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Lizzie Miesenboeck: More must be done to halt sexual harassment at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe

Reports of sexual harassment on performers, support staff and those flyering in Edinburgh have been highlighted by Fair Fringe
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There’s a dark paradox to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe: while more and more shows are focusing on feminist issues, there are serious issues around gender inequality that the festival and employers there must tackle.

Firstly, there is a shocking gender pay gap. A study released by activist theatre company Power Play revealed in July that men, on average, earn 60% more at the festival than women – a pay gap of seven times the national average.

‘Less than £400 for 40 days’ work’: research reveals ‘shocking’ levels of low pay at Edinburgh Fringe

Then there is the record of sexual harassment and assault on performers and support staff, as highlighted by campaign group Fair Fringe and actors’ union Equity who said there had been numerous complaints from acts at the fringe this year.

One of the unspoken issues is around the safety of women flyering, as Girl Code Theatre’s Maddie Ross pointed out this year, and I found out myself. This is a huge problem.

I worked at the festival in 2018 and experienced sexual harassment every day. Within the crowds, misconduct was rife, with men frequently invading my personal space so their groping could go unnoticed and proposing a kiss in exchange for buying a ticket.

Surrounded by shows inspired by the #MeToo, I was shocked to be so constantly reminded of this retrograde behaviour

I stopped wearing makeup or making an effort with my appearance in an attempt to halt the daily sexual harassment… to no avail. Surrounded by shows inspired by the #MeToo movement, I was shocked to be so constantly reminded of this retrograde behaviour and misogynistic ‘lad culture’.

While flyering around a venue bar, three men who were twice, if not three times, my age, cornered me, saying they would only accept a flyer in exchange for my phone number. I nervously laughed and darted my eyes around the courtyard, spotting my superiors from within the company looking at me encouragingly.

“Give us a cuddle,” one man jeered and threw his arms around me, pressing himself against me his while his hands wandered up and down my backside. When I recounted how uncomfortable the incident made me feel to my boss, I was offered free drinks in exclusive venues rather than support. It became apparent that the festival’s lack of formality allows employers to avoid their duty of care. While Fair Fringe has called for employers to take the issue of sexual harassment more seriously, much more must be done to safeguard people who are in this vulnerable position.

I was being overworked, underpaid and constantly harassed, yet I couldn’t help hoping things would improve. ‘Everyone’s underpaid’ was the consensus, as Fair Fringe revealed that staff are regularly paid less than minimum wage in ‘sweat shop conditions’. The job had been advertised as “the place to be if you want to work in a creative industry”, so I felt my discontent was a failure on my part. Everyone else I knew who went to the fringe described the festival as an opportunity for self-expression and growth, while I felt silenced, and a shell of who I normally was.

Unfortunately, things only got worse. One day I was walking between busy venues and, while distracted, a passing man pretended to brush something off my thigh. I jumped at his touch and his grip tightened as he moved his hand forcefully under my skirt. In a state of shock I ran into an alleyway and tried to calm my breath, kicking myself for not getting a better description of him to report to the police.

In order to address these serious issues, employers need to recognise how widespread this problem is. The prevalence of sexual harassment should be discussed in training: not just mentioned when, or if, an incident occurs.

The Fringe Society itself should be clearer on their zero-tolerance stance on sexual harassment and provide safe spaces and a support network. Most importantly, individuals need to remember that no uncomfortable situation is worth a ticket sale. Any incident that makes you feel vulnerable should be taken seriously – engaging with the public to promote a show should not compromise your personal safety. This behaviour would never be tolerated in any other workplace. When the circumstances warrant, the police should be informed.

All forms of sexism exist on a spectrum and are inherently connected. Women being paid less for their work is connected to women being silenced and harassed. If we don’t value women’s narratives and women’s work, it adds to a culture where women are inferior to men and can be treated as such.

A year on from #MeToo, how much has theatre really changed?

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