Content warning: sexual assault, rape
‘I was at the bar with my friend. When she wasn’t looking, this guy came up behind me, turned me around and forcibly kissed me.’
Gaia was sexually assaulted at a popular late-night bar in Camden in 2017. ‘I felt really violated, but the thought of reporting it didn’t even cross my mind,’ she says. ‘I had no idea you could even go to the police for that kind of thing. I always have a fear that it’s going to happen again.’
For many people in the capital, Gaia’s story is grimly familiar – an unwanted slap on the arse from a stranger, a hand under the skirt from a friend of a friend – many of us have experienced it ourselves, or we know someone who has. These normalised instances of sexual assault and harassment, happening in regulated, public spaces, help to solidify our fears that going out in London is just not safe.
In 2021 the conversation surrounding sexual assault and harassment reached a long-awaited crescendo. The news was flooded with reports of drink-spiking in nightclubs and national campaigns like Girls’ Night In organising boycotts of venues in response. According to exclusive data that Time Out obtained from the Metropolitan Police, reports of sexual assault in London bars, pubs, nightclubs and music venues were at a six-year high in 2021. There were 207 reports of sexual assault in venues and a further 29 reports of rape. Overall, reports of rape and sexual assault in London venues increased by almost a fifth since 2016. It’s a grim rise given that venues were either shut or under strict social-distancing restrictions for at least six months of 2021, and the data only includes reports up to October 31. Why are these figures so alarmingly high in such a short period?
‘In 2021, there were 207 reports of sexual assault in London venues and a further 29 reports of rape. Reports increased by almost a fifth since 2016’
‘It’s hard to say whether this is an increase in reporting, or an increase in prevalence,’ says Bryony Beynon, who co-founded Good Night Out in 2014: a campaign to improve responses to sexual assault in venues through staff training. ‘We have had a pause on nightlife for over a year, so people’s thresholds of what they’re willing to put up with may have shifted. Venues have been put under pressure to make sure that Covid stuff is in place, so they could be co-operating more to actually report things.’
Silvana Kill, director of operations for the Night Time Industries Association (NTIA), says that ‘without a doubt’ people are becoming more confident in stepping forward to report sexual assault. ‘That’s good news,’ she says. ‘The more people come forward, the bigger the deterrent to the perpetrators.’ According to data collected by the Crime Survey for England and Wales in 2017, women are five times more likely to have been sexually assaulted than men. That's why the Savenightlife CIC (a pillar of the NTIA, aiming to secure recognition for nightlife and live music) and the group behind ‘Lady of the House’ (the first book about influential women in the dance music scene) launched a report surveying 1,300 women to gather more evidence. It showed that 91.8 percent of women don’t feel the police do enough to make women feel safer at night, and a further 84.7 percent of respondents agreed that certain inappropriate behaviours towards women were now perceived as ‘normal’ within the nighttime economy.
The figures are bleak, but should we be surprised? Ask for Angela, a code-word initiative that first launched in Lincolnshire in 2016 and that the Met expanded across London in August, is under fire for supplying venues with posters but not following through with sufficient staff training. In November 2021, the Met announced that they would deploy plainclothes officers outside clubs and bars to identify predatory behaviour – a strategy that was dismissed as ludicrous by women’s safety experts. More recently, the Met was criticised for running a drugs swabbing operation in Shoreditch as part of a ‘week of action’ supporting women’s safety in December.
There’s a huge loss of trust in the organisations meant to protect us, so Time Out spoke to the people taking it on themselves to make the capital’s nightlife safer in 2022 – at a time when venues need all the support they can get.
The app that could bring about data-driven changes
‘In 2019, I was on a night out in my first year of university, at a place in Fulham,’ says Lauren Levine. ‘I ended up getting really, really drunk and was thrown out of the club. Someone who was meant to be my friend took me home and proceeded to have sex with me. Obviously I couldn’t consent: I’d say he raped me.’
Lauren didn’t report the incident because she felt that ‘realistically, she wouldn’t get a prosecution’. A year later, she wrote about her experience in a Facebook post and connected with Where You At, a safety app start-up founded by university students Tamzin Lent and Olivia Leigh. Lauren, who is now Where You At’s director of marketing, felt like the concept could help people to avoid finding themselves in dangerous situations similar to her own. ‘The big problem we're trying to solve is that you can be in a nightclub and there's no signal or service, or no way of getting in touch with your friends,’ says Lauren.
‘It shouldn’t have to exist, but what are we meant to do? Sit on our thumbs and wait until there’s a big, seismic change to certain men’s attitudes to women?’
Where You At is different from Find My Friends or Snapchat’s Snap Map. It partners with NTIA venues to install Bluetooth beacons within spaces, so you can communicate with other app users even if you’re somewhere remote or underground. ‘It’s also for festivals, like Glastonbury,’ says Lauren. ‘The tech can be used anywhere.’
All you have to do is select a circle of mates for the night, and you’ll be able to see precisely where they are on a map of the venue – right down to the exact toilet cubicle. If something does go wrong, you can hit SOS to immediately alert pals, and the time and location data is saved to help piece together what happened afterwards (useful for if you were drunk and your memory is a bit hazy, and you want to go to the police).
The app is still in trials in London, Oxford, Cambridge and Leeds venues, and is aiming to launch officially across the UK in March. ‘It shouldn’t have to exist,’ says Lauren. ‘But what are we meant to do? Sit on our thumbs and wait until there’s a big, seismic change to certain men’s attitudes to women?’
The security industry leader improving how venues deal with sexual assault
Farah Benis has worked in security for 15 years. She says that there are definitely more cases of sexual assault in venues than the number reported to the police. Now, she’s the director of FFA Security Group, a company she started to change what she thinks is lacking in the industry: training in how to sensitively deal with people who have experienced sexual assault and harrassment.
‘[When I worked for other security companies] there was never any specific policy focusing on victims of sexual assault,’ Farah says. ‘I know one instance where a girl was suspected to have been given a date-rape drug and the security on site actually put her in the same place as the person she accused to wait for the police.’
Farah tried multiple times to sign up for the Ask for Angela training offered by the Met and Safer Sounds, a partnership across the events and music industry supported by the Greater London Authority. But all she was able to do was download posters, a frustration also experienced by some of the venues she works with. She took it on herself to provide the training to venues. ‘I do support the scheme [Ask for Angela] and I think it can work,’ she says. ‘The reason I’ve started to incorporate it in my training is because of its shortfalls. The biggest problem is that you can go on a website, download a bunch of posters, and there’s absolutely no training surrounding it.’
‘When I worked for other security companies, there was never any specific policy focussing on victims of sexual assault’
A spokesperson for the Met said that the police were continuing to train venue staff through their Welfare and Vulnerability Engagement programme. ‘We would encourage any venue that would like to train their staff to recognise vulnerability and offending behaviour, and to promote Ask for Angela within their venue, to contact their local police licensing team,’ they said.
Farah’s training focuses on identifying vulnerable people and recognising the signs of ingesting date-rape drugs. She wants a proper register of venues that have completed Ask for Angela training, and is advocating to ensure that queer, trans and non-binary voices are included. ‘If those things aren’t put into place, it's just another haphazard, government-shiny campaign that's not actually working on the ground,’ she says.
The project pledging a tenner to help you get home at night
We all know that it’s incredibly difficult to get home from a night out in London at the moment. The long-awaited Night Tube reopening was meant to happen at the end of November, but TfL strikes put an end to that. Late-night Ubers are genuinely impossible to get without spending a small fortune or having one cancel on you thanks to driver shortages, as Time Out investigated in September. Fast-forward months and the issue is still ongoing.
A project called Home Safe is here to help. Founded by London University student Match Sienkiewicz, it’s a campaign that refunds women and vulnerable people who are short on cash with up to ten quid to go towards the cost of a single Uber, Bolt or taxi home. Users just have to fill in an online form and upload a copy of their journey receipt. The hope is that more people will be able to afford safer transport, instead of being stuck with the slightly dodgier options of walking home, taking the night bus or waiting for the first train. The initiative is also working on getting together a team of volunteer phone operators to book taxis on the spot for people who don’t have enough cash in the bank to book in the moment.
After generating £5,573 from a fundraiser launched on November 5, and receiving a hefty £10k donation from Uber, Home Safe went live across England on December 2. Obviously, there’s a bit of doubt about the scale of the project – the demand for this is going to be high and there’s a potential that some bastards could misuse the service just to get free trips. But there’s no denying that it’s a great idea, especially with the headache that is London public transport right now.
The creative campaign using signage to keep the creeps away
In 2017, Ruby Savage, a London-based DJ, had started to become more and more conscious of antisocial behaviour during her sets. She wrote the slogan ‘Don’t Be a Creep’ on a T-shirt (inspired by the 1980s Bush Tetras song, ‘Too Many Creeps’), and things erupted. Soon, guys were wearing the tee to show their allegiance, and Ruby was creating bespoke campaigns for festivals like Gala and We Out Here, and venues like Village Underground.
Plastering walls with slick, memorable designs – with slogans like ‘Be Nice’, ‘It’s a Family Affair’ and, of course, ‘Don’t Be a Creep’ – the project comes across as positive propaganda rather than being preachy. ‘We frame it as a music and nightlife arts initiative, encouraging a zero-tolerance policy to abuse or harassment of any kind,’ says Maude Churchill, Ruby’s partner for Don’t Be a Creep. ‘We want to act as a constant reminder for people to check their behaviour and take accountability for it, as well as trying to destigmatise a topic which is taboo.’
‘We want to act as a constant reminder for people to check their behaviour and take accountability for it’
Rather than making people feel like a venue is unsafe, any sort of signage showing that management is taking a stance helps to show solidarity with victims. It’s a tactic employed not just by nightlife organisations: Hackney Council launched its Reframe the Night campaign in 2019, and TfL’s new project to tackle unwanted sexual behaviour on public transport features posters with words like, ‘Staring is a sign of harassment’. What Maude is hoping will happen next is ensuring that victims are supported when they come forward.
Don’t Be a Creep had a ‘Guardian Angels’ team at We Out Here, handing information to people as they arrived about the festival’s zero-tolerance policy to abuse and harassment. ‘It was so interesting to hear people’s responses and start having those conversations,’ Maude says. Time Out sent a Freedom of Information request to the Met to find out the number of reports of sexual assault at London festivals. There were very few, with less than ten in 2021, and a six-year high of 20 in 2017. We’ll never know if that’s partly down to underreporting, but projects like Don’t Be a Creep can only be a good thing.
So, what now?
There are heaps of other projects doing good stuff in the realm of nightlife safety and sexual assault. Our Streets Now is a campaign to make public sexual harassment a criminal offence. Strut Safe offers free walks home at night from regulated volunteers in Edinburgh, and offers a free phone service for the rest of the UK. Walk Safe is an app that helps you to plan a safer route home, based on maps of real police crime data. Everyone’s Invited is an online space for people to anonymously submit their testimonies of sexual assault, looking to expose rape culture through conversations and community building. More than 54,000 people have submitted their stories so far.
Time Out asked Amy Lamé, the capital’s Night Czar, what the Mayor of London is doing to make our nightlife safer. ‘[The Mayor and I] are working so closely with the police and a wide range of partners to improve safety, with more than 1,800 frontline venue staff receiving Welfare and Vulnerability Engagement training,’ Lamé said. ‘This is alongside the Ask for Angela scheme. More than 650 organisations have also signed up to the Mayor’s Women’s Night Safety Charter to deliver better training of staff, encouraging the reporting of harassment and ensuring public spaces are safe.’
The most recent London Rape Review discovered that almost two-thirds of London rape victims drop their complaint within a month of going to the police. In response, the Met’s lead on public protection Melanie Dales, said: ‘We are absolutely determined to increase the number of perpetrators brought to justice by improving our processes, investigations and victim care, all the time working with partners across the criminal justice system.’ A new agreement between the police and the Crown Prosecution Service to work closer in the early days of an investigation has been introduced, in the hope that fewer victims will withdraw from the process.
For real change, it’s going to take more than installing some Bluetooth and a tenner towards a cab. It’s going to take better education and real consequences for perpetrators. It’s going to take efforts to ensure that people working in nightlife are protected, because too often, sexual harassment comes with the job description. It’s going to take training staff and checking your mates. We know that, but at least the conversation has started.
HOW TO GET HELP
The Home Affairs Committee has launched a new inquiry, welcomed by the NTIA, to better understand the prevalence of drink-spiking and the effectiveness of the police response to it. Take part in the spiking survey here and find out more about spiking here.
London Survivors Gateway: 0808 801 0860, Mon 9am-5pm, Tue 9am-7pm, Wed 9.30am-3.30pm, Thu 9am-7pm, Fri 9am-3pm. www.survivorsgateway.london
Rape Crisis: 0808 802 9999, noon-2.30pm and 7pm-9.30pm every day. www.rapecrisis.org.uk
Find local support via Women’s Aid: www.womensaid.org.uk/domestic-abuse-directory