and to be able to breathe clearly again gives me the will to keep going and help to make things better. 

DON’T BE A DICK

There has been a lot of talk about codes of conduct at festivals over the past year. Codes of conduct are essential, literally codifying what is and is not acceptable in these shared spaces, setting out rules and responses and pathways of escalation if something goes wrong. The thing is, these ultimately rely on enthusiastic uptake from those expected to uphold and demonstrate their principles. Unless everyone subject to the code understands and acts upon it, it’s worthless. 

Which brings us back to GBBF. A friend with a background in technology and archiving was able to confirm after a detailed search that there is no reference to a code of conduct on the event website; you need to visit the main CAMRA website and – eventually – you may stumble across a document last updated in 2018. Anyone following UK beer culture will understand that, in terms of sexual politics within the industry, 2018 was a lifetime ago.

When I wrote about my experiences on Twitter, the response was varied. Some people responded saying that they weren’t surprised, others replied referencing the code of conduct and that trained stewards are there to help. As we can see, the code of conduct isn’t prominent and the first incident was directly involving a steward and that means I didn’t feel that I could be kept safe by them. While it is wonderful to see people with so much love for beer that they’ll volunteer their time, a lot of the stewards are older, and perhaps not as able to intervene if that becomes necessary. As much as I dislike visible and heavy-handed security, there must be a middle ground, and I would argue some sort of professional backup is required, even if they’re largely behind the scenes.

LISTEN TO WOMEN

I’m not the only person who had issues at the festival. Polly De Silvestro, the sales and marketing manager for Werewolf Beer in North London, attended the trade session, a special opening for people who work in the beer industry. She told me that within minutes she was forced to ask three men to stop staring at her tattoos and felt uncomfortable and belittled when men she did not know seemingly tried to challenge her beer knowledge. Emmie Harrison-West, a journalist and beer writer also experienced unpleasant behaviour, including staring, unwanted touching, and being ignored when queuing for beer at the bar. AJ Cox, a brewer and researcher, also told me that at the two CAMRA festivals they had attended, they had been groped and faced unwanted harassment and belittlement. Cox did not attend this year’s GBBF. 

There are simple things that festival organisers can do. For example, when I arrived I was given a name badge without a lanyard, so I was forced to pin the badge on my chest, which meant that I was faced with people looking at my chest all day to see my name, and this becomes very uncomfortable incredibly quickly. Wellbeing officers can be in attendance to provide immediate support in the event of harassment, and publicising the code of conduct at the event and in print materials would help to make those attending the festival aware of what is unacceptable. 

In the aftermath, I have spoken to the Chief Executive of CAMRA as well as other officials, who have all been helpful and taken the issues seriously, but clearly we’re failing in basic safeguarding at festivals and shared beer spaces. We can keep shouting into the ether, but until serious action is taken to protect people there will not be true safety at these events.

CAMRA RESPONDS

We want to thank everyone who attended this year’s Great British Beer Festival. It was a real pleasure to bring the event back to its home in London after a two-year hiatus.  

While the general feedback was overwhelmingly positive, it has come to our attention that this year’s event was not the inclusive and safe environment that we aspire to provide for everyone.  

Even one complaint is one too many when it comes to the standards that we must set ourselves. We are therefore taking reports of this nature very seriously. 

We are committed to running welcoming and inclusive events across the UK and will be making significant changes at next year’s festival to make it a safe space for all. 

Whilst we currently have a Members’ Code of Conduct and Volunteers’ Charter, this event has highlighted the need to have a specific Code of Conduct for attendees. This Code of Conduct must be made available in advance, be easy to find and adherence to it an entry requirement for our festivals. 

Many of our security stewards are Security Industry Association accredited and badged, but we recognise we need to do more to help visitors identify them and that they are there to help. We also know that relying on stewards for help can be difficult in a crowd and will therefore introduce a central help desk area where attendees can ask for support.  

We also want to ensure that there is a clear pathway for raising complaints and concerns and will develop a central feedback form online, signposted on printed materials at festivals, to help us identify potential risks and concerns. 

As we have a portfolio of 180+ locally run festivals across the UK, we will develop guidance, training, and support for those volunteers on how to implement these changes on a local level. 

We apologise wholeheartedly to anyone who has been affected by this and know that the people most let down will be from the under-represented groups of people within the Campaign. We hope that these changes bring you an improved festival in 2023 and we continue to welcome any and all feedback on how we can improve in years to come.

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