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Here's How Clubs Can Help Reduce Sexual Assault and Harassment

From better security training to bystander intervention, six tips for making venues safer for everybody.

Sarah Ratchford

Photo courtesy of Kristel Jax

If you know a woman who likes to go out dancing, chances are she's probably felt it: strange fingers creeping up her skirt and around her ass cheek, cupping her chest, or grazing her crotch over her clothes. Or just plain glomming onto her arm and demanding attention.

These incidents don't just happen to women, of course: they also disproportionately happen to trans folks, and they happen to men as well. No matter where you go in the world, clubs are breeding grounds for sexual assault. But it can be nearly impossible to cite accurate statistics on sex crimes for a number of reasons, including the fact that survivors often opt not to report.

In Canada, reports by police in Toronto and Vancouver showed higher levels of sex crimes in the cities' respective club districts. And in Ottawa from 2013-2014, 25 percent of the reported sexual assaults took place at mass gatherings, including music festivals and parties.

Read More on THUMP: Toronto Nightclubs Have a Problem with Racist Door Policies

Slowly, though, the conversation around sexual assault is getting louder, and tolerance for this behavior is lessening. Awareness has spread to such a degree that the Ontario government recently pledged $1.7 million to help train people in the service industry to better understand and respond to sexual assault.

It's a good thing, too. A quick survey of the websites of Toronto's major clubs and spaces reveals that none of them have publicly available anti-sexual assault protocols in place. Of the dozen venues THUMP reached out to for comment about their safety measures, only the Drake Hotel responded, with general manager Shivani Marx saying that if they noticed someone being preyed upon by another patron, they would step in and get a taxi for the person being harassed, or put them up for the night if need be to make sure they have a safe place to sleep. (They don't currently list this policy on their site, but they say they will on their new one once it's complete.)

In the meantime, collectives like It's Not U It's Me, Sexual Assault Action Coalition, and others, are taking matters into their own hands. We spoke to some of these Toronto groups to find out the steps they're taking to create safer spaces and what club and venue owners can learn from them.

Put a clear policy in place


Sign outside Toronto's Double Double Land

In order for a venue to be officially and recognizably anti-sexual assault and harassment, it needs to make the public aware that those behaviours won't be tolerated. In order to accomplish this, there needs to be clear visual assertion of the club's safety policy. Jon McCurley runs Double Double Land in the city's Kensington Market neighbourhood, which has a sign outside that explicitly states, "No racism. No sexism. No homophobia. No transphobia. No violence. No sexual violence. No emotional violence. No ableism. Yes respect. Yes you."

While he says there's been some confused reactions, he notes the policy is already keeping potential abusers out of his parties. McCurley is also working with musician and music journalist Kristel Jax and festival organizer Chris Worden, as well as others in the industry, in a collective called Noise Against Sexual Assault (NASA). They plan to make signs and hand them out to other venues who want to operate on with a safe and anti-oppressive framework.

Similarly, Viktoria Bitto—the creator of Toronto-based Sexual Assault Action Coalition, is working on an initiative called The Dandelion Project, which hopes to place dandelion stickers on the windows and doors of establishments to let people know there's an anti-harassment policy in place.

...Actually bother to enforce that policy

Noise Against Sexual Assault event poster

Now that there's a policy, it's important that staff are diligent in enforcing it, therefore hopefully mitigating assaults before they happen.

It's Not U It's Me co-founder (and occasional THUMP contributor) Cindy Li says it's important to read people; if you look around and see someone flailing wildly with no regard for the people around them, it's permissible to go over and remind them that this show isn't for them alone.

"You can say 'Listen, you can't do that.' Or, you can talk to their friends, and say 'Hey, you need to watch your friend. If he touches anybody, we're going to boot him.' If we see anyone manhandling people, we eject them." This is effective because the friends likely will either be embarrassed, or afraid of having their own nights cut short.

At It's Not U It's Me events, volunteers in green bandanas are dispersed throughout the crowd, and they're the ones who will speak up if they see this kind of behaviour happening. They have a Facebook groupchat so they can stay in touch with each other and help one another out if needed. Volunteers are asked not to get turnt, but if they want to have a couple of drinks, it's fine. The point is to stay sober enough that you have your wits about you and your line of thinking isn't impaired.

Li says the ultimate goal is that people will eventually take note of the policy and begin policing themselves.

Educate your staff

If the people who work at a venue don't understand the scope of sexual assault and harassment, or are unaware of how to define it, it stands to reason that they can't begin to address it when it happens.

"A lot of these bigger entities employ people to protect the pockets of promoters, rather than the safety of attendees," says Li. Security officials, she adds, need better sensitivity training.

"A lot of guards seem more concerned about people smoking on the dancefloor or bringing alcohol into the club, but they don't take women seriously [when they report instances of violence]. It goes back to the fact that these clubs are run by men and only men."

Read More on THUMP: A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, From the Club

Switch up the club's infrastructure

After a sexual assault at Double Double Land last year, McCurley decided that not only a policy, but a restructuring of the space was in order to keep people safer. A more open, gender neutral space with more people shifting in and out, he says creates a safer environment since it's discouraging to abusers. The venue has installed saloon-style doors so it's easier for people to get in and out.

There are more people working and cleaning the washrooms during shows, and he's installed safety buttons in the washrooms. If someone feels unsafe, they can hit the button and staff at the bar will be alerted so they can send someone in.

Book acts who aren't white males

It's Not U It's Me event in Toronto, photo by Aaron Wynia

Often people who work in clubs will claim to care, but rely on the excuse that they can't control who parties at their venue. Li says this is a cop-out.

"When you book women, you see it reflected in the audience. There won't be so many bros, and there will be lots of girls and LGBTQ people in the audience," she says. "A lot of these bigger clubs only book men or two women all year. That's just not gonna work."

There's a role for bystanders, too

Sexual Assault Action Coalition logo

Clubs can introduce policies as much as they like, but if the people who attend their parties are complicit in allowing sexual assault and harassment to happen, not much can truly change.

"I think bystander intervention is a huge component that we are sadly still failing to talk about," says Bitto. "If you have noticed all night that this person is doing something that's inappropriate, or putting things in people's drinks, and you're just watching it happen, you're definitely part of the problem."

If it looks like someone is being harassed, there are ways to intervene that can keep both you and that person safe. You can start by telling a staff member, and having them check up on the situation. If their response is inadequate, you can assess whether it's safe and go up to the person being harassed and pretend to be their friend, diffusing the scenario and showing whoever is harassing them that they are not alone.

Sarah Ratchford is on Twitter.