From Iceland — Let’s Talk About The Elephant In The Room

Let’s Talk About The Elephant In The Room

Published August 2, 2013

Let’s Talk About The Elephant In The Room
Gabríel Benjamin
Photo by
Óskar Hallgrímsson

Þjóðhátíð í Eyjum is an annual outdoor festival that has been celebrated in Vestmanneyjar since 1874. The three-day bash takes place on Verslunarmannahelgin (“Merchants’ Weekend,” Iceland’s version of bank holiday) and features performances from some of Iceland’s most popular musicians as well as a slew of community events—not dissimilar in structure to Denmark’s Roskilde or Glastonbury in the UK. Þjóðhátíð has been a part of the small fishing community’s cultural identity for generations. However, in the late nineties and early noughties, a number of sexual assaults completely changed the public perception of the festival, which was always considered a family friendly affair. It seems that rapists had been taking advantage of festivalgoers’ inebriated state, with 
horrible consequences for all involved.

The festival organisers did not do themselves—or the rape victims—any favours with their reaction to the discourse, accusing rape support groups like Stígamót of creating problems and reporting more rapes than actually happened. The two sides fought a prolonged and ugly battle through the local media, which has thankfully calmed down for now.

The ceasefire has not made the problems go away, however, and several rapes were reported at the 2012 edition of Þjóðhátíð.

Enter the “Pink Elephant”

For 2013, the people responsible for the festival, Vestmannaeyjar’s sports club, ÍBV (Íþróttabandalag Vestmannaeyja), aim to actively combat the problem. Their main effort involved the drafting in of a preventative group called Bleiki fíllinn (“The Pink Elephant,” founded in 2012 after the Vestmannaeyjar SlutWalk), which has the job of spreading the message that rape is never OK, and that people’s choice of attire or state of inebriation is irrelevant in every instance. Their message boils down to: never assume consent, and never ignore when consent is withdrawn.

We reached out to Stígamót spokesperson Guðrún Jónsdóttir to ask what the ideal preparations outdoor festivals—which are in general notorious rapist stomping grounds—can make to ensure the safety and well-being of their patrons. Guðrún responded that it was very important for outdoor festivals like Þjóðhátíð to operate a well-functioning security team, and have the right support environment in place for possible rape victims. “It is essential that all the attendees know what measures are in place for victims,” she said.

The head of Bleiki fíllinn, Jóhanna Ýr Jónsdóttir, says that is exactly what the group is there to do, and to remind people that there are no vague rules of sexual conduct. “It doesn’t matter if a person was interested in you earlier,” she says. “If she’s asleep, she can’t give consent.”

She mentions an American study in which 70% of all male rapists were found to have been under the influence when they committed the crime. “Their judgment is impaired, so we want to simply tell them that they should just stop instead of hoping for the best,” Jóhanna says. “Just wait until they wake up to see if you can get consent.”

The group’s name is meant to reference an “elephant in the room” that nobody has dared to mention, rape. One of the group’s objectives is to open the discussion in order to address misconceptions people have about rape. “Rape happens,” she says, “and survivors should not feel ashamed of it. An older lady stopped me last year as I was distributing pamphlets in the festival’s white tents, and she said she’d been going to the festival for 30 to 50 years, and people knew about the rapes, but it was the first time they were talking about the problem!”

Heralding a new era

One of Bleiki fíllinn’s stated goals is to actively encourage rape victims to step forward. “We’re not trying to reduce the number of reported rapes, but to reduce the number of actual rapes,” Jóhanna says. According to her, the organisers of Þjóðhátíð have been very receptive and positive towards the Pink elephant, eager to work with the group and perhaps repair the damage their public dispute with various anti-rape organisations did.

Part of what fuelled the long standing feud, according to Jóhanna, is that Vestmannaeyjar locals easily get defensive about Þjóðhátíð. “The moment anyone raises criticism about it, whether it’s Stígamót or anyone else, people just close up, so it becomes difficult to talk about the problems. My dream,” she says, “is that in a few years we will have addressed and dealt with these problems in a way that we can bring together the organisers and Stígamót to work together.”

Although Bleiki fíllinn do not work directly with Stígamót, they have ties with other groups like the Samþykki (“consent”) group, and the people behind the ‘Fáðu já’ sexual education campaign. They plan to screen parts of ‘Fáðu já’ during Þjóðhátíð in the hopes that people will take the message to heart.

Jóhanna wants to bring the festival back to its roots, as a family friendly affair where people can sing along to the songs, have a merry time and feel safe. The organisers of the festival are bumping up security with more cameras and people on the ground, as well as possibly posting guards at the gender-segregated toilets, but Jóhanna wants to look at what other festivals have done. She mentions the Danish Roskilde and Icelandic Eistnaflug in particular for having very low crime rates and different attitudes towards rape.

Sending a clear message

“Stebbi [the head of Eistnaflug] does a great job by having a clear and well known policy regarding assault and crime,” she says, “which is something we’d love to see with Þjóðhátíð.” If you do something wrong at Eistnaflug, the person just gets kicked out and their festival wristband gets cut. “It encourages people to simply behave.”

“It is atrocious for Þjóðhátíð to be called a ‘rape fest,’ and people from Vestmanneyjar are really hurt when they hear it, but people actually know, unfortunately,” she says, almost too upset to finish the sentence, “that people get raped at the festival. This happens despite a lot of work being put into trying to stop it from happening.”

People can still fall through the cracks, and it would be wishful thinking to assume that this year’s festival will be entirely free of sexual assault. Still, the visionary work of Bleiki fíllinn will hopefully allow more people to come away from Þjóðhátíð with pleasant memories.

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