The dance floor has a gender: sexual harassment in Dutch clubs

Originally published in Dutch on DJBroadcast

‘Going out’ is a bit of paradox. The idea of ‘going out’ is that you leave your home, your private space, in search of an experience among both good friends and perfect strangers. But clubs are also precisely not ‘out in the open’, as we tend to think of public space, but conceptualized as literally and metaphorically underground, tucked just out of sight on society’s fringe. Too communal to be private, but not exactly meant for public consumption.

Historically, as the story goes, clubs functioned more explicitly as something between private and public for those who could be themselves in neither: think of The Warehouse in Chicago and RoXy in Amsterdam. And in some ways, even as club culture becomes increasingly commercialized, they still do. But for certain groups, the club can bear a striking resemblance to the so-called ‘real world.’ Just as on the street, in the club too I can expect to be sexually harassed.

Harassment has everything to do with the politics of public space. Catcalling on the street is less about genuinely trying to start an interaction with someone (proven by its ineffectiveness at doing so) and works more as a reminder that the public space belongs to men, as if the street belongs to them and you’re a surprising, uninvited guest. “Hey, baby” says: “what are you doing here?”

Similarly, when I go to a club, I have come to expect a certain invasion of my personal space, a certain entitlement to my company or pleasant conversation, to not to be left alone even when I send every possible sign that I’d like nothing more. Don’t be misled by my use of first-person: I’m not alone here. In this sense, clubs are extensions of the society beyond their walls, rather than separate from them. And as part of public space, the club has a gender: masculine, by default, but also by construction.

This is reflected in what women experience inside their walls: feeling someone’s hands on their bodies before they’ve even been face to face, being asked a string of intrusive questions despite giving one-word answers, having someone insist on buying you a drink only to be told you now owe them your company. Like cat-calling on the street, this kind of behavior subtly tells women that they’re not supposed to be in the club, and if they are, they’ve agreed—without actually agreeing—to giving up their personal space and boundaries. Emilia recently realized she had unconsciously developed a habit of standing with her back to the wall because she kept being touched by strangers from behind. These kinds of compromises are demanded by and large from women, who just like anyone else are just there to have a good time.

Sexual harassment happens all the time in clubs; it’s built into the experience. But there’s nothing natural or normal about it, and as such, it can be changed. It’s popular to position clubs as havens of progress, ‘open to everyone’, but this is an as-yet unachieved vision, whose realization requires redesigning club culture.

“I wanted to take off my body.”

Floor* was in Club K’nijn when a guy behind her tried to undo her backless halterneck top (which would have left her totally exposed). “Fortunately I noticed in time and had the courage to slap him in the face [...] He proceeded to try to tell me (angrily) that it was just a joke and he would never really do such a thing—yet he was literally doing it.” His friends pushed him against Floor and her friends, and he “accidentally” touched all of their breasts. When they tried to leave and find another place to dance—which they didn’t want to and shouldn’t have to— “he grabbed the flesh on my arm very hard and literally tried to pull me back into his group.” Floor had to stay at the party because it was a work-related event, and her manager said if it happened again her harasser would be handed over security. But it had already happened once – why would she have to experience it twice before it would be taken seriously?

Others, even less fortunate, are outright blamed for the harassment or assault. In Melkweg, Ayla was bending down to tie her shoe laces when “someone touched my butt and a bystander who saw it commented, ‘you were asking for it.’” This wasn’t the first time this series of events had taken place – a female friend at Park Am See also said “it was her own fault for talking to a group of men” after Ayla was touched on the butt by a man after asking his group of friends about their costumes.

At Breakfast Club party on New Years Day, Amanda* experienced near-constant harassment. First, a man she hadn’t interacted with at all grabbed her by the hip and turned her around to get a better look at her. “I told him to fuck off.” Later, as she was leaning over the bar to order a drink, the same man grabs her from behind, saying he needed a hug. “When I turned around, he recognizes me and says ‘Oh, its you.’ I take him aside and try to explain to him why this bothers me, but it doesn’t seem to land.” Four more men would go on to give unsolicited commentary about Emma’s body. “Wherever I would dance, sit or stand, it would be seen as an invitation to comment on my body. I felt like I wanted to take off my body and just dance without being objectified. By being so objectified, I felt like I lost my possibility to just be.”

This is only the tip of the iceberg; most women who go out frequently can tell you about a time they experienced unwanted, persistent attention or inappropriate touching. This can ruin a night – I remember being with a friend who, after being harassed by a man in De School, spent the rest of the night looking over her shoulder, worrying that he was nearby – and lead women to go home earlier than they want to.

So if you didn’t know it was a problem—now you know.

“Meisjes plagen, kusjes vragen.”

But, perhaps you’re wondering, if it’s such a problem, why didn’t I know about it? Or perhaps you’re wondering just the opposite: how could anyone not know this is a problem? That such lack of mutual understanding could exist¬—that two people in one interaction could have polar opposite experiences of it—suggests that gendered differences may play a part in these diverging realities. Sexual harassment in clubs is often attributed to alcohol and drugs, but even when we’re not sober, our impulses come from somewhere, and reflect a lack of inhibition rather than a totally out-of-character action.

For example Amanda notes that women are taught from a young age to de-escalate. “Women are taught men are dangerous … However, this practical advice to protect yourself by avoiding conflict teaches women and society it is our responsibility to stay safe and our fault when we're not.” As Bonji’s experience illustrates, this can lead to ‘blaming the victim,’ which is when the responsibility is shifted from the person who is harassing someone (who ‘can’t help it’ because they’re drunk or high) to the person experiencing harassment. Outside of clubs, too, women are often blamed for the harassment, assault and abuse they experience and told that they are “asking for it” by dressing a particular way, being drunk, or going out to begin with. This attitude takes harassment in clubs for granted instead of seeing it as a problem to be addressed, and leads to underreporting of sexual harassment in anticipation of not being taken seriously. It also may mean in the moment itself when a woman is being harassed, she might not feel safe or empowered to confront her harasser, and see no way out of an uncomfortable situation.

But the way men learn to ‘flirt’ with women creates the situation in the first place: on a Resident Advisor thread about a MixMag article about sexual harassment in clubs, user Risingon comments that “I remember, way before coming out and so, that my friends "taught" me that I should "accidentally" touch girls when going to the toilets or for some drinks. And if I didn't they called me gay.” Sometimes when I talk about harassment I’ve experienced, I’m told that ‘boys will be boys.’ I’ve heard this all my life, to excuse all kinds of behavior: when a boy would pull my hair in elementary school, I was told it was because he liked me. The messages we receive when we’re young–like “meisjes plagen, kusjes vragen”–about how to show interest in others seem to stick.

Even now, as adults, men don’t seem to read the signs that women aren’t interested (short answers, no eye contact, turning away, etc.) or have learned that persistence is part of flirting. They believe unresponsive women are ‘playing hard to get’ and want or even need to be convinced to engage. Of course, flirting is a game, and to some extent, a power play. And flirting, for people of all genders, is a big part of going out. But nobody’s saying they’re the same thing; in fact, the difference between flirting and harassing is quite a clear one. Flirting is an interaction, in which both parties participate – if it’s one-sided, something’s not right.

This is not to say that women are the only people who experience sexual harassment in clubs or elsewhere – men do too, though less often. There are a whole other set of reasons why a man experiencing harassment might not report – men are supposed to be tough, to just take it, to not admit vulnerability by being upset by it. And while sometimes women are the ones harassing, by and large perpetrators of sexual violence are men, even when men are the victims (find some stats). So even when men experience sexual harassment, it usually occurs at the hands of other men—men who learned to become men by taking instead of asking, by seeing their desires as entitlements, by showing their strength by crossing boundaries.

So fixing the problem of sexual harassment begins with recognizing that certain behaviors, which we have come to consider ‘normal’, are part of the problem. (Not sure and want to check? Try this quiz, ‘Are you being a dancefloor dickhead?’ in the zine compiled by London-based collective Siren).

Creating accountability

Luckily there are plenty of people ready with the tools not just for self-reflection but also for what comes afterwards: finding solutions and taking action. Catherine Hilgers, who DJs as Ursula Xanadu, created the Rave Ethics zine exactly in the hope of raising awareness of these issues in club culture and changing it for the better. Hilgers works from and towards a vision of what club culture as she’s experienced it sometimes and believes it should always be. As she told Dazed:  

“[Rave Ethics] was inspired by the good raves: comfortable, free to dance, looking at the smiling faces of my friends with their eyes closed around me, euphoria; and it was made urgent by the bad raves: disrespectful behaviour on the dancefloor, groping, bad drugs with unknowledgeable and messy drug-takers – or worse, drunks – commercialism, boring ‘stacked lineups’, out of touch white male DJs, promoters, and club owners.”

In London, Hollaback London – a branch of the international Hollaback! organization fighting street harassment – launched the Good Night Out campaign, which resulted in several London clubs signing a pledge to take on a zero tolerance approach to sexual harassment, give staff extra training for spotting and handling sexual harassment, and put up posts that say “"If something or someone makes you feel uncomfortable, no matter how minor it seems, you can report it to any member of our staff and they will work with you to make sure that it doesn't ruin your night." This pledge was also partially the result of research by the National Union of Students (NUS) about sexual harassment in clubs, which the research linked back to ‘lad culture.’

Following a Rutgers survey, which found that four out of ten young women in the Netherlands were grabbed or kissed without permission while going out, six political parties¬—50Plus, D66, GreenLinks, Labor Party, Animal Party and SP—recently signed an agreement to address sexual harassment. And Amsterdam recently made street harassment—based not only on gender but also sexuality or religion—punishable by a fine. But there generally seems to be less attention for and initiatives about sexual harassment in clubs in the Netherlands than in Canada, the US, the UK and Germany – why? And what are the Dutch clubs doing?

Policy in Dutch clubs

I took a look at the websites of the main clubs in the Netherlands to see what, if anything, was said about the subject. Only De School, Marktkantine, and OT301 specify that sexual harassment is not tolerated. In general houserules are vague, and so are open to interpretation. Shelter, Radion, OT301, Paradiso, Melkweg en Bitterzoet state in their house rules that they don’t tolerate harassment, aggression or violence. while Radion elaborates that any behavior experienced as offensive or threatening will result first in a warning and then getting kicked out. The website of Air claims that “AIR welcomes diverse crowds: younger and older and gay and straight, keeping its principles of tolerance and openness high up the agenda” but doesn’t specify how exactly they do so. Doornroosje’s houserules don’t mention behavior, but rather rules concerning alcohol and weapons. Marktkantine, Claire, Chicago Social Club, Disco Dolly, Oost Groningen, and Paradigm have no house rules on their websites. I contacted all of these clubs about their policy, but didn’t always get an answer – some clubs even explicitly refused to participate.

More often than not, then, house rules are a kind of empty gesture; when they exist at all (and in even less places are house rules visible in the club itself) they often show as much if not more concern for protecting the organization legally and financially than protecting its visitors. As Luc Mastenbroek, programmer of De School, put it: “I think the problem with rules is that you always have a set of rules and they sound sort of like a sing-a-long, almost. When you see house rules you know how the story’s gonna end: no guns, no drugs, no racism, no sexism...” He questioned how much of an impact sexual harassment had as a part of that, functioning in that rhyme.”

But house rules are an obvious opportunity to set the mood for a space, and make comfort and safety a priority that everyone feels accountable to. Especially considering the reasons for underreporting (including the fleeting nature of many harassments), prevention rather than reporting and consequences should take the focus. Because even once reported, the harassment still happened, and can’t be undone or forgotten.

At Double Double Land in Toronto, for example, a sign outside that explicitly states, "No racism. No sexism. No homophobia. No transphobia. No violence. No sexual violence. No emotional violence. No ableism. Yes respect. Yes you." Joe McCurley, who runs the club, told THUMP he believes the policy has helped reduce harassment and assault by discouraging potential perpetrators. But a sign itself will never be 100% effective, and house rules still may need to be put into practice. So the crucial next step is that staff are aware that safety is a priority and that they are adequately prepared to look out for, intervene in and respond to harassment.  

At a Gender Bending Queer Party at the Performance Bar in Rotterdam, not only were there ‘safe space’ rules posted right next to the booth where we bought tickets, but upon walking further into the space, we were greeted by an organizer who explained the rules again, explained the set-up of the party, and welcomed us to the space. That’s the thing: ‘rules’ don’t have to feel authoritarian, but can—especially to certain groups of people—feel like an invitation into a space. This welcome made me feel like the people organizing the party were committed to me having a good time—free from harassment—in a way that I rarely experience.

Cindy Li, cofounder of Toronto-based event collective It’s Not U It’s Me, observed that "a lot of guards seem more concerned about people smoking on the dancefloor or bringing alcohol into the club, but they don't take women seriously [when they report instances of violence]. It goes back to the fact that these clubs are run by men and only men." At It’s Not U It’s Me events, volunteers with green bandanas keep their eyes open for any harassment and keep in touch via a group chat. By also warning the friends of people who are acting out, they encourage people to take responsibility for each other.

But club can also train staff like security and runners who are already moving through the party to look out for people who seem uncomfortable as they watch for lit cigarettes or empty bottles. This is the case at De School, Mastenbroek told me: “Everyone’s instructed, not only the security staff but also the runners and the bar staff. They’re the eyes on the dancefloor.” Training staff to multitask this way—and to prioritize safety—wouldn’t be so much extra effort, but it could make a world of difference to visitors to know that someone’s looking out for them and that the club they’ve chosen to visit cares about their right to set boundaries—even on the dancefloor, and especially in the dark. As Mastenbroek admitted, lack of reports about sexual harassment “doesn’t mean you’re necessarily doing a good job,” but can mean that staff aren’t visible enough, that visitors aren’t aware they can report harassment to staff in the first place. “Obviously we can still improve here.”

Although clubs have a responsibility towards the people they invite into their space, problems such as this are rarely fixed with a top-down solution alone, and even if staff are trained to keep an eye out they won’t see everything. It’s also up to us: if you see someone, friend or stranger, looking a bit cornered, check in with them. If you’re with a friend too drunk or high to respect other people’s space, take them aside. It’s not just that clubs are accountable to us. We are accountable to one another. As Emilia said to me, describing De School’s notoriously dark basement, “for a space like that to function there needs to be an ocean of trust.”

Kondo, a temporary cultural space in Amsterdam East, shows intentionality in creating a space, while it may never completely eradicate aggressive behavior, does have positive effects. By requiring membership, there’s immediately accountability instead of anonymity. After signing up, you’re immediately informed, among other practicalities, that there is zero tolerance for racism, sexism, homophobia or transphobia, and a sign at the door reminds you on your way in. Kondo’s founders, Ramon de Lima and Lars van Broekhuysen, suspect that programming, too, plays a role in the kind of crowd that turns up:

“We denken dat een goede afspiegeling van man/vrouw binnen het personeel, maar zeker ook in het programma, bijdraagt aan een vrouwvriendelijke sfeer. Kondo is daarnaast een plek waar de LGBTIQ gemeenschap aardig represent is. Veel van onze bezoekers zijn queer — met een bond gezelschap op de dansvloer krijgt intimidatie bijna geen plek. Bezoekers met minder zuivere bedoelingen worden afgeschrikt of verliezen hun interesse.”

“We think that a good balance of men and women in the staff, but definitely also in the programming, contributes to a female-friendly environment. Kondo is also a place where the LGBTQI community are well-represented. A lot of our visitors are queer – and with this kind of bond on the dancefloor, there’s almost no space for harassment. Visitors with bad intentions are deterred or lose interest.” [my translation]

Let me lose myself

Sexual harassment and the skewed gender proportions in the clubs are a bit of a chicken-egg situation. Because clubs are masculine spaces, sexual harassment is normalized and not taken seriously. And perhaps because women can almost expect sexual harassment to happen if they go out enough, there are less women in clubs. And because there are less women in clubs... you get the point.

The fact that we do have to make a conscious and collective effort to change something doesn’t mean that the problem is artificial or the desire for a solution is politically correct. If we consider sexual harassment a barrier to equal opportunity for people to enjoy themselves in the clubs, a lot of things start to seem less ‘natural.’ Perhaps the reason why there’s so much less conversation here in the Netherlands than other countries is because we take our ‘progressiveness’ for granted, allowing all kinds of inequalities to continue existing.

Saying ‘well, just don’t go out if you don’t like it’ doesn’t cut it: because, as many of us have experienced, the experiences we can have in clubs, the relationships we can form to each other and to music, are why we go to clubs: we can’t find this anywhere else. In their safer space policy, It’s Not U It’s Me writes that “Live music is best enjoyed when the listeners can lose themselves in it. Harassment, discrimination, and abuse are all things that undermine these moments of joyful transcendence.”

In her autobiography, Emma Goldman, a famous first-wave feminist and anarchist activist, describes being scolded for dancing at an anarchist gathering (she’s now attributed with saying, "if I can't dance, I don't want to be part of your revolution”). Now we have the opposite: clubs in which any kind of activism is seen as inappropriate, unnecessary (since here in the Netherlands, we’re ‘past’ all that). But as long as some people are hindered in reaching that joyful transcendence, we’re going to need a revolution.


*Names changed to protect privacy