Ask for Angela: why we should be asking for more support

Image description: people dancing at a nightclub with red lights 

TW: mention of spiking, sexual harassment and violence

Following increased concerns over spiking (particularly after an anonymous report made by an 18-year-old on a night out with friends) at nightclubs and bars around Oxford, ‘It Happens Here’ led a nightclub boycott on October 28th of this year. It Happens Here is an “anti-sexual violence campaign” that is associated with the Oxford Student Union.

This boycott was further supported by an open letter, signed by 20 JCRs, addressed to the nightclubs of Oxford “demanding the implementation of more safety measures to prevent drink-spiking, ensure the safety of customers and hold perpetrators accountable.” Some of the demands of this open letter included such things as active-bystander for nightclub staff, increased CCTV, and the designation of a or multiple welfare officers in a way that is highly visible.

Spiking itself is not something that is a stand-alone, outlier pattern of behaviour. Instead, spiking is a manifestation of a culture of violence – violence that primarily targets vulnerable social groups like young, college-aged women, trans individuals, and people of colour. Reports of sexual harassment – groping, cat-calling, stalking – are the ‘norm’ at nightclubs and bars, to the extent that some have reported that the so-called #MeToo movement has failed to make changes in the nightlife scene.

This begs the question: what can be done? It should be clear that, for such a complicated issue, there is no obvious solution. Instead, tackling the issue of spiking and other related concerns pertaining to sexual harassment and assault must involve efforts at an institutional and commercial level in particular. In other words, businesses (like nightclubs and bars) and government agencies must work hand-in-hand to implement policies, training, and procedures in order to counteract a culture of violence that has so far run rampant.

It should be clear that, for such a complicated issue, there is no obvious solution.

As has been pointed out by The Meridian, in moments where there are increased concerns over spiking, there are also increased instances of victim-blaming narratives. When spiking and spiking-related incidents occur, there are often calls for victims and vulnerable groups generally to keep continuously exercising caution, and increased scrutiny of victims for placing themselves in so-called ‘dangerous’ situations. Too often, the onus of prevention has been placed on individuals who have violence done towards them, and not towards the individuals who perpetrate the violence, nor the institutions and governments who implicitly collaborate in creating a culture of entitlement, protection, and silence that protects perpetrators of violence, sexual or otherwise.

While recognizing that the problem of spiking and, more broadly, the problem of sexual harassment at nightclubs and bars is not likely to go away overnight, it can nevertheless be improved if certain policies and practices are effectively implemented. A good example of such policies that could be useful in mitigating spiking and spiking-related incidents are those suggested in the open letters mentioned previously. Yet the way that many nightclubs and bars have been implementing policies and practices, and that institutional authorities have failed to provide support for them at the level of policy, is indicative of a larger institutional weakness of the will, of lack of true commitment to social change.

This can be seen in the less than stellar performance of the ‘Ask for Angela’ campaign, even when it is supported by the Metropolitan police department, the City of London police, Safer Sounds, and the Greater London Authority. The Ask for Angela campaign is a partnership amidst these aforementioned groups and nightclubs and bars in London to provide a ‘code-word’ for people who find themselves in unsafe situations. Ideally, staff would have been trained in such a manner as to recognize the phrase: ‘Can I speak to Angela?’ and respond appropriately by offering supporting resources to a person in trouble at a nightclub or bar.

But this is precisely the problem: while some nightclubs and bars have been keen on printing brightly coloured posters to stick on women’s bathrooms, training for such a campaign is optional. What occurs, then, is that there is an unsupported initiative, wherein unprepared and overworked staff miss crucial moments where patrons are directly asking for help. Part of the reason why training is so lax is economical: employee turnover rates at nightclubs and bars are high, and proprietors do not have an incentive to invest in expensive training to appropriately support an Ask for Angela campaign. At the institutional level, not enough is done to provide funds for such an important initiative.

And even though this initiative is important, and has done a lot of important work, it is also an initiative that is fundamentally flawed. It depends on the victim directly asking for help in a situation in which they may be already endangered or compromised. In other words, it again puts the onus on the victim to ask for help. Instead, more emphasis should be put on training for staff to recognize the signs of distress and actively prevent situations where people may already be in danger, and therefore unable to ask for help. But, of course, such training is not economically viable for proprietors. At the institutional level, there also seems to be an unwillingness to address such problems head-on by making funds available to proprietors to provide training to staff.

As a society, we have become desensitized to what should be outrageous – the constant barrage of reports of harassment and abuse – that occur at bars and nightclubs nationally

Ultimately, the problem is one of complacency. As a society, we have become desensitized to what should be outrageous – the constant barrage of reports of harassment and abuse – that occur at bars and nightclubs nationally. This pattern of abuse has simply become normal, something to be expected on a night out. But in fact, this sort of universal attitude concerning the ‘normalcy’ of abuse is unacceptable and leads to a lack of accountability at the institutional and commercial levels.

Nightlife should not be synonymous with ‘danger.’ People have a fundamental right to have fun and be social with each other without fearing for their lives. Proprietors and policy-makers alike should work to ensure that the spaces that they are creating for the purposes of people exercising that right should, at the same time, be safe spaces. This involves making the appropriate commitments to ensure ongoing safety: appropriate time, funds, staff, and resources must be allocated to such an endeavour. Otherwise, proprietors and policy-makers are guilty of irresponsibly jeopardizing people’s lives for the sake of turning a quick buck, something which is morally deplorable.

Image credit: Long Truong