In 1999, a music festival in upstate New York became a social experiment. There were riots, looting, and numerous assaults, all set to a soundtrack of the era’s most aggressive rock bands. Incredibly, this was the third iteration of Woodstock, a festival originally known for peace, love, and hippie idealism. But Woodstock ’99 revealed some hard truths behind the myths of the 1960s and the danger that nostalgia can engender.
Break Stuff, an eight-part documentary podcast series available exclusively on Luminary, investigates what went wrong at Woodstock ’99 and the legacy of the event as host Steven Hyden interviews promoters, attendees, journalists, and musicians. We’ve explored who’s to blame (or not to blame) for what happened, how the seeds were planted for chaos, and the myth of the original Woodstock in 1969. In this episode, we look at the sexual assaults and violence against women that happened at the festival.
Below is an excerpt from the sixth episode of Break Stuff. Subscribe here and check back each Tuesday through August 27 for new episodes.
When it comes to a mass event like Woodstock ’99, which was attended by around 200,000 people, you have to account for around 200,000 different points of view. We’ve outlined many of the festival’s problems.
But during my reporting, I also encountered people who had a great time at Woodstock ’99. It’s impossible to account for all of the dozens of factors that can shape an individual’s experience at an event like this.
However, there is one variable that had an outsized effect on whether you felt safe at the festival: gender.
“I definitely remember one of my other friends, this regular white guy, went off on his own,” says attendee Stephanie Frizzel. “I’m not sure if it’s true, but he claimed he met Wavy Gravy. I think he was just high.”
Frizzel is a Brooklyn native who was 20 years old when she attended Woodstock ’99. She camped that weekend with a group of friends that included men and women. As the festival unfolded, the men in her group felt free to explore the grounds in search of an archetypal Woodstock experience. For them, the myth about gathering together with strangers and feeling a spirit of oneness was very much within reach. Frizzel and her female friends, however, weren’t so liberated.
“We were all kind of like, ‘You’re crazy for going off on your own,’” she says. “It just seemed like a huge stretch to the rest of us that anybody would be comfortable to do that. But he certainly was.”
When the festival was announced, Frizzel thought it would be the ultimate party. She had grown up listening to her parents’ Woodstock movie soundtrack and even watched the documentary. The festival was a chance to finally have her own Woodstock experience.
“I kind of had expectations that it would be a little bit like the original,” she says. “I obviously was hoping that the vibe was going to be peaceful and then possibly occasionally political. But I also was really just kind of looking to have a good time.”
But when Frizzel and her friends arrived at Griffiss Air Force Base, they quickly discovered that Woodstock ’99 was anything but peace and love—especially for the women in their crew.
“Before we even got to where we were going to be camping, there were other campsites set up with guys shouting like, you know, ‘Show us your tits,’ and all kinds—I mean, we immediately were on edge,” she says. “We were like, ‘Oh, this is not what we expected.’ It was definitely a frat type of vibe.”
Frizzel prided herself on having street smarts. She’s a born-and-raised New Yorker. Plus, her father was a police officer. He taught her how to look out for herself. But no man can really know what it’s like to be a woman in this situation, in an environment where you know that anything can happen to you at any moment … and nobody is going to stop it.
At Woodstock ’99, the sexually aggressive men immediately put Frizzel into a defensive posture.
“We basically set up our tent and kind of assessed the area right away, just looking around to see who else was around to make sure we felt safe, from the entry, right from the very beginning,” she says. “It totally set the tone at that point, where we were like, ‘Oh, this isn’t going to be quite as fun-loving as we anticipated.’”
For much of the weekend, Frizzel and her female friends didn’t dare venture outside of their tents.
“I definitely, being from Brooklyn, just in general, was not going anywhere near that kind of riffraff,” she says. “I would say I was definitely pretty street smart and my Spidey sense was tingling. ‘I’m gonna stick with my crew. I’m gonna stick with safety in numbers.’ And anything outside of that was definitely something I was trying to avoid at all costs.”
Stephanie Frizzel ultimately emerged from Woodstock ’99 relatively unscathed. But many other women weren’t so fortunate. In the festival’s aftermath, stories of sexual assault and harassment that took place at Woodstock ’99 abounded in the media. Outlets such as Spin, Rolling Stone, and MTV depicted Woodstock ’99 as a deeply misogynist environment where men felt emboldened to catcall, grope, and even rape women.
The promise of the Woodstock myth is that each person matters. That everyone is free to do what they want, when they want. But at Woodstock ’99, women seemed to have less freedom, and also matter less. Meanwhile, a lot of men felt way too much freedom to hassle and even hurt women.
In that way, Woodstock wasn’t all that different from the outside world. Women have to watch their backs pretty much wherever they go. But still, at this festival, the danger was even more overt.
About a month after Woodstock ’99, Adam Horovitz—also known as Ad-Rock—took to the podium at the MTV Video Music Awards. His band, the Beastie Boys, had just won the award for best hip-hop video for the song “Intergalactic.”
The VMAs have long been a proudly ephemeral celebration of youth culture. But Horovitz had a serious message he wanted to share:
I read in the news and heard from my friends all about the sexual assaults and rapes that went down at Woodstock ’99. And that made me feel really sad and angry. OK? Are you all there? OK.
All the musicians here: I think we can talk to the promoters and make sure that they’re doing something about the safety of all the girls and the women that come to our shows. I think we can talk and work with the security people to make sure they know and understand about sexual harassment and rape and they know how to handle these situations.
Horovitz was reacting to what had become a deluge of negative headlines about sexual assaults at Woodstock ’99.
For promoter John Scher, however, this was another instance of the media—and MTV specifically—exaggerating the problems at the festival and ignoring all the people who had a good time.
“Once again, you got painted by first MTV and then other journalists as if people were getting raped every 15 feet. It just wasn’t,” he says. “It just didn’t happen. I’m not denying that it did happen. I’m just saying the nature of journalism is to find this story that most people will want to read about or see about. Not diminishing in any way, shape, or form the women that, you know, got exploited.”
The backlash against Woodstock ’99 blew back on Scher directly. The National Organization for Women staged a protest outside his New York City office a few weeks after the festival. But looking back, Scher doesn’t think the festival should be blamed for what happened.
“I am critical of the hundreds of women that were walking around with no clothes on. You know? And expecting not to be touched. They shouldn’t have been touched,” he says. “But, nevertheless, you’re talking about, you know … let’s say it was 60/40 men, or 70/30 men. Average age of early 20s. Hell, do they think what’s going to happen if they’re going to walk around naked? You know, now that’s somewhat so chauvinist and not politically correct. And I condemn it but—action, reaction. For every action in this world is an opposite and equal reaction. And that’s just the laws of science. So—terrible. I hope everybody got caught and got put in jail. But it just wasn’t what the press made it out to be—bad, but not ridiculous, like some of it made it out to be.”
Scher insists that MTV was mainly responsible for painting Woodstock ’99 as a field day for abusers, but other media reports arguably had a more lasting impact.
That fall, Spin magazine published one of the most comprehensive and harrowing stories about the festival, detailing numerous assaults that occurred while bands were on stage, including multiple rapes. Maureen Callahan was one of the writers of that article.
“We had, I believe—and this is such a low number—a handful of reported sexual assaults,” she says. “A lot of people who worked Woodstock believe it was much higher, as do I.”
Some of the most disturbing scenes from Spin’s article occurred during Korn’s set on Friday. The magazine interviewed a medical worker who saw a female concert-goer get pulled into a mosh pit by several men, one of whom she said raped her. The medical worker said he saw five other women assaulted in similar fashion.
“It’s hard to see it as anything other than just a complete devaluation of women and a likely hatred,” Callahan says. “Again, coming on the tail end of a decade, a punctuation mark for Generation X. It just sort of felt like, ‘Who are these people? Who are they? Are they … they’re us? This is our cohort? This is a significant part of the male cohort at the end of the ’90s?’ It felt kind of unbelievable.”
The original Woodstock helped to popularize the idea that a music festival is a judgment-free zone outside of normal society. And a crucial, if often unspoken, part of that paradigm is that men should be free to pursue their desires, even if it’s at the expense of women.
But some say Woodstock ’99 was still beyond the pale, even when you take into account the problematic history of music festivals as well as the failure of many modern festivals to deal with sexual violence. That includes Dave Konig, an EMT who was at Woodstock ’99 and has worked at hundreds of public events for nearly 25 years. For Konig, the preponderance of sexual assaults and harassment at Woodstock ’99 seemed greater than any other event he has ever worked.
“The one instance that stands out to me is one of the ambulances pulled up, and I was dispatching, and the driver got out, went around, and they were unloading one patient on the stretcher from the back, but there was another person up front, and it was a girl, probably 18, 19,” he says. “And she was just sitting there, and as the medic was wheeling the stretcher with the two other patients behind them, he turned to me and he said, ‘Watch the truck. Don’t let anyone near her.’”
Five minutes later, the woman was escorted away by a nurse.
“The nurse went, spoke to the girl, he put a blanket over the girl, brought her inside,” he says. “And I said to him, ‘So what was that all about?’ He’s like, ‘It’s just flat out, they’re savages. They’re just savages.’ And he just he just walked away.”
Callahan is also haunted by the horror stories she heard while reporting for her Spin article.
“There was one that was related to me that I found—actually, all of them were horrible,” she says. “But there was an account of one young woman in a tent passed out and 20 guys just having their way with her. And then there was another young woman who said she was sucked down into a mosh pit. She felt she couldn’t get out. Another one who said she was violated by at least four or five hands belonging to unseen men, one of whom yelled, ‘Rip her apart.’”
These stories are awful, each of them, on their own. But for Maureen, there’s another layer to them. At Spin, she had written about feminist Riot Grrl bands and thoughtful male rock stars like Kurt Cobain who sought to dismantle traditional forms of macho rock ’n’ roll. What Woodstock ’99 seemed to suggest is that those efforts had failed.
“You have this generation of young men who really for the first time had been raised, if not just by moms who were feminists or who came of age during the the real first wave of feminism, had been raised by single moms, largely,” she says. “And so you sort of felt that there was this unprecedented parity in this generation between the boys and the girls.
“And when you look back on what went down at Woodstock ’99, the sexual assaults particularly and the violence, it felt a bit like the mask had been ripped off. And it sort of raised the question, how level was the playing field, really?”