Issues Magazine

Risky Business: Risk Management, Sexual Violence and the Night-Time Economy

By Bianca Fileborn

Are young women at risk of sexual assault when they go out for a night on the town, and how can this risk best be managed?

NSW Police Commissioner, Andrew Scipione, has recently called for young women to take responsibility for themselves and their safety when they go out for a night on the town. In a Sydney Morning Herald article, Scipione cautioned young women to “have a plan, how you’re getting home, who you’re going home with”. Such comments raise a series of questions around the supposed “risks” young women face when they go out at night – particularly the risk of sexual assault – how these risks should best be managed, and by whom.

Popular understandings of sexual assault typically revolve around a “stranger rape” scenario. A woman walks home alone at night (perhaps after a night out). The streets are dark and deserted. A stranger appears from nowhere, overpowers her and sexually assaults her. In reality, we know from a vast body of research that this is not how most women experience sexual assault. More often, it takes place at a home or at another private location, and is most likely to be committed by someone known to the woman, like her partner, friend or acquaintance.

Contrary to what is implied in Scipione’s warnings, women are not most “at risk” of sexual violence when they’re having a night out on the town.

Nonetheless, the idea that women are routinely sexually harassed in licensed venues is commonplace. Even though these settings might not be the primary location of sexual assault, women are still having concerning experiences in and around licensed venues.

It is useful to identify what it is that young women are actually experiencing in licensed venues before considering how we might manage the risk of experiencing sexual violence.

My PhD research explores experiences and understandings of what I’ve termed “unwanted sexual attention” in licensed venues. This concept includes more serious forms of sexual violence, such as sexual assault and rape, but it also covers what we might consider to be minor, sexually harassing behaviours like groping, staring and verbal comments.

Surveys that I ran with 240 young adults, aged 18–30, sparked some interesting discussion on the views and experiences of unwanted sexual attention in licensed venues, and the “protective” or “risk management” strategies that young people use to reduce their perceived risk of encountering harm, sexual or otherwise, on a night out.

The overwhelming majority of people that I surveyed thought that unwanted sexual attention happened in licensed venues. They thought that it was a common experience, and that unwanted sexual attention mostly impacts women.

On face value, these findings seem to suggest that licensed venues may be “risky” places in terms of the likelihood of unwanted sexual attention occurring. However, some of the comments made by young women paint a more complex picture.

Many women commented that most of the unwanted sexual attention they received consisted of more “minor” types of things (although some women have experienced sexual assault and rape in these venues as well). As one participant suggested:

Most of it is harmless, just really annoying (boys trying to dance with you when you told them to [go away], staring at you making you uncomfortable). It can ruin your night by making you extremely uncomfortable and annoyed though.

As this participant’s comments suggest, women tended to see these experiences as being annoying, violating, and making them angry, although the experiences did sometimes make them feel unsafe as well. These experiences are certainly concerning and problematic for young women going to pubs and clubs. However, for the most part the women didn’t have these experiences every time they went out, as this participant’s comments highlighted:

Generally my nightlife experiences have been good, don’t get me wrong! My main gripe is when men think they can touch me, like my body is an object for them.

What, then, creates this occasional risk of encountering unwanted sexual attention in licensed venues? Although my research is very much still in progress, three potential sites of risk have emerged from the findings so far: the behaviour that women engage in, the behaviour of other patrons, and the culture of (some) licensed venues.

Risky Bodies
The actions that women take, and the choices that they make, have long been seen to have an influence on whether or not they are sexually assaulted. “Well-meaning” advice, such as was provided by Commissioner Scipione, has often suggested that women limit their movements in public space, dress conservatively and limit their consumption of drugs and alcohol, among many other strategies, to avoid being sexually assaulted.

Such advice suggests that the “risk” of being sexually assaulted is created largely by the actions and choices of women. That is, women’s bodies are a site of risk, and they need to be managed through these protective strategies.

Certainly, the women in my study appear to have taken this advice on board, as they used a wide array of protective strategies to help them feel safe. For example, many women would only go to venues with friends, monitored their drinks at all times, and limited how much alcohol they drank.

While it is clear that women use these strategies, it is less certain whether the strategies are actually effective at preventing sexual assault. For every woman who used a certain strategy to “stay safe”, there was another for whom the strategy had failed miserably. One of my participants thought that being with her partner and friends protected her from unwanted sexual advances, and reduced the perceived threat of this behaviour if it occurred:

I go out with my partner and our male and female friends. I think this (1) tends to protect me from unwanted sexual advances and (2) means that even if it did occur I would be more annoyed than feel unsafe.

Yet, for one male participant, his girlfriend became the target of unwanted sexual advances despite his “protective” presence:

A man said to my girlfriend at the time that he was going to take her outside and have his way with her whether she agreed or not.

What does this say about the usefulness or success of these protective routines that women use and are expected to use?

If the strategies that women do (or don’t) use seem to make little difference to their likelihood of encountering unwanted sexual attention, where does the risk lie?

Risky People
Perhaps, then, the risk of unwanted sexual attention occurring is created through the behaviour and attitudes of the people who perpetrate this behaviour.

Certain types of people were seen as “risky” in terms of their likelihood of perpetrating unwanted sexual attention according to my participants.

Drunk (and also aggressive) men were seen as universally threatening by my survey participants, both male and female. More importantly, they were seen as being the most likely to perpetrate unwanted sexual attention as a result of having lost their inhibitions or no longer being able to register their target’s disinterest.

However, some women challenged the idea that these men had simply “lost” their inhibitions, and felt that some men deliberately used alcohol as an excuse to engage in unwanted sexual attention, as one participant said:

I don’t understand … why it is that guys think a few drinks (in them) is an excuse to behave poorly? They are in the minority of course! I generally just avoid venues where this kind of behaviour is “the norm”/acceptable.

It is clear from such comments that perpetrating unwanted sexual attention is not merely a result of having “lost control”. Rather, it is the result of the active choices made by some men.

This participant’s comment also points to a potential link between venue culture, individual attitudes towards women and sex, and men enacting inappropriate sexual behaviour. That is, the risk created by these individuals may be enhanced by the risky practices that some venues engage in. Venues that removed drunk and aggressive patrons quickly, didn’t let them in to begin with and enforced responsible service of alcohol policies were seen as less likely to have these problems occurring.

Of course, risky venue practices don’t necessarily cause men to behave in this way. It is the combination of attitudes that support non-consensual sexual interaction, and venue cultures that are permissive of this behaviour, that may lead to unwanted sexual attention.

Such findings present practical opportunities to reduce the occurrence of unwanted sexual attention, and point to the possibility of developing strategies that avoid placing the blame on women for their own victimisation.

Most participants seemed to view the perpetrators of this behaviour as being strangers. However, as I mentioned earlier, most women are sexually assaulted by people they know. Only a small number of people in my study recognised that friends could be the ones doing this as well:

It doesn’t always come from strangers – friends can be responsible too, particularly once alcohol comes into play.

The perceptions and experiences of my participants appear to be at odds with “what we know” more broadly about sexual assault. At this stage, the meaning of this finding is unclear. Perhaps women are more likely to encounter unwanted sexual attention from strangers in these venues in comparison to other scenarios of sexual assault. Perhaps women are reluctant to identify their friends and people who they know and trust as the perpetrators of this behaviour, and prefer to see risky people as being “over there” or removed from their immediate social circles.

Risky Venues
My participants saw some types of venue as being more or less risky than others in terms of the likelihood of encountering unwanted sexual attention. Certain venue practices and cultures may create risky environments, particularly when combined with patrons who hold problematic attitudes towards women and sexual interaction.

For instance, bars with a “pick-up” culture were frequently mentioned as places where unwanted sexual attention might occur. Often, these venues create a sexualised atmosphere by the music played and by encouraging staff and patrons to dress and act in sexually provocative ways.

It was suggested by my participants that some of the men who attended these places assumed that all the women in the venue were there to “hook up”, and sometimes disregarded the signals that women used to show their disinterest, such as saying no, or using body language. These men seemed to be taking advantage of the fact that some women were there to “pick up”, and used this as an excuse to engage in what could be considered coercive sexual behaviour.

While there is nothing inherently wrong with venues that provide or encourage the opportunity to engage in sexual interaction, it is important for venue management to recognise and manage the ways in which such a culture may be taken advantage of to allow men to perpetrate unwanted sexual behaviours with relative impunity.

For instance, women who made complaints to bar staff were often ignored or dismissed due to the assumption that they wanted what had happened to them or had “contributed” to their own victimisation through their dress or consumption of alcohol:

Most people (including club management) seem to think it’s okay for guys to hit on girls because “... if she’s dressed like that, she’s wants it, she’s asking for it”. Which is obviously not true and [is] disgusting.

This effectively excuses the problematic behaviour of these men, and creates an atmosphere in which such inappropriate actions are tolerated and “ok”.

The physical environment and design of some venues also seemed to create opportunity for unwanted sexual attention to occur. Dark and crowded spaces, for example, can create the chance for someone to grope another patron with little likelihood of detection – after all, the person on the receiving end is unlikely to identify who did it with any certainty under these conditions.

Interestingly, while many of my participants thought that these “pick-up” venues and nightclubs were the key site of unwanted sexual attention occurring, very few of them said that they actually went to these venues on a regular basis. In part, this was due to women avoiding these venues to reduce their perceived risk of encountering unwanted sexual attention. However, many simply did not feel that they “fit in” in these places, and wouldn’t go to them anyway.

It’s unclear then whether these venues are actually more risky than others, or whether they are merely perceived as being more risky.

Nonetheless, these findings do suggest overall that some venues might be more likely to have unwanted sexual attention occurring than others due to a combination of environmental design, a culture that is permissive towards unwanted sexual advances, and the attitudes of individual patrons.

Rather than focusing on women’s behaviour as “risk-creating”, it might be more fruitful to reduce the opportunities that men have to enact unwanted sexual attention. These risk management strategies could occur through environmental design, for example by managing the movement of people through a venue to prevent overcrowded spaces, and by creating social environments that are not supportive of this behaviour.

Perhaps Commissioner Scipione’s advice would be best directed at young men considering engaging in coercive or unwanted sexual behaviour – don’t risk it.