In July of 1999 I was 21 years old and living in Manhattan with my boyfriend Matt*.
I don’t remember how we heard about Woodstock ’99. Social media didn’t exist. Maybe it was the radio or TV. But somehow, we discovered the iconic music festival from the ‘60s was back, and the lineup seemed incredible. I was a huge fan of nearly every band on the list, from Metallica to Jewel. It was an eclectic mix but fitting for an outdoor festival originating from the peaceful and loving hippies of the ‘60s.
Or so it seemed.
The venue was Rome, New York: approximately a five-hour drive from Manhattan. Being from Texas, Matt and I were used to long road trips, even though we didn’t take them anymore. Hell, we didn’t even have cars anymore.
The $150 ticket price was excruciating for me. Fresh out of college, I made $25,000 a year and lived in a shoebox with Matt. (At one point, I counted up the square footage of our apartment and was astonished at how little space we had compared to our astronomical rent.) Obviously, I was determined, and I scraped together the money for my ticket. My brother Joe hopped a flight from Austin to join us.
Obviously, the details are fuzzy now (Did we go buy a tent for the three of us? Where does one get camping supplies in Manhattan? Did we stock up on anything practical?), but there are a couple of things I recall in vivid detail. One was the Metallica show Saturday night, sitting on Matt’s shoulders, at what felt like miles from the stage. I remember thinking, “Man, they love what they’re doing.” They were performers.
The second memory is jarring. Sunday night during Red Hot Chili Peppers’ set: small clusters of people gathered around what looked like campfires but weren’t. Earlier in the day, a non-profit group handed out candles to honor the Columbine shooting victims. Instead of a reverent vigil, concert attendees were lighting anything and everything on fire. The fires were still small, but as I watched a guy take a running leap over one, I said to Matt and Joe: “Let’s go. Now. This is about to be very, very bad.” I don’t know when we had planned to leave, how long it took us to pack up or if we just left everything behind. But by the time we returned to Manhattan in the middle of the night, we turned on the TV news and saw that my prediction had been correct, except it was even worse than I had imagined.
Watching the HBO documentary recently, these atrocious details were revisited in living color. Poor planning, unhygienic conditions, angry young white men, trash being thrown at the stage while these young men chanted “show us your tits!” at every turn. I’m stunned that I don’t recall the last part. I wonder now if I tuned it out at the time, or if I’ve blocked the memory, or some combination of both. Was I somehow protected because I was with my boyfriend and my brother? As I watched the documentary, the tales of sexual assault and rape at the festival horrified me and gave me a very real sense of survivor’s guilt.
The documentary not only recapped the festival itself but put it in context of the period. I had never considered how truly odd the nineties were, and when I did speak up about it, I was told, like most women, that I was being rather stupid.
In Manhattan, I walked from my apartment each day to the subway. I haven’t visited in years so I don’t know if this is still the case, but a newsstand sat on practically every corner. Those newsstands were plastered in magazines and newspapers, but what stood out to me were the magazine covers featuring women. FHM, Maxim, Rolling Stone—they all seemed to feature a half-naked woman who looked impossibly young, impossibly sexy, impossibly perfect. I felt assaulted each single day by what I was supposed to be. Meeting up with my boyfriend and his colleagues one night at a bar, the topic came up after a few cocktails. Embarrassingly, I started sobbing about how ugly I felt; how it was a double standard because nothing like that happened to them. They stared at me incredulously and told me I was being silly and too sensitive. Matt wasn’t even kind enough lie that I was just as gorgeous and perfect as the girl on every cover.
Things like this would happen repeatedly to me over the course of my life and my relationships. One night soon after my experience in New York, at my birthday party, a different boyfriend and his friends were passing around a Rolling Stone magazine with Britney Spears on the cover, ogling her. My birthday party, my boyfriend, and I felt like an ugly duckling. My boyfriend couldn’t stand up to his friends, couldn’t tell them to lay off and put the magazine away. Humiliated yet again.
Another boyfriend a couple years later went to a strip club when he said he was elsewhere. He knew it upset me, so he lied. And if there was a lap dance, I also knew touching was likely despite his claims it wasn’t allowed. Again, a double standard: I definitely wasn’t doing anything similar with my girlfriends on a Friday night. I certainly wouldn’t have done it and lied to him.
All of this happened a long time ago. Perhaps I should attribute it to guys who were just jerks. But as the documentary pointed out, this was a unique flashpoint in culture where misogyny was celebrated and expected. In fact, when reflecting on this time, I took part in the misogyny as well. I blamed the women for stealing attention. I called them slutty, or stupid, or vapid when I really had no idea who they were as people.
We shouldn’t have been surprised that the majority of the male Woodstock attendees apparently considered it their right to see women’s naked breasts or entire naked bodies. They thought it was acceptable to touch them, to violate them without consent or permission. And society found it acceptable. Women being confronted at every moment with a barrage of images that pummeled our self-esteem, and guys “just being guys.”
Some twenty years later, we’ve made some progress in our reckoning, but we still have a long way to go.
*names have been changed