Sexual harassment is a harrowingly normal part of nights out

A new survey by Drinkaware shows that 79 per cent of women expect they or their friends will be harassed when they go out

A new survey by Drinkaware and YouGov aims to show how normalised sexual harassment has become while out drinking in an effort to tackle it. The results, while upsetting, won’t come as a surprise to anyone who has ever been out as a woman or paid attention to what’s going on around them. The survey found that 72% of 18-24 year olds who drink in bars, clubs or pubs said that they had witnessed some form of sexual harassment on a night out. And while 26% of men did report that they had been on the receiving end of some form of sexual harassment, a shocking 63% of women did – and 79% said that on a night out, they expected inappropriate comments, touching, and behaviour to happen to either them or their female friends.

Which, for most women, will elicit a “water is wet” eyeroll. While men are also victims of sexual assault, for women out drinking, it’s fully expected. A normal night out is a battle to maintain your own autonomy while still trying to have as much fun as possible. It starts beforehand – deciding what to wear that’ll be cute without drawing too much attention. Deciding how much to drink to have fun but to not be unable to defend yourself. Where to go where you can dance but that doesn’t have a reputation for being sketchy. How you’re all going to get home. On the street, men yell that you look good and you shuffle awkwardly or bark back. The bouncer might flirt with you. The bartender, too.

Then the entire night is spent on the lookout for yourself and your friends; stepping in when a woman looks uncomfortable, helping them when a man is trying to shove them into a taxi, standing between your friend and a man who is trying to grind on her. Asking your male friends to pretend to be your boyfriend because sometimes that’s all that’ll work. A polite rejection can turn dangerous and sour in an instant. As the night goes on and everyone gets more and more drunk, perpetrators get bolder and it gets harder to maintain control. And until you are home, behind your front door, you don’t actually know if you’re safe. 

Which might sound extreme to someone who hasn’t had to deal with it. But as a woman, even one who for the most part doesn’t really go mainstream clubbing, I will endure or witness more than one unwanted sexual interaction from verbal to groping to something scarier every single time I go out drinking. As a bartender, I was on the receiving end nightly. More than once I had to personally intervene when a woman was in danger because my colleagues didn’t think it was worth our attention. And as a DJ, just last week my friend and I put on a night and had to kick out multiple men for climbing onstage and groping us and getting aggressive when we asked them to stop.

Drinkaware’s concern is that these things are normalised, and that is the case. We integrate these steps into our routines; we learn a secret language communicated only through our eyes that says, “I want him to leave me alone. Please help.” and, for the most part, we all understand it. They are now campaigning to put an “end” to unwanted drunken sexual harassment. They have given witnesses advice on what to do if they see something – which is a refreshing change from the “protect yourself” approach that we all now have ingrained.

Janet Mackechnie, Campaign Lead for Drinkaware, said “for far too many people, drunken sexual harassment is now sadly part and parcel of a night out. Being drunk is no excuse to grab, grope or make inappropriate comments to strangers on a night out. If people see someone being sexually harassed, asking them if they are ok can make a big difference” she added, “it can be difficult to know exactly what to do which is why Drinkaware are giving young people this information and advice in the hope that next time they feel more confident to offer support to someone.” 

This is a great move, if ambitious, but it will not end sexual harassment – there needs to be better education in consent generally, better training for bouncers and bartenders in how to handle it, and more awareness of the many, many ways in which a man can step over the line. In my experience behind the scenes, very few male bartenders know how to spot the signs of an unwanted interaction or how to deal with it. And while women leave the house on a regular day expecting unwanted interaction, this is worsened when you add alcohol. I spoke to some women about the harassment they see and experience on nights out, and the steps they feel they have to take to combat it.

Hannah, 24, told me that she’s “spent a lot of time on nights out moving away from a creepy guy or guys” and that at bars, “men are more into just leering than actual groping”, recounting a story where a man stared at her and her friend in a pub all night, but was thankfully chucked out. When asked about the ways she protects other women, Hannah told me that one night she saw a woman who looked uncomfortable speaking to a man so she “went over and asked if she was alright” but that he then refused to leave – and he or one of his friends groped Hannah minutes later.

Many of us just accept it. Reb told me that “it's sadly just part and parcel of the night” and while it might not always happen, it does dictate how she chooses to present herself. Someone else told me that “there is always the expectation that something will happen” and that when she defends herself, “they just laugh or get angry back like they have a right to do it”. Hanna, 29, said that she expects it but “doesn’t accept it”, adding, “if a guy starts grinding on me I stop what I'm doing. If they don't stop I tell them to fuck off and move on. I'm not pussy-footing around it anymore. If being blunt and rude is the only way to protect my body, I will do it”.

“There is always the expectation that something will happen”

The survey didn’t take into account the often more violent experiences of non-cis women. I spoke to a trans woman who works in music who told me that while she’s now sober, at her own show, she once experienced someone “grabbing me by the crotch and telling me he wanted to grab me by my hoops and fuck me up the arse” but that when she confronted him, he said he was “just drunk”. She says that as a trans woman she expects harassment whenever she’s in public, but she actively avoids places that sell alcohol to minimise it.

The campaign is positive, but it seems to ignore that alcohol is not the cause. Men are the cause. Their entitlement to women’s bodies and their blasé attitude to our safety is evident everyday – the club is not the only place where I am harassed or where my boundaries are disregarded. That entitlement is exacerbated by alcohol, however, and the fact that a night out is seen as a setting where sex must happen at any cost does not help.

Sexual assault is not an accident. Men will buy us drinks and stand at the wings, waiting until the night goes on and we’re less in control of our actions or decisions. For the most part, they have control. There needs to be better education all round, from a younger age, about consent and appropriate conduct in all situations. The male friends who look out for me on a night out are good men who wouldn’t violate a woman’s consent at all, no matter how drunk. This separation of “drunk man” from “sober man” is dangerous. Make no mistake: if a man will grope you or call you a cunt at the bar, he would like to do it sober. He just knows he’ll get away with it if he’s pissed.

You can read Drinkaware’s advice for bystanders here. Find more information about dealing with harassment on Girls Against and Hollaback.