Are Canberra’s Nightclubs Doing Enough to Stop Sexual Assault?

Women choose their way home from clubs “based not on efficiency, but on which route is less likely to have men lurking around who will potentially harass and assault [them]”. Women give fake names and numbers to men in clubs because they “fear what he might do if [they] just say ‘no’”.

British feminist and best-selling author Florence Given wrote this in her book Women Don’t Owe You Pretty, regarding the normalisation of sexual advances in our culture.

This is the everyday experience of women on a night out, all over the world, and here in Canberra. But is this something these establishments are trying to change? Or has it become part of their business strategy due to its normalisation in society?

Clubbing is a global phenomenon. London premium event organiser Capital A List suggests that there are multiple reasons that people are attracted to the nightclub scene.

Some people go out for a dance, some go to escape, and some just go out to party. But the main reason these establishments seem to capitalise on is the desire of singles to find a partner, and this also appears to be the main factor contributing to sexual assault within clubs globally.

In the UK earlier this year, Downing Street pledged £45m towards the Safer Streets fund, implementing CCTV cameras in streets where women walk home from clubs alone. They also assigned undercover cops in nightclubs to deal with assaults once they occur, in a campaign accused of missing the point entirely.

Closer to home, the situation is much the same. A survey from La Trobe University found that 96.6% of participants thought that sexual assaults occurred in licenced venues, with 80.2% finding it common in Melbourne clubs and pubs.

Previous owner of regional Victorian nightclub Kazbah Lounge, Alan Harris, says that every nightclub has “issues with sexual advances and assaults”, and that “it’s such a tricky industry to be in in that regard”.

Alan’s nightclub was the only one in a region of 10,000 people, and he found he had to do whatever he could to accommodate patrons of all ages and intentions that would come through the doors each night.

“I feel regionally having to accommodate and cater for several different types of crowds can cause a vast array of problems,” he said.

“We took every instance of sexual assault very seriously, but there is a fine line between ruining people’s fun and helping someone in an unsafe situation. The majority of people were great, but it’s the 10 percent that makes it that much harder and ruins it for everyone else.”

Nightclubs intend to provide services that appeal to their patrons to ensure they come back again and again. This is a business strategy that is not uncommon amongst all kinds of businesses, but when it gets in the way of the safety of individuals, the question arises around what is actually more important.

After contacting over five nightclubs in Canberra, none were willing to have a conversation about what was being done to combat sexual assaults. However, owner of Canberra bar Hippo Co., Kylie Preston, said her bar has a no tolerance policy for this kind of behaviour towards customers and staff.

“We are a small venue and very closely enforce our RSA obligations, and have a zero-tolerance policy for abuse of any kind at our bar,” she said.

“We have briefed our staff about our view on unsocial behaviour and they understand we will not tolerate this in our venue. Our staff know they have our full support, and we would rather lose patrons than expose staff or customers to any form of abuse.”

Unlike Hippo Co., Canberra’s larger nightclubs have a different approach to dealing with sexual assaults. A bartender who worked at three Canberra clubs says he did not receive any training around how to deal with these situations once they happened.

“For the most part, there were never any specific rules for dealing with sexual assault,” he said.

“There was just an unwritten no tolerance policy. As a member of staff, I never received any specific training around sexual assaults.”

A DJ at one of Canberra’s biggest nightclubs also said that while he was being told to be aware of the signs, it was difficult for him to identify unsolicited behaviour when in the darkness of the nightclub.

“Once these actions have taken place or are occurring, I know for a fact that the culprit is removed from the premises and the appropriate authorities are usually involved; but this can be difficult to spot when overlooking a packed crowd,” he said.

The responses from the employees suggest that Canberra nightclubs, like those in the UK, deal with sexual assaults after the event rather than stopping them from happening in the first place. But is this strategy enough in the eyes of the victims?

From speaking to a small number of close contacts in Canberra, the general consensus is that what is being done is not enough to create appropriate change within these venues, with a large number of assaults still happening.

One woman shared a story from her teenage years of when a man wouldn’t stop caressing her thigh when she was clubbing, despite constantly telling him to stop.

Another woman in her early 20s said, “more often than not when I’ve been out clubbing, either one of my friends or myself have been inappropriately touched by someone without consent, and now I find myself feeling anxious or paranoid every time I go out.”

A third woman told the story of her friend, who was constantly sexually harassed working behind a bar. The friend complained to her manager about the situation, but his only response was “you have to expect those things when you work in a place like this”.

Women on nights out in Canberra have to keep in mind what could happen to them at any time. Women on nights out in Canberra can’t rely on clubs having business rules that look after them and stop sexual assaults before they actually happen.

Nightclubs in Australia and all over the world are aware of the sexual assaults that occur on site, yet are only willing to deal with them after they happen. If these clubs cared about their female patrons as much as they appear to care about business, women in Canberra and all over the world could finally enjoy a night out, without constantly looking over their shoulders.

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