How Nightclubs Are Taking a Stand Against Sexual Harassment
In the wake of the #MeToo movement, the nightlife industry is talking about the ways they deal with misconduct on the dancefloor.
This piece carries a content warning for sexual harassment and assault.
In early October, just over a week after an initial wave of women stepped forward with allegations of sexual misconduct against Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein, 30-year-old Lynn was on the dancefloor at Brooklyn nightclub House of Yes, enjoying a DJ set by UK producer George Fitzgerald.
Suddenly, she told Noisey, a man she had never seen before walked up to her, grabbed her face without warning, and tried to kiss her.
"He literally took both hands and was pulling my face towards him," said Lynn, who asked that we withhold her last name due to privacy concerns. "It was completely out of nowhere. He hadn't even said hello."
According to her account, two of her male friends dragged the man off the dancefloor and got him acquainted with security. Shortly afterwards, another man she had never met walked up behind her, grabbed her hips, and began grinding up against her. Again, he persisted until her friends pushed him away.
Lynn said she tried to brush the incidents off, but found it tough to enjoy the rest of the night. “I don’t normally feel insecure going out, but stuff like this completely ruins your mood,” she said. “It’s crazy how certain guys feel like they can just grab you.”
Stories like Lynn’s are depressingly familiar to many people who frequent clubs, bars, and other after-dark venues. Noisey interviewed a broad range of partygoers and nightlife professionals in New York City, and their words paint a troubling picture: that of one of the city’s best-known industries struggling to adequately confront harmful behavior in the spaces where people go to enjoy themselves.
Data on incidents of sexual harassment and assault within the nightlife sector in the US is hard to come by—but over in the UK, where I’m from, a 2013 report by the UK’s Ministry of Justice revealed that sexual victimization rates were higher for women who reported visiting a nightclub one to three times a month. Last year, a Buzzfeed investigation found that more than 20 sex attacks were reported every week at licensed nightlife premises in England and Wales.
Nightclubs are dark, loud, sweaty, and intimate. In the best of cases, they’re places where people can let go, express themselves, and meet new people. At their worst, they are spaces where boundaries can get blurred and harmful behavior can go unchecked. Amid an intensifying debate around the pervasiveness of sexual harassment in the workplace and society at large—recently supercharged by the #MeToo movement—it seems inevitable that the spotlight will spread to the ways venues tackle problematic behavior on the dance floor.
Over the phone, Lynn told Noisey that her experiences at House of Yes, which was established as a permanent venue in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood in 2016, were all the more shocking because the venue brands itself as an alternative, “sex-positive” space. For example, it throws a regular erotic party called “House of Love”—where partygoers can engage in “light S&M and play”—as well as the occasional “No Pants” night.
The club’s female-led management team encourages people to openly express their sexuality, but also frequently reminds party-goers that all touching must be strictly consensual. For more than a year now, the venue has included a boilerplate notice on the topic at the bottom of its online event pages.
“We are obsessed with CONSENT,” it reads. “Always ASK before touching anyone in our House. Anyone who cannot follow this simple rule will be escorted to the sidewalk.”
Lynn said she felt emboldened to report the events of that night to House of Yes partly because of the growing public debate around sexual misconduct, and partly because she felt the club’s management would take her concerns seriously. And they did—she said they answered her emails and organized phone calls with her and one of her friends to discuss the incidents.
Contacted by Noisey via phone, Anya Sapozhnikova, one of House of Yes’ co-founders, said she was aware of the incidents Lynn described, and added that reports of harassment have increased as the venue has become more popular. Some of the venue’s newer clientele seem to think of it as a place where they can get lucky, often ignoring the rules of consent, she says.
“I get emails from people saying: ‘Hey, I love your space. But I totally get groped—what’s up with that?’” Sapozhnikova said. It’s a problem that Sapozhnikova said she and her business partner, Kae Burke, have experienced personally, as regular performers at the club: “We’re doing gogo dancing and aerial performances at the venue, so we experience it first hand, because we’re the ones not wearing any pants and stuff.”
The way they see it, violations of the club’s strict no-harassment policy stem partly from a misunderstanding of what House of Yes is about.
“People think of this as an ‘anything-goes’ kind of club,” said Sapozhnikova. “But by ‘anything goes,’ we mean extreme self-expression, rather than extreme sexual harassment. There is a difference. You can express your sexuality in a very respectful way, but because people haven't been exposed to [the club’s sex-positive atmosphere], they just don't know what to do."
Several industry sources noted that clubs generally have internal policies around how to control customers’ behavior and deal with violent incidents—for example, when to stop serving someone alcohol, or when to call the police and how to deal with them when they arrive. Nevertheless, it’s rare for venues to have detailed policies for dealing with harassment specifically, and still less common for them to make those policies public.
"People think of this as an ‘anything-goes’ kind of club. But by ‘anything goes,’ we mean extreme self-expression, rather than extreme sexual harassment."—Anya Sapozhnikova of House of Yes
This lack of explicit protocol is surprising given how vulnerable nightlife venues can be to this kind of behavior, according to Stefanie Jones of the Drug Policy Alliance, an advocacy organization that offers harm reduction advice onsite at music events, but has recently also begun educating partygoers about consent.
“More than anywhere else, these are spaces where people are meeting each other and connections are being made,” says Jones. “They are sexy places. If there is going to be a grey area anywhere, it would be in a nightlife setting. It needs a more nuanced discussion around proper behavior.”
There are signs of change, however. As Noisey’s reporting revealed, some New York clubs are beginning to tackle harassment more transparently, engaging actively with their customers and formulating explicit policies on how to stamp out such behavior.
In mid-October, in response to incidents like the the one reported by Lynn, House of Yes began to make changes to the way it polices sexual harassment, Sapozhnikova told Noisey. Although she said the changes were driven by feedback from customers and the club’s own observations, they also came as the #MeToo movement was quickly gathering steam.
According to Sapozhnikova, the club has always had staff working the line, chatting to those waiting to enter to keep them feeling content and engaged. Now, as part of the new policy, those staff also deliver a brief summary of the venue’s policy on sexual harassment, emphasizing that any behavior that makes other clubbers feel vulnerable or uncomfortable will not be tolerated.
Also in October, House of Yes added extra “floating” security guards to roam the dancefloor, according to Jacqui Rabkin, the club’s marketing director.
“I personally have dealt with almost every single consent violation complaint that has come through our channels,” she told Noisey. “The most common complaint we get is a variation of the following: ‘I know you guys care about consent and make a point to educate everyone about it, but when my friend was being touched in the middle of the dancefloor we couldn't find a security guard nearby to help.’ We have taken these complaints to heart, weighed our various options, and concluded that, at the moment, the best combination is hiring more formally trained security and increasing consent education given to all attendees at the time they are buying tickets or simply looking up our website.”
Management has instructed the club’s entire security staff to increase its focus on harassment, said Sapozhnikova: “It’s about trying to pick up not just on obvious physical conflict, but also on creepy situations.”
House of Yes isn’t the only venue dragging the problem out into the light. This past Halloween, Elsewhere, a 24,000 square foot music and performance space in Bushwick run by the promoter PopGun, opened its doors to the public.
Given the volume of the debate around harassment at the time of the opening party, the club’s clear zero-tolerance policy on harassment, aggression, and discriminatory behavior—presented on its website—feels timely. Elsewhere encourages partygoers to notify staff of harassment immediately and invites them to submit feedback via email.
Jake Rosenthal, who co-founded PopGun in 2008 with Rami Haykal, says he considered the policy as a fundamental part of the venue’s construction from the get-go, and took cues from strategies implemented by clubs in Europe, like Fabric and XOYO.
"When we looked at a lot of the European venues, we saw a lot more awareness around sexual harassment on clubs' websites and in our own experiences there," he says. "We generated our policy a year ago, and we expanded it to touch on a few other topics beyond sexual harassment."
Bossa Nova Civic Club, another fixture of the Brooklyn underground, has some experience dealing with problematic behavior. The club confirmed to Noisey that it barred a local musician after a woman accused him of attacking her at the Bushwick club in 2016.
But recently, the club made its stance more visible. On November 9, management announced via Instagram a new “protocol” in the form of a stark warning, written in white letters on the wall at the back of its dancefloor: “If you touch a woman against her will in this establishment, we will literally ruin your life.” Bossa Nova’s owner John Barclay declined to comment further when asked for details about how the policy would be enforced.
Caravane Gitane, an all-female collective that throws elaborate, one-off parties at Brooklyn venues like House of Yes and the Williamsburg Hotel, takes a more holistic approach to encouraging respectful behavior on the dancefloor. They promote their parties mainly through a private Facebook group, and they claim to tailor every aspect of their events to ensure partygoers feel as safe and as comfortable as possible.
“We have had sold-out shows with big name artists, but because we promote to our own internal group, it’s more like we’re entertaining friends and guests,” says Juliane Rossi, one of the partners in the collective. “It makes it feel like a place where you can be safe, where you can trust people.”
On top of the management’s careful promotion, all workers at Caravane Gitane’s events are expected to look out for harassing behavior and ensure attendees are safe. “Your entire staff needs to be a monitor,” says Sheida Jafari, another partner. “That should be an inherent part of your training. Everyone is responsible.”
Organizers can also foster good behavior by creating a welcoming atmosphere before customers even enter the venue, says Jafari.
"The way the door staff greet you is step one," she says. "There doesn't need to be an aggressive energy. You can treat people with kindness. That's the golden rule. If the first thing guests are met with is this elitist, aggressive attitude, you can be sure that the person going through those doors thinks that is what is cool. And then you’ve lost them."
However, while displaying a written policy or creating a welcoming atmosphere can be reassuring to patrons, they mean nothing if anti-harassment policies are not actively and thoughtfully enforced. Preparing staff to deal with real-world situations is the most important part of the equation, says Rosenthal at Elsewhere.
"It's one thing to put words on a website, but it's another thing for people to actually feel safe when they get to a space," he explains. "Staff need proper training to understand how to present themselves and deal with problems when they occur."
Over in the UK, the fight against nightlife sexual harassment has coalesced into a more organized movement. GoodNightOut, an non-profit initiative backed by groups including Drinkaware, Everyday Sexism, and the UK’s National Union of Students, aims to stamp out nightlife harassment. The collective has signed up around 100 clubs in the UK and Ireland, as well as establishing chapters in Chicago and Vancouver.
The project educates venues on adopting best practices, using a poster campaign to educate customers about harassment and providing training to venue staff that prioritizes “concrete behavioral change, clear policy and a positive approach to safety,” according to the organization’s website.
Drinkaware itself has launched a national campaign with the slogan “It’s ok to ask,” encouraging people to intervene when they see someone being harassed. It has also formulated a training scheme called Drinkaware Crew, which venues can implement to teach club staffers how to better ensure the safety of partygoers. Around 30 venues have signed up for the full-day training course, which features a harassment and consent section covering how to define and identify harassment, as well as what to do if someone reports it, and how to intervene.
“People say that although they sometimes deal with things like this as part of their job, the training gives them more confidence in these situations." said Janet MacKechnie, marketing manager at Drinkaware.
Multiple sources within the New York nightlife sector that Noisey consulted for this article highlighted the need for this sort of formal training.
“All nightlife spaces should be thinking about this before it comes up,” says Neon Mashurov, who has worked in various roles within nightlife for nearly a decade, including event programming and production, in Boston and New York. “You need answers to these questions, like how do you react to these incidents, do you take it case-by-case, what is the burden of proof, do you kick people out, do you ban them? It’s really powerful to think about it from the ground up, so you’re able to answer someone if they ask you about it.”
For example, some promoters pointed out that security guards often end up being forced to settle sensitive disputes around harassment. In many cases, an employee who has received specific training in sexual harassment should take over, said one New York promoter, who asked to remain anonymous to avoid scrutiny of their venue.
“These situations can be extraordinarily complex,” the promoter said. “Unless they personally witness inappropriate behavior, it’s not club security’s job to arbitrate.”
Allegations of harassment require careful attention, says Rosenthal at Elsewhere. He says his club assesses reports of harassment on a case-by-case basis, but emphasizes that first and foremost, its policy is to believe the person making a complaint: "I don't think people wrongfully complain about harassment in nightlife spaces," he says. "And if there is a misunderstanding, it's not the end of someone's life if they're back out on the street. It's in everyone's best interests to take complaints seriously. The stakes are low on a false positive, and incredibly high on a false negative."
For many in the nightlife community, the bigger goal is not just to manage incidents of harassment thoughtfully, but to prevent them from happening in the first place.
With that in mind, DanceSafe—a non-profit organization that promotes health and safety within the nightlife community and has local chapters across the US and Canada—is launching a #WeLoveConsent campaign in 2018.
According to Kristin Karas, director of programs at DanceSafe, the campaign aims to “fight rape culture and build a consent culture within the electronic music and nightlife communities.”
As part of the campaign, the organization plans to foster more discussion of issues around consent online, through its own blog as well as its social media channels. It is also planning to develop education materials such as consent “fact cards” and posters to display and distribute at events, as well as bystander prevention training for both patrons and staff at events.
Over the phone, Karas highlighted the importance of bystander intervention in cases of harassment—a similar point to the one made by DrinkAware in its TV ad campaign.
“Inaction in and of itself is an action, and a harmful one at that,” she said.
The Drug Policy Alliance, which runs booths offering information on drugs and personal safety at festivals including Electric Daisy Carnival in Las Vegas and Nocturnal Wonderland in California, also recently began handing out “consent cards” made by an organization called C.A.R.E.S. to partygoers. The cards present brief messages such as “Please leave me alone” to enable people to rebuff an unwanted approach simply and clearly, without having to shout over the music. DanceSafe has distributed the same cards at other events.
“All nightlife spaces should be thinking about this before it comes up.”—Neon Mashurov
Scrutiny of how nightlife establishments deal with harassment is beginning to come from politicians as well as customers.
The NYC Department of Health recently began a campaign against sexual violence, posting ads such as this one—which alludes to a nightlife scenario—in the subway and promoting the hashtag #StopSexualViolenceNY.
And last year, in a ceremony held at House of Yes, Mayor Bill de Blasio signed a bill creating the city’s first Office of Nightlife, to be run by a yet-to-be-appointed “Night Mayor.” In the words of the mayor’s office, the Office of Nightlife will serve as a central point of contact between city agencies, the nightlife industry, and residents, “promoting a safe and vibrant nightlife scene.”
Rafael Espinal, the city council member who spearheaded the creation of the Office of Nightlife, told Noisey the nightlife sector had just as much responsibility to tackle harassment as any other industry.
“It’s a sensitive time with women feeling able to speak out on harassment in the workplace, and nightlife shouldn’t be any different,” he said. “This is something I’ll look into personally, and I hope it will be a major goal of the office of nightlife.”
London night mayor Amy Lamé, who was appointed by mayor Sadiq Khan in 2016, has already taken steps towards changing policies on nightlife safety. She convened the city’s first women’s safety summit last July and is working on a Women’s Safety Charter, which will outline industry-wide standards that nightlife venues can pledge to adhere to, potentially including “training for front of house staff, posters to discourage harassment and encourage reporting, and a commitment to ensuring women leave venues safely.”
For now, with more and more people coming forward to raise awareness of sexual harassment and abuse, nightlife establishments are under increasing pressure to change the way they manage these issues. Could venues that turn a blind eye eventually begin to lose business to establishments that take the problem more seriously?
“We have a platform to create change, and to not take that seriously would be pretty fucked up.”—Anya Sapozhnikova of House of Yes
Jones at the Drug Policy Alliance is unconvinced. “To be honest, I think they can afford to ignore it for a little while longer,” she says. “This is a weird case where the discussion around drugs is actually further along than the issues around sexual harassment.”
That comparison may be a productive one, however. When it comes to the conversation around drug use, there’s been a shift from a culture of “just say no” towards one of harm reduction—a change at least partly driven by progressive policymakers, law enforcement officials, and healthcare professionals accepting that people take drugs and openly discussing it. In the music scene, for example, many festivals now offer drug testing facilities or free water, and in 2017, responding to drug-related deaths, a special Electronic Music Task Force convened by Los Angeles County drafted a list of health and safety recommendations for events attracting 10,000 attendees or more.
And as the debate around harassment and consent encourages more and more people to speak out about what they expect from nightlife venues, organizers will come under more pressure to adapt, says Jafari of Caravane Gitane.
“If you want to stay relevant in this industry you have to adjust,” she says. “More and more women are demanding these spaces. You have to understand their needs and adjust to that.”
Still, navigating the line between creating an open dialogue about sex and consent and curbing harassment can be tricky. For example, though Lynn said she felt reassured by the way House of Yes handled her complaint about being harassed at the club, she also felt that part of the problem was the way the venue had marketed the party. The theme that night was “Friday the 13th,” and the same marketing email that detailed the club’s zero-tolerance approach to sexual harassment began with the following words:
Dance into your own divination through devious hedonism. Auspicious premonitions of chance and circumstance brought to life in a night of mystical intuition. Paranormal serendipity and esoteric erotica. Try your luck. Find your light and offer your essence to the darkness of chaos, floating in the sacred cacophony of sound.
Phrases like "try your luck" could be interpreted the wrong way, said Lynn: "I felt like they were enticing bad behavior," she said. "There's something about this being a place where you can express yourself that has gone the wrong way."
Sapozhnikova told Noisey she was sympathetic to this view, but countered that consent and erotic imagery are not mutually exclusive. By continuing to encourage sex-positive behavior at House of Yes, and thereby fostering an open conversation about the nature of consent, she says she hopes the venue will curb incidents like those experienced by Lynn.
“Just because there is sexual harassment, that doesn’t mean women should wear long skirts and turtlenecks,” she said. “We shouldn't be repressing our sexuality just because there are creeps out there. We should be educating and nurturing those creeps.”
Music and nightlife have the ability to shape a society’s culture at large, she argued—and going forward, the most popular nightlife venues will be those where customers can not just have a good time, but feel safe while they do it.
“We have a platform to create change, and to not take that seriously would be pretty fucked up,” she said. “I’m not hindering my attendance by focusing on consent—I’m increasing it.”
Will Caiger-Smith is a writer and reporter based in New York. Find more of his work on Twitter.