Gay bars as safe spaces: Consent and bodily autonomy

Why enforcing anti-harassment policies in what should be safe spaces for the queer community is essential.

Five people queuing at a darkly lit gay bars

Gay bars occupy a central place in modern queer life: as refuges from a straight world, meeting points with those who are like us, and spaces devoted to dancing to the best (and worst) ‘90s pop tunes available. With few other dedicated queer community centres or spaces available in Ireland, we see gay bars stepping up to take on more roles: acting as places for activism gatherings and awareness campaigns; pop-up sexual health clinics; and other community outreach programmes.

As a result, for many people gay bars are a sanctuary where it is possible to connect with facets of the queer community that aren’t always hugely visible, as well as a place for a drink and a dance. But queer survivors of sexual assault can feel alienated from gay bars, because – like any place where inhibitions are lowered and hormones run high – there is a chance that they might encounter a wandering hand, an unwanted ass slap, or an unwelcome crotch grab.

Sexual assault at a fundamental level is a breaking of one person’s boundaries by another, without consent and in an attempt to display power and dominance. We all set boundaries, either implicitly or explicitly, about what we are comfortable with when being approached by strangers, where a conversation might go, and of course around physical contact. Survivors of sexual assault can place greater importance on their boundaries as those have been broken at least once before, and as a result safety can be a higher consideration when choosing how to act and what they feel comfortable doing.

The concern that unwanted touching might occur is far from being an exclusively queer problem: you won’t need to go far to find stories among your heterosexual friend group about similar encounters in other bars and clubs. There’s a certain level of toleration, perhaps even expectation, that to go out you will need to endure that behaviour – that it’s part of the entry fee to night life. Clearly that is wrong: legislation exists that aims to prevent these actions, and our societal understanding of consent and bodily autonomy is continuing to grow and evolve.

So why should we be any more invested in tackling this issue than any other group or community? Because queer people’s relationships with our bars are typically more meaningful than our heterosexual counterparts’ with theirs. With a smaller selection of places to go to fully be ourselves, our tolerance for those behaviours is arguably higher than that of straight people: if being with our community is valuable to us we are likely to put up with more unsavoury behaviour than normal. We should challenge this mentality and ensure that as many as possible are able to develop a relationship with their local queer venues.

Many of us have experienced the value of our gay bars: as social hubs for our community, they are frequently one of the first places newly out queer people go to connect with others around them. Being able to act and express ourselves as and how we want to is a powerful and life-changing experience that gay bars offer us. To deprive someone of that experience based on violence they’ve encountered is not only wrong, it undermines the idea of community and solidarity. With gay bars carrying so much of our community’s activities, access to them is more important than ever to connect with different streams of activity and people.

As well as the safety found in the space, the safety found in the people inside is also vital. When one queer person is assaulted by another, the initial sense of safety found within the community can be broken: where once we felt comforted by being around people like us, now we see them as potential threats. Feeling distanced from the community can feel similar to being closeted again, and the fear that has to be overcome to become comfortable in those spaces shouldn’t be underestimated. Many of us can empathise with being able to see our community and yet not being connected — particularly from the experience of being closeted — and understand how tough that can be. Creating that safety and removing those anxieties and barriers is something that we can all benefit from, and ensures that those who need reassurance the most in our community can receive it.

How do we do that? One answer is education. We know that it works: the success of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre‘s Ask Consent campaign over the last four years, working with the USI, shows that large scale educational campaigns are possible. We also know that our community is good at mobilising to educate and spread awareness about issues that affect us, in particular around sexual health and testing. As an extension of that conversation, we are primed to be able to continue educating the community around issues of consent and assault.

But primarily, it comes down to us. Gay bars can (and should) have anti-harassment policies, and enforce them as best they can, but stopping this behaviour and making our spaces safe for all requires each of us to make an effort. Reading body language carefully, asking for consent, and looking out for others are commitments that we can all make when entering community spaces. Doing this will help all of us: queer survivors of sexual assault of course, but also those who haven’t experienced sexual violence from being exposed to it or inadvertently committing it.

If you are affected by this story or would like support at this time, please contact any of the following: 

LGBT Helpline 1890 929 539
Samaritans 116 123
Dublin Rape Crisis Centre 1800 77 8888 
Pieta House 1800 247 247

© 2019 GCN (Gay Community News). All rights reserved.

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