‘Cock-kettling’ and vulva grabs: sexual harassment in clubs

CW: Sexual harassment, sexual assault, rape and gendered violence

A YouGov poll made headlines last week after finding that 63% of women and 26% of men said they had experienced sexual harassment on a night out. 79% of woman said they expect some form of harassment on a night out, and a total of 72% men and women have witnessed it.

When I speak to women and non-binary people about clubbing, sexual harassment is the number one reason cited for why they don’t bother with it. We’re currently undergoing a fourth wave of feminism – has this allowed us to reject the idea of spending our hard earned cash in sexually aggressive spaces? And with annual admissions for nightclubs dropping by nearly a quarter over the past five years – should venues be worried?

My first ever experience of clubbing, like many others, could not have been more crap. I was 16 and visiting my cousins in Newquay. We went into town in our best outfits, hair so aggressively GHD’d that the broken off section at the front stuck 90 degrees into the air, and tried to find someone who’d serve us alcohol. A man and woman in their early 20s approached us, sympathised with us that we’d “forgotten our IDs” and promised that they could take us to the “best club in Cornwall” if we got into their unmarked white van. We told them that this was a ridiculous and dangerous suggestion, fled the scene and reported them to the local police.

Yeah.

A short while later, sipping on the generic brand alcopops they’d offered us, we rolled up to a nightclub called Tall Trees.

The worst club on Earth.

On stage, three hired women were taking part in a wet t-shirt competition. Three very drunk, red-faced ‘lads’ were being straddled by the women, and the crowd hungrily shouted requests for the women to take their clothes off. Drawn by the heady scent of Impulse, a herd of male faces swivelled to face us.

We were the only female guests in the club.

I described what followed to a friend*, and she said, “Oh my God – it was a cock-kettle.” This could not be a more perfect description, and as cock-kettling is something that has happened to me across Europe many, many times, I think we need to spread this phrase so that women everywhere have the language they need to describe the experience.

Cock-kettling [verb]: when a group of men surround one or a few women in a sexually aggressive manner, usually on a dancefloor. Similar to the police’s use of kettling – an act designed to keep a group of protesters in one place until they can be separated from a larger crowd, or until the pressure of being kept in a tight space for a long time leads them to ‘boil’ and act in a manner which can lead to arrest – cock-kettling aims to keep women isolated and vulnerable to sexual advances. In the case of leading to ‘boil’, it can result in a woman giving in and dancing with them.

At Tall Trees, we were cock-kettled all night long. The cock-kettling meant we were separated and therefore vulnerable to groping – in addition to having our bums grabbed, we also had our vulvas grabbed as we ran across the room to the loo or to buy a drink. As it was our first time in a club, we just assumed this was normal and that clubbing was a bit like Hungry Hungry Hippos, except that the hippos were men’s hands and the balls were our genitals.

“I once experienced a group of guys who had worked out a system for circling groups of women and using elaborate hand signals to decide how to split up the group and who would go for which girl. It was like hunting. They must have literally sat down and worked out the signals.” – Evelyn Clegg

I wish I could say that was a freak example of genital grabbing in clubs, but when I shared this story recently on Facebook, I heard many similar examples.

“When I worked in a bar in town we had an unofficial policy that female staff weren’t allowed to glass collect in our busiest hours. Mostly because it was so packed, we all had stories about being hemmed in by people and being grabbed and touched and finding it hard to get away because we were so busy. There was no way to tell who it was and if you got angry about you get a bunch of lads laughing at you thinking it was all a big joke. I had to comfort a crying shot girl because someone had actually put their finger inside her.” – Anonymous

 

“Foam parties in Fez, Cambridge, were notorious for men’s hands going up skirts and dresses. I know a lot of friends who have had similar experiences.” – Kim Brown

 

“Zoo Bar in Leicester Square (not my choice lol) about 2 years ago – a man grabbed my vulva in his hand as we walked through a crowd but it was so packed he got away before I could lay into him. Fucking. Disgusting.” – Kasia Ladds

Lots of women wrote about having their bums and boobs groped: usually, the perpetrators found their angry reactions funny and the victims were told by friends to ‘let it go’. Even when cases were more serious, it was rare to read that the harassers faced any consequences. I get it – at the ripe old age of 28, I’ve only just started reporting cases of harassment to the bouncer when I’m out as I used to think there was no point.

Case in point: at 20, I was invited to a club (Ballare in Cambridge – let’s name these fucking venues where it’s commonplace) where a woman had been recently dragged out by her hair and punched in the face after rejecting a man’s advances. I was told my concerns were silly and it was a one-off thing, so I went along with a couple of friends. While dancing, some men came up behind us and started to attempt a cock-kettle, grabbing our hips and grinding on us. When we said we didn’t want to dance with them (a meek “We’ve got boyfriends, sorry”), the men began kicking the backs of our legs and trying to subtly elbow and punch us. What we did we do? Spent an hour trying to ‘have fun and ignore them’, then left. This is a common theme to the harassment in clubs and something I’ve gotten used to – when rejection occurs, a lot of men turn nasty. And women are either too scared to kick up a fuss or assume nobody will care.

“We were waiting for a cab home. I was leaning against a pillar and a guy came over and started hitting on me, touching my lip piercing and saying he thought it was hot. This already felt too intimate and close and horribly uncomfortable, so every time he ‘complimented’ me I said thank you and turned my face away, because he had blocked me off with an arm on either side of me. He asked if he could kiss me and I said no.

 

He asked why and I said I have a boyfriend. He asked if my boyfriend was there and I said no so he said ‘it doesn’t matter then, does it?’ and leant in to kiss me. I couldn’t move away but turned my face away so he started kissing my neck (urgh still makes me shudder). I put my hand on his chest and pushed him away. He said something cheesy and awful like ‘don’t be like that baby’ and started kissing my neck again. I pushed him away again and a woman I was with stepped in and said ‘didn’t you hear her? She’s got a fucking boyfriend!’ She placed her hand on the side of his face and pushed him away and it was a push rather than a slap. So he punched her in the face.

 

We convinced a cab to take us and when I was in there I realised while he had me up against the pillar, he had stolen my purse out of my handbag. I was fucking livid. I decided in the morning I was going to the police about the purse but not really about the rest of it. When I told them the whole story they said it was unwanted sexual contact which is bad enough but when they decided that was a distraction tactic for the theft it was considered burglary by sexual harassment. They wanted to speak to the woman who got hit but she wouldn’t go because she pushed him first. The group of women I was with made me feel silly for going to the police because ‘that kinda thing happens to everyone all the time, why are you making such a big deal out of it?’” – Sophie May

 

“A guy came up to me and we danced for a while. Then he pushed me against a wall and started grinding on me, which I wasn’t comfortable with, so I tried to get away, but as he was huge it took me several minutes of pushing and saying “stop it”. He later found me in the taxi queue and harassed me for half an hour because he couldn’t believe I wasn’t going to let him come home with me. “ – Evelyn Clegg

 

“I guess I should start by sharing experiences of working AT a club. I’ve had men harass me the whole night, grab me over the bar, shout at me and all sorts. I had a guy swing at me when I told him I wasn’t interested, only to have people tell me I should have said I had a boyfriend even though I didn’t. I also had one lovely gentleman follow me to my car!” – Tara Costello

 

‘So my friend and went out in Dublin when we were 16-17, and ended up in a nearly empty club. Bare in mind we were both very young looking – I don’t know why we were let in without ID. So we’re dancing about being silly and suddenly these two huge guys came up and literally grabbed us, picking my friend (who is 5 ft tall and like 40 kg) up off the floor and putting their hands all over us. When we shouted and tried to get out of their grip, they both spat on us. We ran to the shelter of the ladies to wash it off and hid til they were gone. So yeah. Definitely not the worst that can happen in a club, but still the only time I’ve been spat on.’ – Lily Delimata

Serious incidents aren’t as rare as you’d think. This June, statistics released to BuzzFeed News under freedom of information (FOI) laws showed that an average of 23 rapes or sexual assaults are reported each week at licensed premises across England and Wales. The force with the most reported attacks was London’s Metropolitan police, with 359 incidents during the 2016/17 financial year. This isn’t a case of ‘hysterical feminists’ – this is an epidemic.

So what can we do?

When I spoke to people about the issue, many mentioned that they now only go to LGBTQ+ clubs as they find them a safer alternative. However, when men are routinely socialised into thinking they have the right to touch women’s bodies, sexuality doesn’t always come into it. TV shows such as ‘How to Look Good Naked’, where Gok Wan would regularly grab a handful of some poor woman’s baps and try to tuck them into her neck, didn’t help the idea that a ‘gay best friend’ could do what he liked with his female companion’s bodies and it was all good fun.

“In Oxford (where I’m at uni) one of the main things I’ve noticed is the number of gay men who will touch you inappropriately or pick you up in a club, only to go “it’s okay, I’m gay!” when you try to confront them. Race was also an issue for me when I went to Prague this summer and was queuing for a club. Someone a bit further behind me in line shouted to the bouncer “don’t let the muslim one in, she won’t be up for anything” (as if brown immediately = muslim…)” – Neha Shah

 

“I have a story and it’s quite common yet, I feel, goes unnoticed. Gay men feeling they have the right to grab boobs, bums etc. I remember my first time in a gay club when I was at University. I’d met up with a few gay girls who wanted to show me what I was missing out on with my straight friends. And it was fine at first. Had a few drinks and a dance. But there was this gay guy. He was friends with the girls. And he wouldn’t let up grabbing my chest, slapping and grabbing my butt, even trying to kiss me. And I kept politely pushing him off but he was constant. “It’s fine, I’m gay” was uttered at one point.

But it’s not fine. At all. And I see it a lot. Gay men who feel that their sexuality allows them extra access. And I know a lot of women, gay and straight, who love it. But I don’t. It’s put me off gay clubs unless I am in a large group of my friends who I trust and can hide amongst.” – Alex

While the problem is obviously more significant for women, men are affected too – when I put out the call asking for people’s experiences, I had a surprising number of men give their own negative experiences. In the same way that violence is usually perpetrated by men – though victims are both male and female – the complaints were all about men sexually harassing other men, in both ‘straight’ and LGBTQ+ spaces.

“Unwanted, unasked for sexual confrontation isn’t exactly uncommon on the dancefloor in a lot of gay clubs, in my experience.

One club in particular, which I won’t name as it’s a *real* small scene in Glasgow, has a group of regulars (older men, mind you, middle aged) who will roam the dancefloor groping butts and crotches almost as a way of introduction, won’t listen to demands to stop, and will insult you if you try to tell them it’s unwanted – usually along the lines of calling you a prude and stuck up, as if being there you’re expected to just be handing it out to everyone instead of, I don’t know, enjoying the music or getting drunk and being somewhere that isn’t so heteronormative for once.

I can’t even comprehend how this feels on a regular, commonplace basis for women. I would probably have punched a fair share of pricks by now if this was something I had to endure every time I went out. It boggles my mind and makes me pretty angry.

It’s strange, the general attitude towards it in the gay scene is that it’s harmless fun, but it does trigger weird dips in self-confidence; thoughts about how you’re meant to be using your own body, if you should be taking more risks with it, on other people’s terms, because that’s what’s expected. Which of course has knock-on effects when it comes to bigger issues of consent.” – Ryan Vance

 

“I had a man grope me and try to kiss me, it was in a straight club and I didn’t give any signals. It was when I was in the police and everyone I was with was a police officer. I was dancing with friends, turned round and the guy was there. He grabbed my crotch and then tried to kiss me. I pushed him away. Then my friends took him outside and spoke to him. I’m glad it was me it happened to as I was a police officer at the time and not someone that it would affect badly. The guy wasn’t hurt by any of us, but was given a swift talking to.” – Ronnie Smith

So hiding in gay clubs isn’t necessarily the answer (and having people who aren’t LGBTQ+ entering those spaces can be problematic in its own right). What next?

Firstly, the shift in attitudes towards sexual harassment means that there are more and more women-led nights being held that prioritise safety. This fantastic blog post, for example, lists 10 women-led nights in London alone, and the Good Night Campaign has put together a list of venues across the country that have received their anti-harassment training. Visit good venues and nights and make your money count – if spaces realise they can increase their takings by creating a safe environment, more will follow suit.

If there isn’t anything available near you, it’s time to take matters into your own hands. Ask your favourite venues to join the Good Night Out Campaign or to allow you to put up your own anti-harassment posters. Ask them what their anti-harassment policies are and emphasise the need for bouncers to be trained in this area. If you go to a club and experience harassment, make sure it gets reported. This blog post goes into more detail about what to do if you’re sexually harassed in a club, but the basic guidelines are:

  1. Report it to a bouncer
  2. If you don’t get an adequate response, report it to the club management
  3. If you’re still unhappy, call the non-emergency police on 111 – remember, sexual assault (even just a bum grab) is illegal. Police can request security footage from the club and trace the suspect if a crime has taken place. Even if there’s not enough evidence to convict, being contacted by police may put a perpetrator off next time.

If police receive a certain number of complaints about a club, they’ll investigate and potentially shut the venue down. Clubs need to know that they can’t take our money and leave us vulnerable to harassment and violence. We want to have fun, to have a few drinks and dance with our friends, but we also have the right to be safe.

Obviously, this is a wider issue and harassment won’t end while we still live in a patriarchy where men think women’s bodies exist for their pleasure. But we can start small. We can target clubs, and think of ways to teach boys from a young age that harassment is never okay. It won’t be easy when the problem is so rife, but more people than ever are joining the fight. And a future without cock-kettling is worth fighting for.

–  Jade Slaughter is editor of The Jar Belles and has written for The F Word, Parallel and Litro magazines. Follow her on Twitter: @msjadeslaughter.

 

*Coining ‘cock-kettling’ deserves credit: her name is Charlotte Kerridge.

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