Amplified by personal testimonies and illustrated by Romain Guédé's photographs, this letter acts as an alarm, in which the authors condense a worrying inventory following a recent liberation of stories around the topic of assaults and attacks happening in European festive spaces, as well as initiatives implemented to fight sexual and sexist abuse, initiatives creating windows of hope.

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Authors: Co-written by Sarah Gamrani and Laure Togola (Au-delà du Club Collective)

Photos: Romain Guédé

Warning: This article deals with the topics of sexual and sexist abuse, which can make it difficult to read. You are free to read it in multiple sessions, entirely or partially.

I was a student in Bordeaux in 2019. One Wednesday night, I went to a bar at the end of my street to meet a friend for a drink. I don’t remember how I got home. I hardly remember anything except feeling very drunk, then trying to undress and get into bed, failing, throwing up, and collapsing with my shoes still on. The next day, I couldn’t get myself to class, I thought I was sick. It was only three weeks later, while having a conversation with friends about the effects of GHB*, that I realised I’d been drugged. I was just lucky that the person who drugged me that night didn’t then assault me.

A Letter to our nights - Romain Guédé @ We are Europe
Photos by Romain Guédé. Taken across France, they reflect a freedom of body and movement, permitted in certain places and at certain times. These pictures portray an inspiring universe, reminding us that a different nightlife is possible.

This testimony echoes hundreds of others recently brought to light by movements fighting against gender-based and sexual harassment and abuse in the UK and Belgium. It also highlights a certain ignorance of the effects of a drug – GHB or GBL – sometimes also used for recreational purposes.

On the 27th of October 2021, the student movement “Girls Night In” called for an economic boycott of bars and clubs in several British cities to denounce gender-based and sexual harassment and abuse in nightlife environments. In Britain, hundreds of people recount being drugged during nights out, either by swallowing a substance or being injected without their knowledge. Activists are protesting to ensure that these cases of assault are taken seriously, and their demands heard.

In Belgium, the Instagram account “Balance ton bar” (Denounce your bar*) was created last September, giving a platform to anonymous testimonies from victims of assault in several Brussels nightclubs. In France too, Instagram accounts like these are popping up in Paris, Montpellier, Lyon, Lille, Grenoble, Toulouse, etc. The testimonies are more or less recent and describe traumatic experiences with a common denominator: gender-based violence in nightlife environments.

Using every means to make sexual and gender-based abuse visible

Thanks to a media spotlight, harassment in bars and clubs is now more readily recognised, albeit nothing new. Various news headlines proclaim the return of “the rape drug” or even point the finger at GHB in cases of sexual abuse in bars. Although we can only encourage such interest in a crucial topic, we also believe that we should put this apparent resurgence of nightlife abuse into perspective. The people sensitive to these issues, whether members of collectives, associations, or those working in clubs and bars, unanimously share the view that abuse has long been and continues to be a reality.

Reliable figures are scarce, and the complaints that create waves are few and far between. For example, the authorities spoke of 192 cases in 8 years for all the bars in the Brussels-Ixelles policing zone. This figure reveals an ignorance of the extent of the abuse experienced, since the real number of cases is higher than that reported by club managers and events organisers. It’s worth recalling just how many revelations were made possible by #metoo, #musictoo and other movements that sought to give victims a voice.

Official data does not provide an accurate picture of the abuse experienced because of the structural problems of a justice system that is flawed at every level, from the complaints procedure through to trial.

As Adèle Haenel said with great emotion in front of Mediapart‘s cameras, “the justice system ignores us“. And, as a result, “we ignore the justice system” by collecting testimony through our networks and, in parallel, doing the necessary work to support victims. We know that only 10% of victims file a complaint and that there is great ignorance of these topics. It is therefore essential to provide a feminist reading by relying instead on the number of testimonies and the perceptions of all gender and sexual minorities.*

The #metoo movement (originally started by Tarana Burke in the US in 2007) began making waves across the world five years ago. Since then, we have made a collective decision to no longer accept this alarming state of affairs, and instead encourage everyone affected to speak up.

In Brussels, the European capital at the origin of the Balance ton bar movement, Belgian activists, associations and collectives fighting against gender-based and sexual abuse in party venues have formed the Autonomous Inclusive Feminist Union (Union Féministe Inclusive Autogérée, or UFIA).

It aims to engage in dialogue with institutions and political representatives to ensure that urgent measures are taken. In a letter addressed to Belgian mayors, the UFIA rightly states that all the testimonies posted on Balance ton bar “represent not isolated events but systemic sexual abuse”, recalling that “two out of three Belgians are affected by sexual abuse”. After expressing its fears and recommendations, the UFIA aptly adds:

We demand to exist without the perpetual burden of being in danger everywhere we go.

A Letter to our nights - Romain Guédé @ We are Europe

Gender-based and sexual abuse in nightlife environments takes many forms. It may involve micro-aggressions under the guise of “flirting”, actions performed without consent, or the administration of substances to surreptitiously alter a person’s mental and physical state. Each case falls within the same system of domination and violence against gender and sexual minorities.

This continuum of violence*, ranging from sexist comments or remarks to more serious abuse, is at the root of the permissive climate that gives rise to aggressions against people within gender and sexual minority groups. It is a whole system of sexist domination and oppression, described as rape culture* by author Valérie Rey-Robert.

We internalise and normalise this system from an early age. All our social interactions are imbued with the myths, legends, stories, shared spaces, experiences, facts and representations that encourage us to enact binary social roles (by being a man or a woman), as well as the predator/prey relationship that stems from them.

The clubs and bars that we frequent are not exempt from the power relations that exist in other social spaces. Our social interactions in clubs are thus imbued with the same logic as elsewhere. In 2018, Consentis carried out a quantitative study among 1,030 people. More than half of all female respondents (57%) declared having been victims of sexual abuse in nightlife environments and feeling unsafe if they are alone for fear of being sexually assaulted or harassed.

Men were less likely to have experienced sexual abuse at a party (10%). All genders combined, 78% of respondents personally knew at least one person who had been the victim of sexual abuse in a party venue.

Based on this observation, how can we collectively rethink nightlife environments from a feminist perspective, taking into account the perceptions and experiences of gender and sexual minorities? How can we engage with nightlife venues to turn them into emancipatory and transformative spaces?

We are not all equal before the night

What shall I wear tonight? Not this skirt, it’s too short and I’m gonna have to get the metro late. Should I wear makeup? Alright, go on. No, not that much. Fuck, I shouldn’t have used such red lipstick. How am I gonna get home? No way am I taking metro line 12, I’ll get harassed at the exit. Right, I’ll get a cab, it’s a bit safer. Ah, yeah, but it’s 17 euros.

We are not all equal before the night. The legacy of feminist geography prompts us to look at public spaces through the prism of intersectionality. Urban spaces are not neutral, and our identities affect how we move through the city.

In 2014, the study entitled “The street, the night and women without fear” (La rue, la nuit, femmes sans peur) was transformed into an exhibition in Lille, “Take back the Night!”. It shed light on the nocturnal experiences of gender and sexual minorities: street harassment, wolf-whistling, unwanted interactions, assaults, intimidation, etc. There are clear limits to the nocturnal mobility of gender and sexual minorities.

According to Marylène Lieber, sociologist and author of a book on gender, violence and public spaces (Genre, violences et espaces publics: La vulnérabilité des femmes en question, 2008), multiple avoidance strategies are used: anticipating your itinerary; expressing your unavailability (with headphones or a book, for example); trying to go unnoticed; or trying to respond verbally.

Her book builds on the work of British feminist geographers, notably Gill Valentine, who defines the geography of fear as the effect of male violence on women’s use of space. Valentine evokes a “negotiation of public space” in terms of taking certain routes, choosing destinations, and physically adjusting a dress code, for example.

A Letter to our nights - Romain Guédé @ We are Europe

Urban spaces are therefore violent and inadequate for certain groups of people. We seize onto the above-mentioned concept of a continuum of violence and apply it to different urban spaces: there is a continuity of violent acts in all nocturnal spaces used by gender and sexual minority groups. How can we render the experiences of these groups central to urban planning and development, and envision safer nocturnal mobilities?

While cities like Toronto (Canada) and Vienna (Austria) have integrated a tactful approach to gender inequalities in their urban planning since the mid-90s, most European cities have not made this a priority. The City of Paris launched such reflections in 2017, in the first “Gender and Public Spaces” reference guide, and further developed them in the second edition, published in May 2021.

These guides introduce the essential questions that must be asked to envisage fairer and safer cities for all: How do we occupy public spaces? How do we guarantee a right to the city for everyone? How can we reduce the feeling of insecurity among gender and sexual minorities? They explore different themes and issues to approach the city through a feminist and inclusive reading, with notably a chapter focused on nightlife.

The themes include: feeling safe; seeing and being seen (lights and design of spaces); adapting mobility, particularly at night (e.g. on-demand bus stops and “night mode” itineraries on Citymapper indicating a route via main streets); placing “coveillance” (a collective awareness and consideration) at the center of our relations in public spaces; and developing a network of mutual assistance and support with the city’s bars and late-night stores.

As an example of the latter, the “Ask for Angela” system was set up in the city of Rouen, helping to alert staff to any disconcerting situation. Taking all of this into account, how can we extend the transformation of our nocturnal experiences to clubs?

Nocturnal activism for safer and more inclusive dance floors for all

I’m here, in front of the club. Who’s in the queue? How’s the security staff behaving? They’re waving us in without a word, not even a smile. Woah, the club’s full. Where are the toilets? I’ll have to go with someone or else I’ll never find my friends again. I don’t know what it is, but the energy’s a bit off… well, I’ll try and get in the mood, I’ll go get a drink.

I’m at the bar. Who’s gonna serve me? That guy’s staring at me, he’s making me uncomfortable. I move towards the dance floor. Who’s at the decks tonight? I wanna dance. Can I dance? Do their looks convey good intentions? Who do I turn to if I’ve got a problem? I really hope the taxi back won’t cost too much, ‘cos I’m on the other side of town.

Some people enter clubs with a considerable mental and emotional load, linked to their previous experiences in these places. In parallel with the work that public authorities must undertake, actors from civil society, associations and collectives are mobilising on the ground to implement prevention and risk-reduction measures, and to provide assistance to victims in the event of an assault. Their actions converge towards a shared goal: making party spaces safer and more inclusive for all.

For example, the ORANE association has developed SAFER, an app for festivalgoers to report any aggression they were victim or witness to. The system was tested at the Marsatac festival in Marseille and in other festivals including BeBopUtopia and NDK Festival. The association aims to deploy this app across 30 to 50 festivals.

Their app is used to pinpoint aggressions (with three alert levels: I feel uncomfortable, I’m being harassed, and I’m in danger), reducing the time it takes trained volunteers to assist victims and collect their testimony. While testing the system, the team observed that “the human aspect and the contact with volunteers change the festival-goer’s whole experience. Being physically present, with a visible team of volunteers, helps to open  a dialogue on important topics.This allows us to raise awareness but also to reassure people and reduce risks”.

The Consentis and Act Right associations are also project partners. With many years of experience on the ground, these associations carry out training, prevention, awareness-raising and other actions focused on gender-based and sexual abuse in nightlife environments.

For example, in 2018 Consentis carried out a quantitative  study to survey the extent of gender-based and sexual abuse in party scenes. For Mathilde Neuville, co-founder of the association, this made it possible to “take stock of the situation, while highlighting the extent of the phenomenon. Thanks to statistics, we can fight to ensure that this abuse does not remain invisible and normalised”.

The association carries out rigorous prevention and awareness-raising initiatives, sometimes in partnership with media outlets like Trax Magazine, on the notions of consent and consideration in a party environment.

As for Act Right, the association has created a quality label in partnership with the French National Music Center. Over three years, it accompanies structures and establishments that wish to implement risk-reduction measures linked to gender-based and sexual abuse, drug and alcohol consumption, or the environment.

Marion Delpech, co-founder of Act Right alongside Cindie le Disez, explains that “event organisers are increasingly taking responsibility and calling us to hold training sessions. Of course, there are various scenarios: those who do it because they’re already deconstructed; those who do it to get subsidies; and cases where women within the structure are pushing for training“.

Whether these sessions are held with a real desire to train security teams and site staff, or whether they are perceived as a box to be ticked to access subsidies, they always open up a space for dialogue and transmit essential knowledge.

For Marion, “things are moving in the right direction”, even if there is still a lot of work to be done to host the public in the best possible conditions. While prevention stands are a good start, a medium or long-term vision must be adopted to radically change the values and conditions that partygoers are met with.

This involves training, communication and a pooling of the strengths, knowledge and skills of all the actors in today’s music and electronic scenes.

A Letter to our nights - Romain Guédé @ We are Europe

A letter to our nights: for a culture of consideration and consent

“The night holds promise and transformation: this is the message I want to impart through this book. All the norms that we force ourselves to respect during the day tend to evaporate at night. Of course, the same logic of exclusion, discrimination and domination still applies, but nocturnal spaces hold a vastly greater potential for transformation. The possibility to transgress norms allows us to draw on our creativity and imagination.” Extract from the book Au-delà du Club (Beyond the Club)

Following the model of British activists (Girls Night In), and to a greater extent that of feminist collectives from several European cities, we ask that the night be safer for all, more inclusive and more accountable on the basis of the following three pillars: prevention, support and well-being.

1 – Prevention and the awareness-raising of staff in party venues (bars, clubs, gig halls and open-air festivals) should be mandatory to protect the diverse public in attendance. Staff and volunteers should be systematically trained in active bystander principles.

They should be taught to recognise different forms of abuse, harassment and discrimination (verbal, physical, etc.) that affect the groups concerned in different ways. We also promote prevention so that as many people as possible are informed about the effects of drugs and their potential risks.

2 – Support: victims should be believed, supported and assisted with compassion. Party venues must have a clear and accessible protocol, for both teams and attendees, in the event of any aggression.

This includes knowing how to support victims, both immediately and in the long term. Such support must include real preventive action against aggressors, and a zero-tolerance policy in the face of any type of abuse or discrimination.

3 – Finally, the well-being of partygoers must be a priority for all party venues, and consideration for all must be at the core of our nightlife. This means creating safe and reassuring spaces, for example with specific areas for discussion or support, and with easily identifiable individuals who are dedicated to the well-being of all.

Ensuring that a person gets home safely; intervening in the event of aggression; knowing how to recognise potentially dangerous situations; being attentive to a person’s state, etc. By adopting multiple measures, by being attentive and caring, party venues can undergo profound transformations and offer nightlife experiences free from violence.

Change must be systemic and radical

To strive for a more just and inclusive future, we must think collectively and create new narratives for our nights. The change must be systemic and radical. It must take place at every level of our society. The State must allocate a budget and establish real prevention and awareness policies on this subject and must continue to support grassroots associations without unloading its responsibilities onto them.

The legal system must leave no aggressor unpunished, leave no complaints unresolved, and stop systematically making victims feel guilty or doubting their stories. Party venues and their staff, artists and partygoers must also take part in this change by avoiding “band-aid” methods as far as possible. These include awareness-raising campaigns that leave victims feeling guilty, and safety policies that are often discriminatory and ineffective.

We seek a collective awareness and consideration so that everyone looks out for each other, by night as by day. We seek to shatter the silence surrounding gender-based and sexual abuse in nightlife environments, which has always been present, and still is.

The first step to breaking this silence is simple and accessible: ensuring victims are heard and believed. The question that remains is what to do about aggressors? If we don’t trust in the effectiveness of security and punitive measures, what viable solutions exist?

More broadly, we call for a discussion on what our nights represent. They are a precious field of experimentation for our generation. They provide a refuge for certain minority groups in political contexts hostile to the expression of identities, as in Poland, for example.

Much like the Spanish initiative by the Temporary Pleasure collective in Barcelona, we call for spaces to be created where we can debate and ask ourselves: What do clubs represent?  How can we (re)create clubs based on our shared values? How can we collectively envisage our nocturnal spaces through an intersectional feminist viewpoint?

A Letter to our nights - Romain Guédé @ We are Europe

For more stories from We are Europe, sign up to our newsletter down below. Back in June 2021, we exchanged with Sarah Gamrani, co-author of this piece, during the 10th edition of European Lab. Here’s what happened.

Sarah Gamrani is a DJ under the Hawa Sarita moniker, singer (with the duo Baraka) and author (Au-delà du Club). As a multidisciplinary artist, she explores the links between electronic music and politics through different spaces. With the collaborative book  Au-delà du Club, she offers new narratives for safer and more inclusive parties thanks to poetry and photography.

Laure Togola conceives and develops meaningful artistic projects – the latest one being Hip-hop 360  at Philharmonie de Paris, after Desert X or Al Safar, who supported young artists in their photographic projects in Mali, Egypt, Morocco and France. After a working at the Inrockuptibles (Argentina) media which allowed her to write her first articles, she joins several Parisian collectives focused on feminist and anti-racist thinking, alternating theory and militant activities. She joins Au-delà du club in the summer of 2021 in an effort to contribute to the collective reflexion process conducted in order to create more inclusive nights.


Sexual minorities – In French, a recent coinage, the adjective “sexisé”, seeks to encompass all those who find themselves targeted by gender-based and sexual violence, whether they are women, trans, bi, queer, intersex or LGBTQI+. For clarity, we refrain from using an English neologism such as “sexised” or “cisheterosexualised” in this text, but recognise the linguistic space available for such a term.

Continuum of violence – Reference to Valérie Rey-Robert’s book “Une culture du viol à la française”. (LIBERTALIA)

Rape Culture – Reference to Valérie Rey-Robert’s book “Une culture du viol à la française”. (LIBERTALIA)

Balance ton Bar‘s name is a reference to previous movements, following the “balance ton” format, the first one being “Balance ton porc” (Denounce your pig). “Balance”, comes from the verb “Balancer” which can be translated both like “denounce” or “throw away”. There is a form of wordplay to amplify the meaning of the slogan.

Deconstructed – This is a direct translation of “déconstruit·es” and a reference to the notion advanced by a generation of feminists and activists that we live our romantic relationships and lives as a result of “constructed social norms” (“construction sociale” in french.) “Déconstruit·es” describes people who through research and self reflection are working towards escaping said constructed social norms.

GHB – “GHB is (…) known as used in drug rape; in particular, as it is colorless and odorless, it is very easy to add to drinks; although it has a short half-life of 20 min, the effect is prolonged with the alcohol used to disguise it and it has a marked amnesic effect, making it harder for the victim to present for help and forensic investigation.” Source

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