Trigger warning: this article contains mention of sexual assault and rape
Covid-19 has really put a spanner in the works for UK nightlife. Pubs have been shut for most of the past year. Clubs have been shut for all of the past year. Saturday nights spent stood in some overly long, overly rowdy queue outside your local Wetherspoon’s feel like a lifetime ago.
Luckily though, Boris Johnson has stated that (should things go smoothly) nightclubs will reopen on 21 June. If they can actually last until then, that is, with so many venues currently clinging on by a financial thread.
But the ones that do survive – what will they look like? How different will they be? And no, I don’t mean in terms of social distancing, hand sanitiser and Covid jabs. I’m talking about their attitude towards women.
A hotbed for assault
Let’s be honest: clubs are a breeding ground for sexism, assault, and abuse towards women. That might appear to be a bold statement, but the evidence is clear. A study by Drinkaware found that 79% of women expect to experience inappropriate comments, touching and behaviour on a night out. 77% of women and 67% of men have also witnessed others being sexually harassed on a night out. Not great, is it?
That’s not to say that other issues (men on men violence, or women abusing men, for instance) aren’t important too. But that isn’t what this article is about. And if we look at current patterns, it’s clear that more work needs to be done to protect women.
A relatable story
A study published earlier this month by UN Women UK revealed that 97% of females aged 18-24 have experienced sexual harassment. Meanwhile, 80% of all women said they have been sexually assaulted in public spaces in the UK. While many of these instances will not have taken place in evening venues, they certainly aren’t unfamiliar to them either.
In fact, it’s also been stated in an investigation by BuzzFeed that an average of 23 sex attacks at pubs, bars, and other licenced premises are reported every week in the UK. What makes this more worrying is the fact that a vast majority of cases are never reported, meaning the true figures are presumably far, far higher.
As deeply disturbing as these figures are, they aren’t exactly surprising. As women, we all know what it’s like to be groped by some random guy on the dance floor. We’ve all been described as desperate or ‘asking for it’ because we decided to wear some makeup, or dared to show some of our – brace yourself – skin. We’ve all had some guy follow us around the a club, unable to accept a rejection, meanwhile his mates shrug off his predatory behaviour as, “he’s just a bit drunk. Take a compliment, love.”
We know there’s a problem – there’s always been a problem – but maybe now would be a great time to challenge it. This Covid-19 hiatus which the UK’s nightlife has been reluctantly thrown into has given them time to reflect, rethink, and potentially come back a lot stronger. Now would be a great opportunity for us to shift our attitudes towards the way we treat women – and how we should be ensuring their safety.
What’s being done?
Many pubs and clubs support the #AskforAngela campaign, which started back in 2016 and has blown up since. If you’re feeling unsafe on a night out, during a date at your local pub, or whatever the case may be, you can discreetly let staff know by asking for ‘Angela’. This code word tells staff that you need some help. It’s a simple yet effective idea which allows people to feel like there’s always a ‘way out’ should they need it.
However, it’s not always easy for somebody being hounded in some crowded, noisy, dark nightclub to discreetly inform staff that they need some support. Plus, strategies like #AskforAngela rely on the victim coming forward and asking for help (rather than preventing it in the first place) which is easier said than done if you’re in a difficult, unsafe, or scary situation. The support that pubs and clubs currently have in place is generally very well-intentioned and should be utilised. But that isn’t to say that we can’t do more.
Plans are in place
Last week, Boris Johnson announced that more money would be going into the government’s Safer Streets fund, which helps to provide better lighting, more CCTV, and other measures to make the streets safer for women. Johnson also stated that more undercover police will be placed in pubs and clubs. All of these things are good – they should make a difference – but is it enough?
A spokeswoman from Reclaim These Streets said that they welcomed these measures, but did not believe that this funding alone would be enough to create the structural change we really need.
“Women won’t be able to trust that they are safe until misogyny and racism are tackled at an institutional level within the government, police and the criminal justice system.”
If that sounds a little overdramatic, we really must look at our culture and think about how we’ve enabled this problem to exist. After all, these measures are tackling a problem, rather than preventing it in the first place. So where does this all begin?
The very reason we live in a society where misogyny and sexual abuse is spreading is simply because we’ve allowed it to. I hate to say it, but in my experience, a lot of people aren’t great at holding their hands up and admitting we need to do better. We’re defensive by default.
When it comes to sexism (and all problems associated with it), many of us are willing to turn a blind eye because we don’t want to link ourselves to the problem. We think: I don’t go around groping women so I don’t see why I can’t just ignore this entire issue. It’s not my problem. I didn’t grab your backside on the dancefloor even after you told me not to, my friend did, so what’s it got to do with me? I didn’t write that rape joke in our group chat, and what’s the harm in laughing anyway? It’s only a joke, isn’t it? Besides, boys will be boys, right?
If you’re so desperate to make excuses – to jump on the not all men bandwagon – you do have to ask yourself: what are you defending? Your masculinity? Your pride? Your right to be blissfully ignorant? Is it really that hard to say, ‘yeah, perhaps we do need to do better’? Is calling out your friends’ behaviour, or educating your sons on how to respect women, really that damaging to your ego?
A bigger picture
It’s all very well putting safer measures in place for women, but how much progress can really be made while the justice system is so flawed?
Caroline Voaden, CEO of Devon Rape Crisis, has said that the extra measures the government is planning to help to protect women are certainly welcomed, but they have nevertheless “missed the point”.
Voaden explained: “We need a functioning criminal justice system that doesn’t let the majority of rapists walk free and we need widespread public education to tackle systemic misogyny.”
“The home office figures suggest that a woman who goes to the police only has a one in 70 chance that that complaint will even lead to a charge, let alone a conviction.”
It’s no surprise really that a vast majority of sexual assaults and rapes aren’t officially reported, when there’s a fat chance of anything actually happening. Many victims aren’t taken seriously, struggle to obtain enough evidence, and find the whole experience of gathering a case extremely traumatising. Can you really say it’s worth reliving your assault – of having it picked apart and even turned against you in many cases – when the likelihood of getting a conviction is as low as 1.4%?
The last straw
Discussion of women’s safety has been extremely topical lately – particularly since the tragic killing of 33-year-old marketing executive Sarah Everand, who was found dead after walking home from her friend’s house in South London. It’s sad that it has come to this for people to finally wake up to this issue.
It goes without saying that Sarah Everand’s death is undeniably awful. This shouldn’t have happened. She did not deserve this. Nobody deserves this. That said, I cannot help but wonder how different this story’s reception would be if Sarah had been walking home from a night out at a local club. What if she had been drinking? What if she’d been wearing a short dress and pair of heels, rather than leggings and trainers? How many people would view her in a different light?
Of course, if the context of Sarah’s story had been different, we should still react the same way. Regardless of what she wore or where she’d been or what she’d drank, the truth would remain the same: she did not deserve this. Nobody deserves to be treated like this. And it certainly wasn’t her fault. But how many of us would think otherwise? How many people would believe it to be perfectly acceptable to shame Sarah – to victim blame her – and label her as ‘asking for it’? How many people would think, ‘Silly girl getting drunk like that. What did she expect to happen? That’s what you get for dressing in such an inviting way.’
It’s these attitudes that need to change. Ultimately, as much as tactics like better lighting and undercover police may help, they cannot singlehandedly eradicate this issue. It must be tackled at its roots. Problems ingrained into our society such as sexism, toxic masculinity, and lad culture need to be called out.
A blind eye
To ignore toxic masculinity as a problem is to knowingly allow it to breed. If your reaction to this entire discussion is not all men then yes, you are correct. Not all men go around assaulting, disrespecting and violating women. Not even a majority do, perhaps. But it’s still enough for 97% of women to experience sexual assault. 97%. That’s nearly all of us. It’s the women you work with. The lady you see at the gym. The girl who walks past your house everyday on her route to school. Your friends. Your sister. Your daughter.
While sexism and assault can occur anywhere, there are certainly common hotspots. Male-dominated workplaces. Laddish group chats. Nightclubs. It’s not good enough. Women should be able to enjoy a night out without having to worry about sexual assault. When lockdown is over, we are completely entitled to spend an evening out having fun. And we should be able to do so without a fear of how we’re going to be treated by others.
To all the people who will happily grope some girl on the dancefloor, to all the guys who see a ‘no’ as an invitation to try harder rather than to leave you alone, to all the men who cheer their mates on and laugh at such a scenario: it’s not funny. It never was funny. It’s exhausting. Now is not the time to be making up for what you’ve missed doing for the past year in lockdown. Now is not the time to be saying ‘I was drunk, it was only a laugh.’ If you wouldn’t do it while you were sober, why do you think it’s acceptable after a few drinks? And if you would do it sober, well, I hate to break it to you, but that makes you the problem. And problems need to be solved.
If you have been affected by sexual assault or rape, you can visit rape crisis here to find further support, advice and information. You can also find more resources available through the NHS here, and you can find your nearest rape and sexual assault services here.