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Gay Clubs Need to Address Their Groping Problem

Of the 20 gay bars and clubs VICE contacted, only one replied to outline its policy around groping and unwanted touching.

by Nick Levine
16 August 2019, 8:45am

Photo: Cavan / Alamy Stock Photo

Tyler was 22 when he visited Soho, central London's gay heartland, for the first time.

"I had no idea where I was going, so I walked into a bar and went upstairs to have a look around," he says. "On my way back down the stairs the guy behind me put his hands down my jeans and tried to finger me. I was completely shocked, and tripped on the next step down. I turned around and the guy had put his finger in his mouth. Then he said, 'Wanna try it again now?' and I just ran out."

Sadly, Tyler's experience is far from a one-off. Sixty-two percent of guys who responded to a 2017 survey by gay men's health charity GMFA said they'd been touched or groped in a bar or club without their express permission, while 34 percent said that it had bothered them.

"I think it's clearly a problem in the gay community," says Ian Howley, Chief Executive of LGBT Hero, GMFA's parent organisation. "Some of the men who said it didn't bother them said their reasoning behind [that] was due to being in a gay venue. Groping or being touched without consent in any situation is unacceptable. Just because it may happen at a gay venue does not give gay men a licence to do it. It's illegal and you can be prosecuted for it."

VICE contacted more than 20 LGBTQ venues across the UK to ask for their policy when someone complains about persistent unwanted attention from a fellow patron. Just one venue responded with an answer. "It's not really a problem here," said Stevie Tee, manager of east London gay bar the White Swan. "We've had a few times when it's happened and we've been made aware of it. We straight away deal with the problem and either ask the person to leave the venue or give a very strong warning."

The lack of responses from other venues is disappointing, but not entirely surprising: there's potentially a worry that if they were to display a code of conduct they might be accused of "over-policing".

"The first problem with venues displaying a code of conduct is that they would have to admit this goes on in their venues and that this is an issue they haven't addressed. It's unlikely to happen," says Ian Howley. "However, I get the over-policing comment, as it all depends on what type of venue we're talking about; for instance, there are gay venues that have a sex licence and allow sex on premises. It's very difficult to police this policy in these types of venues, and this is where we need to better educate our community on what is consent and what is not."

Sometimes the grim and demeaning behaviour is a lot more creative than a supposedly playful "cheeky feel". Dan was 18 when he had an experience in a Soho gay bar that still makes him feel "really grossed out" several years later.

"A guy who must have been in his late-twenties pulled my T-shirt straight over my head and said I couldn't have it back unless I kissed his friend," he says. "At the time I was really embarrassed about what happened, but I remember thinking, 'Maybe it's just the kind of thing that happens in gay clubs?'"

Having shared his distressing experience with friends, Dan says he thinks it's "an example of how some younger gay guys think things are 'just normal' when they happen on a night out, and don't realise it's actually really wrong until they're older".

His theory makes sense: any queer person's first few visits to an LGBTQ venue can be nerve-wracking, exhilarating and kind of overwhelming – it takes a while to work out the unwritten etiquette. But sadly, it's not only younger gay guys who might experience unwanted physical contact on nights out.

Lisa, 22, says that she and her girlfriend experienced "three separate incidents" during a night out in Liverpool's gay quarter over the last May bank holiday weekend.

"The first was in a bar," she recalls. "My girlfriend had gone to the toilet and I was sat on a bar stool. A man came up behind me, lifted his shirt up and rubbed his bare body on my back. Then we moved on to the next place, started dancing, and two men came over and started pushing us closer together by grabbing our bums and asking us to kiss for them. So, again, we moved on to a different club. But in there, a man came over to us and asked us if we were 'sisters that fuck like on Pornhub', and grabbed my girlfriend's bum."

Lisa says she has no idea whether the people who groped her and her girlfriend were members of the LGBTQ community. "Maybe they were just [straight guys] in those clubs to pull shit like this," she says. "But it sucked either way. It felt like we couldn't be an openly gay couple in a place made for us to be openly gay."

Still, Lisa acknowledges that the venue staff were helpful when they were made aware of what had happened. "In the first venue, the bouncer saw the guy and came and moved him away from me," she says. "The second venue we just left, as they were really intimidating, and the third I actually told [the guys] to fuck off because I was that annoyed by this point. I told the barman [what had happened] because the place was pretty dead, and he said he'd alert the security."

Dylan B Jones, editor of weekly LGBTQ magazine QX, says that "groping is certainly a huge issue on the gay scene, and one that needs to addressed". But he also acknowledges that, for some people, it's not a clear-cut issue.

"I'm out and about on London's gay scene a lot – I'd say I get touched without permission at least once every couple of weeks in gay venues. It can be anything from a brush on the bum or crotch, to more invasive stuff; a few times people have actually put their hands down my pants and put their fingers in me without any sort of encouragement or consent," he says.

"Most of the time I don't particularly mind," he continues, "but I know that’s very unusual, and I guess it all depends on how you view sex and other people's interactions with your body. Occasionally I've felt in physical danger, and those incidents had an impact on me for a good while afterwards. Of course I understand why many people find it traumatising – I've just got used to it happening a lot, I guess, and it's easier to laugh it off than get angry."

Drag queen Stella Meltdown also says she generally isn't bothered when she's groped in a gay bar. "I can see how it must annoy some people, but personally I don't mind a friendly slap or grope if you're hot," she says. "No one bothers when I'm out as a guy, so it's a welcome novelty when I'm tarted up [in drag]. If they're a bit full-on I'll bat them off, but I don't dress like a slut to go and stand in a corner worrying about it."

On the other hand, Toby, 21, who works as a busboy at a gay club in Glasgow, says unwanted touching from different kinds of customers has become an occupational hazard.

"I get touched or felt up at least once every night I'm working, mostly by men in their thirties, but also by a lot of straight women," he says. "It can be anything from a touch of my leg or back to a full-blown grab of my butt or groin. I think the straight women do it because they think it's funny and that we won't mind. The men who do it, I think they probably know it's wrong but do it anyway because it turns them on, or whatever. And of course everyone's drunk, and that blurs the lines a bit for them."

Has Toby told his manager? "Nah, I feel like there's nothing anybody could really do – it happens to all the busboys. I probably just ignore it most of the time 'cause I've got a job to do. Sometimes I might try and shoot them the dirtiest look I can muster to try and coax some shame out of them."

Dylan B Jones says the best way for us to address this issue is by talking about it more. That way, anyone who enters a gay bar or club will have a clear idea of what is and isn't acceptable inside. Earlier this year, QX kick-started that conversation by publishing an opinion piece called "The gay scene has a groping problem".

In the meantime, he offers some advice for anyone who experiences unwanted physical contact in a gay bar or club: "Try to draw what's happening to the attention of a friend, or even just someone near you, as quickly as possible. People who touch without permission are almost always cowards, and they won't do it if they think someone else can see them."

Ian Howley of LGBT Hero says it's time for venues to address this problem properly. "It starts with us having a conversation of what is and is not acceptable in different situations," he says. "But I do call on every LGBTQ venue to make it clear what their policy is, how it's enforced and what actions people should take should they be sexually assaulted in their venues."

@mrnicklevine