This morning I found myself wildly laughing on a street corner. This wasn’t standard lockdown hysteria, though. It was triggered by something I’d just read: the news that as part of the government’s response to Sarah Everard’s death and calls for better female safety, plainclothes police were going to be deployed in London’s clubs and bars.
That anyone would think that focusing on women’s safety in bars and clubs would be an appropriate response to the disappearance of a woman, who was not in a bar or club at the time, is weird. To then make that response focused on increased police presence and surveillance when we’ve spent the past week a) hearing about a cop getting charged with her murder, and b) seeing pictures of officers overreacting at her vigil, is downright odd.
But more than that... It’s just a shit idea.
My wild laughter was thanks to the mental image of myself, wasted, scouring the massive crowds at Printworks, desperately searching for an Official Club Plain Clothes Police Officer to report getting groped to. ‘ANYONE HERE A COP??’ I’d be yelling, the sound of my voice drowned out by pounding techno. ‘YOU??’ to a random man in bootcut jeans and brown shoes. It’s clear that whoever came up with this policy has never been on a night out before. Ever.
I can think of three incidents where I have been assaulted in a nightlife venue and not known what to do about it. Once, at uni, when I bumped into a guy from one of my seminars and he blankly flopped his penis into my hand. Another, when a man forced his hand down my pants in a crowd that was too thick with people for me to get away, or for anyone else to see. The third is still too raw to talk about here. None of those incidents would have been stopped by having a plainclothes police officer miles away in a 2,000-capacity venue. None of them would have been prevented by villainising nightlife venues as hotbeds of sexual violence, when it happens, quite literally, everywhere. (Stats show that almost all women have experienced sexual harassment.)
These incidents happened because those men felt empowered by society to take what they wanted. And they went unpunished because I felt too disempowered to do anything at all about it. I blamed myself: maybe I was leading them on, maybe it was just a joke I didn’t get. I thought authorities would blame me: I was drunk, I was high, I was making a fuss about something that ‘just happens’. I wouldn’t have known where to go to report it – and, let’s be honest, even if I had it’s unlikely it would have led to a conviction. The number of rape prosecutions is actually falling right now.
When you talk to the experts who fight to keep women safe in clubs, bars, festivals and more, they absolutely do not tell you that Tiger Tiger secret agents are the solution. The move seems totally estranged from the grassroots work being done. They say that we need clearly labelled spaces for women to report incidents without worrying that they’ll be judged for being high or drunk. They say we need visible security who are trained to spot and deal with sexual harassment. They say we need to create an environment where bystanders speak up. But, most of all, they say we need ground-up teaching about what harassment and assault are – and that our society has a zero-tolerance policy against them – from childhood. And that we must have assurances that the people who do commit violent crimes against all women (cis and trans) are punished for it.
That’s nowhere near what we’ve been given here. Sending police to spy on women when they’re on nights out has, at best, the stifling energy of a clingy parent who insists on chaperoning prom and is, at worst, an uncomfortable infiltration of safe spaces by some of the people they’re supposed to be safe from. Not to mention that the man charged with Sarah’s death was a police officer and that there are still ongoing cases where undercover cops have infiltrated activist groups and have slept with the women they were spying on. It makes us feel further trapped rather than more free.
We told them we wanted a few hours together to grieve. They broke up the crowd. Women’s groups have told them for years that they need to do more to protect us. They’ve given us half-baked PR-stunt policies. We asked them for safety and they’ve given us surveillance. When will they finally, properly listen?
Learn how to be a better bystander via the Hollaback campaign.
In pictures: protest signs from last weekend's vigils.