It was Saturday 24th July – five days after “freedom day” and the night I’d been anticipating for months. That first night back on the dance floor, in a dingy basement club in the middle of Manchester, was almost like a religious experience. I felt my spirit re-enter my body as my friends and I queued for gin and orange juice at the bar and somehow spent 40 minutes in the smoking area despite failing to light a single cigarette. In fact, it was everything I’d been hoping for – except for one small detail.
Mary* was enjoying a night out with her friends in a Preston club when a man refused to take no for an answer. “It was the first time I’d been clubbing since the pandemic began,” Mary says. “We all drank and had so much fun at the bars and in the club until one guy came up to me and started making me feel very uncomfortable.”
He asked Mary, who is a teacher, to dance and offered her a drink. She politely declined, telling him that she had a boyfriend. “This did not deter him,” Mary says. “He only kept coming back asking me questions like ‘Why are you not dancing?’ or ‘Does your boyfriend know how lucky he is?’
“He kept getting too close for comfort and touching my arms and hips even though I didn’t want [him to]. What was most frustrating is that I had told him many times that I have a boyfriend, but he did not respect my boundaries. I felt very angry and my mood was ruined by a man who did not understand that no means no.”
Mary says she no longer feels safe clubbing without her partner, a sad disposition that remains the stark reality for many women.
A YouGov poll, published in March this year, revealed that 71 per cent of women said they’d been sexually harassed in a public place. The results are even higher for younger women, with 86 per cent of 18-to-24-year-olds saying they have been harassed in public spaces. Only three per cent said they hadn’t. A 2017 poll also found that 72 per cent of respondents reported witnessing sexual harassment on a night out.
It’s easy to wonder what security is up to when harassment is taking place in the club. In recent years, various progressively-minded UK collectives such as BBZ and Pxssy Palace have spread awareness about harassment and set guidelines for people coming to their club nights, in an attempt to make them as safe as possible. But it’s difficult to protect club-goers without full cooperation from a venue’s employees. And, as 23-year-old student Abi notes, sometimes asking for help makes little difference.
Just last weekend, Abi was sitting alone waiting for her friends to order drinks at the bar when a man began to make inappropriate comments about her appearance. “It all got a bit much, so I flagged my friend down and she came over to sit with me, but he still wouldn’t go away even when asked to leave,” she says. “He just continued to argue with us, saying he was ‘just being nice.’”
When Abi and her friends asked security for help, she said: “He wouldn’t do anything – he completely ignored me and, at one point, he said ‘Can you do me a favour and just let him stay?’”
Another man approached the group of women and, after being asked to leave them alone, sat with the first man who had been harassing Abi and her friends. “They were laughing and joking about us,” she says. “Security wouldn’t help, so I asked a female bar staff if I could speak to the manager. She was understanding and said the manager would be down in a minute, but, when the manager came down, he was so dismissive and said because he wasn’t on the floor at the time and didn’t see it happening there was nothing he could do.”
Abi was asked to repeat the comments made by the first man, putting her in an uncomfortable position, but was eventually told that nothing could be done unless the men physically touched her and her friends.
This kind of behaviour isn’t new. But, post-lockdown, when we’ve been offered a clean slate to imagine a new era of nightlife, it feels time to nip it in the bud completely. What better time than now to make the ‘new normal’ more welcoming, inclusive and, importantly, safer?
While devastating for the nightlife industry, lockdown provided us time, space and a lot of clarity on some of the more sinister issues in society. The tragic Sarah Everard case publicised earlier this year merely highlighted the seemingly ever-present issue of harassment and violence towards women. But, in a post-lockdown world, when many people — excited to get back into the swing of partying – find themselves consuming more than their limits, it seems that some people have forgotten just how pressing the issue of consent is.
Some initiatives exist to create concrete policies and change within venues and events. The Good Night Out Campaign (GNO) offers specific training to venues and nightlife spaces to ensure everyone at the forefront of the clubbing scene, from artists to promoters, are involved in creating a clubbing culture that looks after everyone.
“Clubs can, and should, play a huge role in changing culture and public attitudes to sexual harassment and abuse,” a spokesperson for GNO tells The Face. “The first step in tackling sexual violence in nightlife spaces is acknowledging that this is a gendered issue where women but also LGBTQ+ people are predominantly targeted.”
GNO offers policies and posters to venues to help them make a concrete change alongside training. “This ensures that customers know that they will be supported if anything makes them feel uncomfortable and staff develop skills in carrying out clear consistent consequences for unacceptable behaviour,” GNO says.
Other groups are attempting to shift the culture from the inside out.
The Change the Lineup posters, created by founders Tom Snell and Dylan Hartigan, look just like the promotional material you’d see for events in the rave scene. Designed to attract attention, the brightly coloured posters are dotted with phrases like “Unwanted Staring – All Night” or “A Night of Harassment feat. DJ Creep /Grope /The Follower.”
Each poster is decorated with a stark reminder: four in five women have experienced sexual harassment in public spaces. “People are attracted to these posters as visuals, they are pieces of art in and of themselves,” Hartigan says. “People will look at them because it’s bright and wonder who’s on the lineup and it’s almost shocking. It’s a wake-up call.”
Last month, the pair stuck posters up around clubs and bars in London just in time for ‘Freedom Day’, with the hopes that these visual cues would not only spark conversation but give people a reminder of what harassment actually constitutes so that they might be able to notice — and call it out — whether it’s a stranger or their friend acting out of pocket.
“We want to create a presence in as many music and nightlife spaces as possible to raise awareness, and do this in a really exciting, engaging way,” says music and culture curator Ruby Savage, who cofounded DBAC with creative lead Maude Churchill. “So we don’t want to be telling people what they can and can’t do, but [we want] people to check themselves and be like, okay, is this behaviour cool? Or do I need some adjustments? We’re creating self-awareness.”
Savage started DBAC when, after starting out as a DJ, she was confronted with the misogynistic behaviour endemic in the music industry. “There’s this amazing song by the Bush Tetras called Too Many Creeps,” she says. “I just made it as a t‑shirt slogan and printed a bunch, gave them away, sold them to friends and from there decided to create this into something that extends just from being a slogan T‑shirt: something that got people talking.”
Pushing conversation is massive for both DBAC and Change the Lineup, particularly between male friends — some of Change the Lineup’s posters feature quotes about complicit mates. “A group of lads could see these posters, and just one could recognise when their mate is staring at someone, for example, and tell him that’s not cool. That’s what we want,” says Snell.
“Raving is a community,” Hartigan adds. “We want people to feel responsible for each other’s safety.”
Churchill echoes this sentiment: “It’s about involving everyone: security, punters, artists and venues — we’re in this together. A lot of people throw around the word community, but if we don’t start really treating it as a community, then it will be hard to make these changes and make it safe.”
If communication can’t happen, change won’t happen, which is why campaigns like DBAC and Change the Lineup need to be followed up with action as we move back towards permanent nightlife: from venues implementing safer policies to every single club goer sharing the load so that everybody can feel safer on the dance floor than they have ever done before. As Savage says: “We don’t want to go back to normal, we want to go back to abnormal because, what we had before, it wasn’t normal.”
If you have experienced unwanted sexual harassment or need somebody to speak to about an incident, visit Rape Crisis to access advice, support and information.