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Sex pests, unwanted advances, harassment - should this be part of a night out?

Out at night? Be left alone at your peril. Photo / Getty Images

Cleaning up the sleaze in bars and clubs.

On Friday and Saturday nights Auckland’s CBD swells with people going out. A motley crew of corporates, university students and barely post-pubescent teenagers with fake IDs can be seen weaving through rows of taxis; marching in groups from bar to bar. Depending on where you’re situated things can get pretty hectic, especially in the early hours of the morning; it’s an environment ripe for sexual advances both wanted and unwanted.

“It happens so often,” says Erica*, “I’m never surprised when it happens, it’s more of an annoyance but it shouldn’t be like that because we can’t let being drunk be an excuse for this kind of behaviour.” She sounds a little exasperated. Somewhat hardened by these numerous and unmemorable encounters there is one she hasn’t forgotten about.

“I was at a bar down in the Viaduct with my brothers and sisters dancing, and then I felt someone grab my bottom, so I turned around and this guy was just looking at me ...”

“Then he said: ‘It’s OK you can keep dancing’, so I looked at him and told him not to touch me. Then he did it again a few minutes later, so I turned around again and said: “Look mate, I’ve asked you nicely, don’t do it again, and then he did it a third time so I turned around and pushed him.”

After that her brother and sisters left the bar to go somewhere else, instead of getting any staff involved. “I didn’t really think about approaching bar staff about it this time because it happens so often I feel like I can just handle it myself because I know how to.”

Sometimes in situations like this little platitudes like “they were probably just drunk,” are offered up, not so much as an explanation but as an excuse. But, this kind of behaviour often occurs on a continuum; imagine something like the food pyramid you got shown in school. At the bottom lies victimisation which includes things like rape jokes and victim blaming. Next there’s degradation; on top of that, removal of autonomy which groping, and sexual coercion fall under. Then, finally, at the peak of the pyramid is explicit violence like rape.


Rape Crisis national helpline: 0800 88 33 00

HELP Auckland: 09 623 1700

HELP Wellington: 04 801 6655

“In New Zealand sexual violence is a massive problem and the highest risk age range is between 15 to 24 years,” says Dr Cathy Stephenson, who, with 20 years experience working with survivors of sexual violence, is a veteran in this line of work.

“It’s a very hard thing to measure accurately because only about one in 10 people who are sexually assaulted ever report it, but studies from overseas show that around one in five university students may be sexually assaulted, that particular group is very vulnerable.”

“I suspect that students are so at risk because there is more exposure to drinking culture and group culture when you’re that age, going out to parties with lots of people, in the environments where sexual assault is most likely to happen,” she says.

“The person who’s most likely to assault you is someone who you’ve got an existing relationship with, which includes someone you might have met at the bar or party that night, they’re not usually a complete stranger.”

She reiterates several times that alcohol is never an excuse for sexual assault. “There are a lot of taboos about sexual assault, but you should be able to go out and get home safely”.

We don’t tell people who’ve been robbed not to own so many possessions, yet Dr Stephenson knows this is a concept some people have difficulty accepting.

“Some things we see regularly are people who are clearly incapacitated, being singled out from the crowd by someone who will try to buy them more alcohol and then take them home in a taxi. Another issue is people’s drinks being spiked, not necessarily with drugs, but again with more alcohol, someone might ask for a single drink but the person buying drinks for them will ask the bartender to put in two or three shots.”  

Ignoring these attitudes is becoming harder. Public discussion and work by sexual assault prevention organisations is beginning to incite action from governments, at least it is in Australia. Across the ditch, the Victorian government has promised to fund an initiative which aims to reduce rates of sexual assault and harassment in live music venues. The programme was created in response to the industry’s burgeoning number of complaints about these types of incidents and the government has said it’s aiming for the training to become a condition of licence for bars and other venue owners.

Meow manager Rahine O’Rielly. Photo / John Lake

“I think there needs to be a general campaign so that patrons know they can go to bar staff for help,” says Rahine O’Rielly, manager of Meow in Wellington.

“I think a lot of people don’t believe they have a right to complain about another patron or even be at a bar without being harassed and that mindset is because of certain experiences. I was out at a bar once and someone was being inappropriate towards me but when I asked someone who worked there to intervene they just said, “Nah, he’s drinking here just the same as you”. The guy ended up following us down the road at the end of the night.”

However, it’s virtually impossible to talk about something as pervasive as sexual assault without acknowledging the wider issues; it’s not something that happens exclusively in bars.

Raising awareness elsewhere is something O’Rielly also thinks would help.

“Training is great but it doesn’t necessarily do a lot, it has to be incorporated across the board.”

She also believes that if there was a demand from customers for bar staff to be able to deal with these incidences and take them seriously, then that could make a big difference.

“I think (sexual assault) is a big deal, and I think we’re becoming more aware of the issue but, as with anything, there are people who are aware and there are people who don’t care.”

“Often it becomes about ticking boxes, I think there could be a lot of resistance – PC gone mad – that type of thing.”

O’Rielly, who has almost 20 years’ experience in the hospitality industry, believes that lack of interest or awareness, coupled with small margins, could create opposition to this kind of training - especially if it were to become mandatory.

As a potential solution she suggests that bars be required to provide plans, like they do for noise control and security, that would focus on how cases of sexual assault or harassment get dealt with.

She also would like to see this conversation be a part of the interview which prospective managers take in order to get their certificate.

“It would be great to be formally trained, especially on how to look for early warning signs, because when you’re kicking people out it’s too late, the bad thing has already happened,” says Matthew Crawley, entertainment manager for The Golden Dawn, a bar and live music venue in Ponsonby.

Sitting next to him is Lucy Macrae and Tom Anderson, the co-owners of Whammy Bar which is another popular venue, tucked inside St Kevin’s Arcade on Karangahape Road. All three of them are well-versed in Auckland’s music scene; Crawley has been with The Golden Dawn since it opened. As well as co-owning Whammy Bar for the past two years, Anderson worked as a sound engineer and Macrae co-owns two touring companies, one of which she started as a teenager.

“I’ve been aware of this issue since I was about 18, since I started going to bars” says Macrae, “I think as a female you kind of think you have to just put up with it.”

Crawley listens and nods. “I’m speaking for myself here, but I think up until recently, there was a bit of an ‘us and them’ situation in, what I would term, the indie music scene in Auckland … I think there was this hugely misguided preconception that we were the good ones and that there were bad people doing bad things in other places, and how lucky we were to be away from that,” he says.

“But it’s become increasingly and glaringly clear that that is not the case. We have to be vigilant and I’m thankful that people are starting to speak up about this.”

Golden Dawn bar manager Laura Lopez Lopez and entertainment manager Matthew Crawley. Photo / Luke McPake

Macrae says: “We’re trying to make steps towards doing the right thing, the biggest hurdle I find is not being formally trained, so I don’t necessarily know what the right thing to do is.

“Having someone train us would give us more confidence.”

They detail things that have been implemented in their own bars to try to reduce the number of badly behaved patrons.

Crawley reiterates a few times, “by no means do we think we’ve fixed any problem, we do our utmost to keep vigilant but we would absolutely welcome guidance and feedback”.

Anderson says: “It’s about changing a culture where people feel comfortable behaving this way.”

Senior Sergeant Andy Smith proposes problems and solutions similar to those of O’Rielly’s. Smith, who is the National Coordinator for Alcohol Harm Reduction, believes there might be pushback from bars and other hospitality venues who may not see this as an issue for their venue. 

“If you try to introduce a generic programme across the board there might be some places that would resist, especially because the training cost would fall on the licensee.”

O’Rielly suggests a more effective way may be to try and make it part of the exam which potential managers must take.

“There could be another step added which you have to take in order to get the manager's certificate, the interviewee could be asked to identify problem behaviours and explain how they might deal with it.” Smith says that general campaigns which have been run in the past, such as Who Are You which focussed on how to stay safe on a night out, were very effective.

In Wellington, training of this type is already being offered, though the bars elect to take part in it.  The Sexual Abuse Prevention Network, or SAPN, has been running a programme called It’s Our Business, tailored specifically to bars and other hospitality venues since 2009 and if the testimonials on their website are anything to go by, the response has been welcoming and positive.

One duty manager from Rogue & Vagabond, a craft beer bar in Te Aro, posted on the SAPN website that they hope the training becomes “a world recognised qualification and certificate”.

Though world recognition is a little grander than what Fiona McNamara, the general manager of SAPN, has in mind she says the end goal would be to have some content around sexual violence prevention. The four hour workshop, which collaborates with various hospitality venues, security and sometimes even taxi drivers, aims to provide the participants with the skills to minimise incidences of sexual assault and harassment.

Sexual Abuse Prevention Network general manager Fiona McNamara. Photo / John Lake

“The programme is really informed by the experiences of the bar staff, almost all of whom have seen behaviour they were uncomfortable with,” McNamara says, “we also touch on how to identify problem behaviour and what to do about it, for example how to be an ethical bystander.”

She says SAPN planning on working with a variety of providers and if the program is rolled out nationally then local organisations would provide it for their respective regions.

She says it isn’t as simple as just kicking a patron out. “If you’re sending someone who’s aggressive or vulnerable out onto the street there’s a whole lot that can happen from there.”

“At a bar we worked with, one of the [bar] tenders had a patron who was coming up and ordering two shots of vodka and two shots of water, which the bartender thought was really odd. It turned out one of the patrons from the bar was progressively getting the woman he was with really drunk, while he kept himself sober by drinking shots of water.” This kind of scenario closely mirrors that which Dr. Stephenson has also come across in her line of work.

Hospitality, however, doesn’t just include the patrons. Nor does it just include bars and clubs. Alison*, 26, worked at a restaurant/bar in Christchurch while she was a university student. At the time she was being sexually harassed by one of her managers and went through what she describes as a “stressful process” in order to reprimand her boss.

“There were three of us and the issue was taken to the senior management, but unfortunately they didn’t do anything so we ended up having to go to the police,” she says. “I brushed it off as something that just happens in hospitality until I realised that there were other staff members who had the same experiences.”

With bills to pay and competition for other positions which have the flexibility that hospitality offers - making it a popular choice for students looking for work - it’s easy to see how behaviour like this would simply be tolerated. Especially when coupled with inaction from senior staff.

“From the perspective of someone who has faced harassment in the industry, I think training like this is a really great move,” Alison says. 

“Not only would people look out for bad behaviour from patrons, they’d also likely be more aware of the behaviour of their fellow co-workers and bring each other up on it if someone was behaving inappropriately. That would be the hope anyway.”

*Last name withheld for privacy reasons. 


This article was originally published by The Wireless.