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'I Believe Them': How One Woman Sought Out Woodstock '99 Sex Assault Survivors
Liz Polay-Wettengel left Woodstock '99 after seeing and hearing how women were treated and then she put up a website to find survivors and bring them together.
Woodstock ‘99 went down in history as one of the most disastrous music events in recent memory. Portable toilets overflowed, the crowd was overheated and dehydrated, and fire and rioting marked the final night of the four-day disaster. But most egregious — and less widely discussed — was the sexual violence committed against women.
HBO’s new documentary “Woodstock 99: Peace, Love and Rage” shows image after image from the 1999 festival of men grabbing women’s breasts without consent. But that was just the tip of the iceberg. One witness told the New York Times in 1999 that over the course of under 10 minutes, he saw five or six women get sexually assaulted.
''They were literally passing the women from one guy to another,'' he said. ''There was at least one guy assisting on almost every one I saw, holding the girl down. It was horrible.''
Four rapes were officially reported, the New York Times reported in 1999. Of the four, two women were allegedly raped by groups of men in mosh pits while people around them cheered, MTV reported at the time. Liz Polay-Wettengel attended the four-day event but left early after becoming disgusted with the sexual abuse she said she witnessed.
“Based on what I saw, I knew that there were so many women that didn’t tell their stories or they certainly weren’t going to the police,” she said in the documentary. “I wondered where they are or what they're doing.”
She told Oxygen.com that she heard whispers about different rapes, in bathrooms and tents. She says she also witnessed women in the mosh pit “getting their clothing ripped off” and groped.
“We were helpless to help anyone without knowing who they were,” she told Oxygen.com. “That is why we set up a site, so we could direct people to rape crisis centers, to the authorities, or to a counselor.”
She created a website called fanseverywhere.org about a week after Woodstock to search for sex assault survivors from the festival.
“A collection of music fans dedicated to helping law enforcement officials find the individuals responsible for the sexual assaults perpetrated during the Woodstock ‘99 music festival,” a description of the site stated.
“I got dozens upon dozens of emails from women, young women, women as young as 14 years old saying, I had a bottle shoved up my vagina or I had all my clothes ripped off in the mosh pit or I was raped in a tent on Saturday night and I was screaming and nobody did anything to stop it,” she said in the documentary.
Polay-Wettengel told Oxygen.com that she referred survivors to authorities in Rome, New York, where the festival was held. She is not aware if doing so resulted in any arrests.
“I also wonder how many reached out there and nothing was done about it,” she said. “These women were scared and many felt as if they were at least partially to blame because of what they were or were not wearing, or for being there in the first place.”
She added that most reached out to her anonymously.
Polay-Wettengel, who now works as a chief of public relations at a public school district, said she doesn’t feel like society’s attitudes towards sexual assault have progressed that much.
“I think the #MeToo movement proves that it has not changed,” she said. “Women are still getting sexually assaulted and threatened and people with influence and authority throw around excuses such as ‘boys will be boys’ or that it is ‘locker room talk’ and still, with evidence to the contrary, people don't believe them. I believe them.”
Of the 44 arrests that were made at Woodstock '99, only one person was seemingly arrested in connection to sexual assault. In that incident, a 26-year-old prison guard was accused of sexually assaulting a 15-year-old girl, the New York Times reported.