Even in a pandemic, men won't stop sexually harassing women in nightclubs
Nightclubs came back after 16 months of social distancing restrictions — and long-standing issues returned with them
WARNING: This article includes accounts of sexual harassment and may be distressing for some readers. Resources for support are listed at the end of this article
New Year's Eve was a cathartic night for clubland. January 1 celebrations exploded on dancefloors for the first time since two years, as dancers looked ahead to a future hopefully free from restrictions. I was among those partygoers, welcoming in 2022 and celebrating my twenty-first birthday with friends. It was great to soak up music and crowds of people after such a long time anxiously avoiding these venues, but it seems my excitement to go out again clouded my recollection of the behaviour that runs rife in these venues.
Anyone can be the victim or aggressor of sexual harassment, but research has repeatedly indicated it is most commonly affects women at the hands of men. A 2018 parliamentary report noted: "It is a cultural norm and women are no longer surprised to be hassled, harassed or assaulted [in the night-time economy]." A 2021 study concluded that sexual harassment is the most prominent problem women experience in the music industry, and another industry report that year found sexual abuse and harassment is "rife".
The reality for women and non-binary folk is that being groped, grabbed by the waist, and having men be far too comfortable getting in your personal space is essentially just a given when going out. We are expected to just laugh about it, or shrug it off and get on with it, because going out and only having your tit grabbed or your arse slapped is 'getting off lightly' in the grand scheme of things. Ever since I entered the club scene at 18, I cannot recall one night where I have not been made to feel uncomfortable by the inappropriate behaviour or touch of a man, or have not needed to rescue a friend from across the dancefloor, as they give me ‘the glare’ that tells me they are in need of saving from someone who does not understand the concept of ‘no’.
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While this has unfortunately always been too common of an occurrence in club culture, experiences of harassment and non-consensual touching in clubs has been all the more rife in my personal circles post-lockdown. News of a horrific spiking epidemic has further made violence against women a sickening hallmark of 2021, as has the murders of Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa. But how much has actually been done in order to prevent these crimes? Boris Johnson’s plans to “drive out violence against women” and “make every part of the criminal justice system work better to protect and defend them” has proven to be at best empty promises — and at worst, resulted in policies actively endangering women — since he declared it in March last year. So with no real premise for punishment or consequences, can we really be shocked that this predatory behaviour is such a common experience for women and non-binary folk?
While there is no doubt that the lack of action taken to prevent predatory behaviour has influenced the normalisation of harassment in clubs, I was interested to investigate the extent to which the pandemic has played a role in this. One would have hoped that harassment would decreased in relation to the need for social distancing and minimising unnecessary contact. This adds an additional layer of unacceptability to the issue of groping and inappropriate touching in clubs, as the perpetrators are disregarding both the consent of the victim and guidelines regarding COVID-19. With that in mind, I reached out to some experts and victims of sexual harassment in clubs post-lockdown for their input on the topic. What is it about the nightlife scene that makes people think non-consensual touching is acceptable? And how, if at all, have lockdowns and extended periods of isolation interacted with this?
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Chloe* agreed to speak to me about this issue, after being groped in a nightclub last year. We discussed whether or not she feels that this inappropriate behaviour has increased since pre-pandemic nights out, to which she responded “I think because more people seem to be looking for hook-ups in clubs now after lockdown, people are generally more inappropriate and less understanding of normal boundaries.” Elaborating, she added “people seem more forward, and less subtle when trying to flirt with you”.
Eleanor* - another victim of sexual harassment in nightclubs post-lockdown - shared this view, as she told me “I feel like it has [increased]. Especially after this period of social distancing, people - mainly men - feel entitled to touch people - mainly women - without our consent.” In these instances, the general understanding appears to be that there is a sense of entitlement apparent, whereby nightclubs have become a hunting ground for a sexual partner - even moreso than in previous years.
So has prolonged periods of isolation made young people more desperate and eager for hook-ups, making them more likely to overstep the boundary of consent? Clinical Sexologist and Relationship Coach Ness Cooper says research indicates otherwise, and that the impact of the pandemic points to a trend away from hook-ups. “While at the start of the pandemic touch starvation was a big concern and how it would affect individuals when they had more availability of social interactions, current research on intimacy is suggesting that sexual touching and interactions are being kept within committed relationships more than causal hook-ups," she notes. “Individuals seem more focused on looking out for red and green flags when it comes to selecting intimate interactions and are acting with more caution.”
Cooper discussed theories for a possible increase in cases of harassment in clubs, but made sure to be clear that there is not yet solid data available to corroborate anecdotal evidence, and noted it’s too early to fully tell what will happen regarding harassment and assault as a result of the pandemic at this time. While reports of sexual assaults taking place in London's clubs, bars, pubs and music venues rose to a six-year high in 2021, despite COVID-related venue closures for parts of the year, it's unclear if this is related to an increase in reporting or more instances.
On the topic of date-rape drugs, Cooper noted that “low past reporting needs to be taken into account for any new stats that surface, as we become aware and gain easier access on how to report incidents.” She continued: “Regardless of statistics, more education on how to report and assurance reports will be taken seriously is needed to help support individuals who become victims of such incidents.”
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In relation to younger people, who may not have experienced clubbing in a pre-pandemic world, Ness Cooper emphasised that “Education around alcohol use and how it can affect sexual interactions is very important and can help people understand why their boundaries, consent beliefs and values can change when engaging in drinking. During the pandemic there has been an increase in drinking, particularly binge drinking, and this is likely a leading factor to any possible increase in assault.”
She continued by suggesting that “Statistically, the understanding of consent within youth is very low, and this was a big factor in people overstepping boundaries beforehand [before the pandemic]. Even when I am teaching adults, their understandings of consent needs to be educated, and the focus is not just on sexual consent. It is important for people to gain insight about other areas where engaging in consent should happen.”
Ultimately, while it's important to analyse why harassment may be on the rise so those causes can be understood and counteracted, groping is something that cannot and should not ever be excused. If inappropriate touching is just ignored, how far can predators push boundaries before someone draws a line?
Scholar, writer and body politics expert Mary Morgan is particularly vocal on this issue, stating that “the myth that some types of sexual offenses against women aren’t serious, or aren’t a big deal, upholds rape culture. To say 'boys will be boys', 'that’s not a big deal' or 'you’re overreacting' continues to normalize and trivialize sexual abuse. Groping has long been treated as a trivial offense. This upholds 'rape myths' that blame the victim and exonerate the perpetrator. To belittle the crime is part of the problem.”
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Morgan continued “Victims have often been told to 'let it go', a phrase used to encourage women to be docile and to simply take abuse rather than be enraged when someone defiles them or their space. No sexual offense is a trivial thing, and treating it as such normalizes it.” In my own experience, and the experiences of the women I have spoken to, it seems there is a general consensus that groping is “just one of those things” engulfed in an unspoken silence. We are aware it happens to others - even ourselves - but this awareness is merely common knowledge. Attempts to have these offences taken seriously fall flat all too often, as these issues have become such a normal part of the clubbing ‘experience’ that we do not see a need, or a point in reporting it.
Chloe* agreed with this view, telling me that “clubs often do not seem to care about inappropriate behaviour, which makes it feel almost pointless to even bother reporting it as I get the sense that no one would care.” She continued “The anonymity of clubs is also a huge factor as it can make it difficult to identify exactly who is being inappropriate. I wouldn’t even know who to approach in a club besides security, who are not always the most approachable. It doesn’t feel like they’d be overly sympathetic, let alone take action.”
Eleanor* shared the feeling that clubs can feel unapproachable when it comes to assault, adding that “club and bar companies say they have a 'zero tolerance policy' on these matters, but the fact is that they turn a blind eye.” If victims do not feel as if they can report these issues, how can we ever guarantee the safety of women and non-binary folk in club environments? As Mary Morgan rightly implies, “Groping someone without consent in a club isn’t just some funny joke, it’s rape culture. It’s saying, I want to touch your body whether you want it or not, and I’m not going to ask for your consent. That’s not okay. It’s not “normal.” It is a big deal.”
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It is important to notice that, if these boundaries are consistently being broken, and there is no real enforcement of what behaviour is or is not acceptable when it comes to touching and physicality in clubs, more and more people are going to go uneducated and unaware of the harm they are causing to their victims. This begs the question, then: How can we put an end to this cycle of non-consensual torment?
When asking Eleanor* if she had any suggestions on how to propose real change to this issue, she responded “education! Men from a young age need to be taught about consent and everything that comes with it. They need to be made aware of the horrific situations they force women into. They need to be held accountable and more punishments need to be incorporated”. To elaborate on what “punishment” should look like, she suggested that instead of just being chucked out of a club, offenders should be permanently barred. This way, the venue becomes safer for women and non-binary folk, and the perpetrator faces actual long-term consequences, rather than a slap on the wrist.
Chloe* suggested that “clearer procedures would help massively, so that victims know how to get help. Something like the Ask for Angela system I’ve seen in pubs would be a good start.” Chloe* also shared Eleanor’s* view that repeat offenders should be banned from clubs, “to help people feel more comfortable in a club, and feel that action is being taken. Essentially, I feel like further reassurance that action will be taken would mean people would be more likely to report inappropriate behaviour”. As stated by Morgan, “Consent education and education on rape culture is such an important part of this conversation. Which is why sex education overlaps with all of this too”.
Groping and assault in nightclubs is something that is long-overdue its eradication. With more encouragement to report these cases, (with Cooper highlighting the influence of the #MeToo Movement in particular), more thorough education on consent, and more supportive media coverage, one can only hope that the issue of assault and inappropriate behaviour in clubs will be taken more seriously in a post-pandemic world.
Phoebe Snedker is a freelance journalist, follow her on Twitter
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*Names have been changed