Music venues and nightclubs are essential arenas for communality and expression. While we await their reopening, Mary Olive questions the extent they offer refuge and safe space to women, transgender and non-binary people.
[Trigger Warning] Mention of sexual abuse, assault, harassment
I’ve written so many new openings for this piece over the past few weeks. Searching somewhere for words. It’s been deeper than writer’s block. It’s an exhaustion I feel deep to my bones.
To be honest, I don’t want to have to keep writing about these issues. But then, I see the pain of my sisters and non-binary siblings and I find myself writing even more. It hurts me because I have lived it too.
A few years ago, I was sexually assaulted. And afterwards, I cloaked myself in shame. The hurt sank so deep into my being I found it hard to trust the world. Since then, I found my voice as a writer and I promised to be a protector. A one-woman army. I swore I would make it mean something. To push that fire in my belly to fuel some change, somehow, somewhere. And so, here we are.
I am telling you this because I need you to know I understand this pain. Having been groped, grabbed, cat called and rated out of ten since my school days I need a moment to push back. If this makes you uncomfortable you need to keep reading.
To all the beautiful women, transgender and non-binary people reading this, I see you. Especially the women of colour who are still to this day alarmingly vulnerable. You have always been worth the world and more and you should not have to fight for your peace. I am tired too.
To the men reading, I am talking to you directly now. Pay attention.
The fact is our city is not a safe place for everyone. One of the most dangerous places for anyone who is not a man is a nightclub or music venue. I cannot tell you the amount of times I have experienced sexual harassment from men in these spaces. It happens in every single music venue in Liverpool. It happens everywhere.
It will always hurt to watch some promoters spend all of their time, money and energy into creating their idea of an ideal event, but actively chose to ignore the safety of their crowd. It is not good enough. It has never been good enough.
Liverpool can be a very ugly place sometimes. A “city of music” which, instead of protecting its women, will name an airport after a man who beat them up.
If you are waiting for a wake-up call, this is it.
So how do we grow through this? A starting point is increasing the visibility of women, transgender and non-binary people at music events, including all job roles and the people in the crowd. I always feel more relaxed when the space I am entering is not male dominated. It’s like a bloody breath of fresh air.
People who are not male want to feel thought of and recognised when entering music events. We want to feel like the space accommodates us rather than having to accommodate the (often hyper masculine) space. Visible cues to tell the crowd what the promoter’s/event’s values are is a really simple way of making people feel safe.
I would love to see femineity and gender non-conformity celebrated more at music events; for people to empower one another and for spaces to feel safe for exploration of gender expression and sexuality. There are, of course, places that do this (usually ran by the LGBT community or women) and I’d love to see that energy spill out into everything. Maybe
I’m just an optimist, but I still hold hope for that utopia.
For now, we must acknowledge that we do have a problem with safety at music events. This has to be addressed and properly confronted by everyone if we want to move past it.
The first place I go to for comfort when I feel unsafe at an event is the bathroom.
Here, I find myself surrounded by my sisters and non-binary siblings who understand. Here, we kiss each other’s faces, swap lipstick and have a cry if we need to.
And then, once we’ve caught our breath, we head back out into the arena.
This is because bouncers do not make me feel safe. I have experienced more harassment than reassurance from male security guards to feel comforted by their presence.
We need to see specific staff training for how to handle sexual harassment. There has to be a complete zero tolerance policy for this.
GOOD NIGHT OUT is a brilliant organisation offering workshops and training of this kind. Some venues in Liverpool have already started working with them and I urge more promoters, venues owners and music industry professionals to follow.
The prospect of undercover police circling the dancefloor does not fill me with hope for when events do return. It feels like the government are pouring petrol onto a forest fire.
Police officers have been heavily criticised for abusing power countless times just this past year, from racial profiling to sexual violence. Understandably, their presence does not always make people feel protected.
Our institution is run by people with the exact same mindset as the people who abuse us in nightclubs. When authority is built on the back of racism and misogyny, how can it keep us safe? While the system still protects the lives of abusers more than the lives of those abused it cannot serve its people.
Instead, we need to see empowerment at the roots of our communities. We need to rebuild what we have made.
Education is the real key to all of this.
I can’t put everything into one piece, it is too big a conversation. But I will say this. You, now in this very moment can bring about change. You have the power to grow and help others to heal as you work to amplify the voices around you.
It’s the jokes your mates make which you let slide. It’s the porn you watch. It’s the people you surround yourself with. It’s the choices you make. The moments you speak, and the moments you fall silent. It’s what you chose to see, and what you chose to ignore. It’s an overwhelmingly complex issue rooted in generations of pain and confusion, but it all ends with you.
You may not feel like you can take on the world. But you will impact the lives around you. Whether you like it or not, we are all connected to one another and how we act has a direct impact on the people around us. Not acting is just as harmful as abusing.
No, it is not all men. But in a room full of five silent men, and one abusive, I am still torn to pieces.
So, let this be the moment of change. Have those difficult conversations. Educate yourself. Listen to others when they speak.
Open your heart to the world around you. And maybe one day, we can all dance together in peace.