Following a recent increase of sexual assaults reported in European clubs, bars and other party spaces, we looked at the social climate that fosters this phenomenon throughout Europe. In this interview, journalist and activist Magda Stanieszewska shares her perspective on the Polish scene.

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Author: Cécile Moroux

Photo Credit: Helena Majewska

Sexual harassment and drink-spiking in clubs in Poland is often a taboo subject. However, the situation is changing slowly but consistently from year to year. How should we deal with this problem without focusing only on the effects but looking for its causes? How should we educate the participants of the events and support the victims?

Co-creator of the campaign “We react to sexual assaults in here” journalist, activist and DJ Magda Staniszewska took the floor and answered these and several other questions related to this topic. 

Is there a database centralizing information on these cases of aggression in Poland? 

As far as I know there’s no such database.There are no medical statistics in Poland characterizing the epidemiology of this type of poisoning. Even the database on sexual assaults in general seems to be incomplete and unclear, like pretty much everywhere. 

How is this issue covered in Polish media? 

When it comes to Polish media, it’s not a heavily featured issue. There’s a piece on drink-spiking or GHB acid featured from time to time. Sometimes a specific case is mentioned in the news. Most of the time it’s the left-wing media that covers these kinds of topics more broadly. I’ve also found a few news stories in Polish media about last autumn’s drink-spiking problem in the UK but it was just news.

Are there existing collectives or initiatives in your country working on this matter?

There’s the Chemia collective (eng. Chemistry collective), founded last year out of the need to share knowledge and spread awareness about the GHB acid. They work locally through the groundwork with more than 40 volunteers all over Poland. They print posters, flyers and take it to clubs and bars. They talk with staff and educate them. They also have lectures at high schools so they have contact with young people.

They also run an Instagram account and take part in interviews, educating on how GHB acid and other similar substances work. You can find interviews with them at Krytyka Polityczna or Poptown.eu to give an example. What they do is groundwork. That’s the type of work we need right now in Poland – solid foundation through education, especially sex education. 

This is what Anja Rubik and her team on SEXED.PL also do. They do not come from the club scene, though. They create a multimedia platform that provides young people, parents and adults with comprehensive, age-appropriate education in the areas of human rights, gender equality, relationships, reproduction. 

They inform about the risks associated with sexual activity, presenting sex and sexuality in a positive way, emphasizing values such as mutual respect, inclusiveness, equality, empathy and responsibility. In Polish conditions, it is a breakthrough work. 

(Right now the Chemia collective is collecting funds for further work, you can support them here.)

Is the staff from bars or clubs typically trained to deal with these problems?

Myself, and a lot of people I talk to, feel that Polish clubs lack a proper blueprint on how to take action as well as an adequate attitude when push comes to shove. We dream about clubs bringing in “Ask for Angela”-like actions and other prevention practices we know from the West world. 

At the moment, I know of only one venue that offers a “codedrink” to identify when someone is in danger or in an uncomfortable situation. A few years ago, a security guard at one club told me “This is a tolerant place, if you feel threatened in any way, you can report it to us.” It was great. However, when I asked my friends if they had encountered anything similar at that particular venue, they unfortunately did not share my experience. Sometimes I think I made it up. 

Every so often I’m afraid that club owners do not want to introduce similar practices at the gate because they have no interest in discouraging any “customers”. Eliminating the feeling of impunity may be unprofitable from the business point of view, since too many club attendees violate other people’s boundaries. 

It may seem like a bold statement but we live in an age where everything is monetized. Let’s look back at Gillette’s 2019 commercial. It’s stunning how the negative reaction to this ad outweighed the positive one. Men from all over the world just got pissed off. They felt as if their manhood was being taken away from them along with their sacred right to do what they want with women.

© Helena Majewska

It has shown that the world is not ready for a paradigm shift. The tone of this commercial had been as soft as it could have been, nevertheless we have had thousands of men all over the world throw away Gillette’s products into dumpsters and post about it on social media. That’s why I believe that there are businesses who don’t want to take the risk of “telling men what they can and can’t do” 

And yet something’s slowly changing. There’s one club in Poznań, Schron, that has laid the foundation for building more open conversation between the venue and its visitors. Visitors get factsheets explaining values and principles while entering the club. 

When it comes to reacting to someone reporting a specific issue, I believe that staff all over Poland is probably gonna react. There has been a visible change over the past few years. I feel like more people report assaults at clubs to security or staff. However, there is still a long road/journey ahead of us. 

Authority-wise, (talking about the police), we have an open debate about lack of competence and sympathy. Women reporting assaults at parks hear they shouldn’t have walked there alone. Personally, I don’t know any person who would report a sexual assault experienced at a club, and I’ve been actively participating in this scene for awhile. I think it’s a serious social trust issue. We don’t believe we get proper help because there are so little cases of convicted offenders and so many instances of victim blaming. Then, there’s an inefficient and backward judicial system. 

Penalties for sexual offenses are a sad joke.

Are we looking at an old phenomenon, recently highlighted following the #metoo wave and the reopening of the nightlife, or do you feel like there is an increase in assaults?

In 2019 I have written a piece on sexual assaults at clubs. I wrote about a range of my experiences, from being stared at by the same guy for an hour or so to being a victim of drink-spiking. I felt like we all knew about these problems but no one talked about it nearly enough. 

After the publication, I received enormous feedback from all over Poland, from venues, promoters, DJs and party attendees. A lot of people shared the piece so we felt like the dynamic had changed and is finally going in the right direction. We’re starting a serious public debate on this topic. That’s why Paweł Korzeniowski of Noizz.pl (in which the piece was originally published), together with Jacek Plewicki of Brutaż and I started a campaign called We react to sexual assaults in here” combined with a professional training offer for club workers (training in the field of helping people experiencing sexual violence in the club, conducted by experienced sex educators). 

We published interviews with a therapist Agnieszka Czapczyńska and model and activist Anja Rubik (responsible for the Sexed.pl project), all on the topic sexual violence and sex education. We were going to train club venues workers all over Poland but then the pandemic thwarted our plans. Prior to that, we’ve only had a chance to train employees only in a few clubs. 

The message in this video is  “I like partying. Just like that. With no stress and obligations. With music I feel free. My body listens to it. I like that feeling. I like meeting new people. Sometimes I like dancing with myself. I wanna disappear in the crowd. I don’t like being touched by strangers. They do that because you can’t see it on the dancefloor. Because they want to. Because it’s nothing. The club isn’t a place where you are allowed to do more. Unconsented touch is a sexual assault. React. Say no.” 

I’ve deleted my original piece in a moment of weakness. I guess I’ve put too much on my shoulders. It was all happening very quickly. On one moment I would write something from this place of total anger about the current situation, the next minute I would meet club managers from Warsaw and wonder how we could change the situation. Dealing with the subject of sexual abuse was extremely difficult for me. I often felt like I could have done more. 

Truth be told, I’ve engaged into the subject before working on my personal experiences with a specialist. For a few months sexual abuse was the only thing I talked about with people during parties. I think it’s important to have a whole crew/community behind actions like that.

I’ve thought about this campaign a lot. In retrospect, I feel like we’ve put too much pressure on potential victims. I’ve tried to encourage people to report these situations with more confidence. But victims being more confident in reporting sexual assault was just scratching the surface of the problem and now I am much more aware of underlying issues that are the root of the problem. Now I know it’s only a part of a larger, systematic, educational problem that cannot be discussed separately. The victims choose silence because it may seem easier than confrontation. 

They are afraid of being judged, they feel ashamed. They are taught to hide their feelings, especially since “the worst had not happened” and by the worst I mean rape. Even when rape is the case, whether or not the victim was drugged with GHB or other psychoactive substance/designer drug, people (mostly women) affected are not willing to report it because they feel like there’s no enough proof or that it’s happened. So it’s not surprising that unconsented touch in club spaces isn’t seen as a “serious issue”. Isn’t it astounding that it’s 2022 and we still have a narrative like that? 

© Helena Majewska

Of course there are people who don’t allow violating their boundaries. These people report cases of sexual assaults or suspicious behavior while knowing that it’s the right thing to do. They not only look out for each other but also for other attendees of parties. That’s the kind of club social service that helps to eliminate specific cases but doesn’t solve the underlying problem.

How can we protect sexualized people effectively in the short term without putting the entire mental burden of protection and vigilance on them? 

When it comes to predators, we have the issue of impunity. “I’ll do what I want, because there will be no consequences.” Even If there is a reaction, usually, the sole consequence for breaching someone’s body integrity is getting kicked out of the club. He’s getting kicked out of the club, that’s it. It’s like treating only the symptoms of the disease. You take away the symptoms, but do not relieve the cause of the disease. For a brief moment you may feel like you are in control of the situation but it’s bullshit. Sexual violence doesn’t come from the club environment, per se. It starts in our schools, books, and upbringing. It’s a part of the paradigm we live in. This is our political landscape.

That’s why we should educate both men and women on toxic behaviors. Like with the #HaveAWord campaign, which was produced on commission from the Mayor’s Office in London. I very much support systemical education initiatives like that. Especially when it’s addressed to potential aggressors.

The smaller question is: how does the club scene protect itself? We can keep on creating safe spaces just to give people the opportunity to have fun without constant fear. There are only a few places that share the issues across their social media but still they do little inside the venues. Few bold statements in the description of an event isn’t gonna change the situation. 

Venues should ensure an open dialogue with their regulars and patrons. It is about relevant information placed in the toilets, at the entrance, in the smoking room, everywhere. Then, there is, of course, putting those words into action. Like I said earlier, it would be really great if bouncers informed guests about rules of safe and respectful coexistence inside the club. 

Everyone, without exception, should be made aware that they can seek help as well as know what kind of behavior is unacceptable. It’s about building a community in which people can feel safe. 

Music festivals should also be involved in these activities. The only festival I recall that set the stage for discussing the subject of sexual assault was Kraków’s Unsound Festival. I remember workshops back in 2017, ran by Alex from Siksa, an artist and a feminist activist. The workshop was called “I’m not a fine piece of ass!”. We talked about everyday sexism and how we react to it. It was a really strengthening experience but it was all about a group of twenty women gaining more power to react in certain ways. 

In the end, we all – as participants in club life – must take care of each other and help each other. That’s my short term solution. I believe that you always have to defend the weaker ones so if you see someone acting suspiciously, don’t look away. If you see someone needing help, help them.

I’m impressed by movements like Girls’ Night In and #Doublepeine (editor’s note: Term coined by Anna Toumazoff in France, to call out the victim-blaming that victims of sexual assault face when they present their case in a police station) and I believe it can be inspirational to countries like Poland but I also feel that our club scene isn’t as strong and big as it is in other countries. In Poland the club culture, politically, isn’t seen as a part of “culture”. Club music is too modern for our political conditions. 

How do the victims of sexual assault react to this ? Is there a space given for their voice and their stories?  

It depends on so many things. Much depends on one’s character, experience he/she has had, what they understand and mean by respecting their boundaries. I’ve talked to a few people about it. Some people report the incidents immediately and often get help, some don’t think it’s serious enough to bother anyone, others have reported issues in the past and haven’t received proper help so consequently they’re prejudiced.

It takes so much strength to fight for yourself. There’s something about the Polish mentality that prevents us from asking for help. That leaves us with a feeling we have to get our shit together and stay silent no matter what. There’s also a belief that no one is going to help us even if we seek out help. I’m sure these beliefs go beyond Polish borders but women in Poland are aware that it’s really hard to get justice. We have this pact of silence when it comes to sexual assaults because the victim blaming is so widespread instead of recognizing the perpetrator’s fault.

© Helena Majewska

That’s why all the work done by activists and journalists is so important. One of them, Maja Staśko, is the author of two books on the topic of rape in Poland. The first one is a collection of victim’s stories. One of them, Marcelina, says “I was tested for the rape pill 20 hours after the possible intake. After such a time it is undetectable, it remains in the blood for up to eight hours, in the urine – up to twelve.”  This is how it works in Poland. 

Maja’s work is so important. She puts a lot of effort into educating people through her books, articles and social media channels. Sadly, she gets a lot of hate from defenders of the patriarchy and internet trolls. 

Looking in the long term, how can we handle this?

Sexual assaults and drink-spiking are the part of a much bigger problem and we can’t deal with it only in club culture. I mean, we can, and sometimes we try to, by posters, flyers, social campaigns, sharing each other’s stories and training club staff to deal with certain situations. But we must educate people before they enter the club. 

We need sex education at schools but I can’t see that happening in the near future. Our government compares sex education to depravity. Education is one thing, the other is the system that supports it. 

Polish government to help parents stop “corrupting” sex education in schools

The issue is rooted in patriarchy where a man is in a position of strength and power over women, consequently he may feel like he can do whatever he desires, with no consequence just because of his physical abilities. Patriarchy is not a cultural belief, it’s an institutionalized social system in which we live. If victims don’t feel that they will be heard (by the police, by the court), nothing will change.

If men all over the world don’t stop using their physical advantage and other forms of power against women and men weaker than themselves, nothing's gonna change. Is such a pivot in the way of thinking possible? I don’t know how to smash the patriarchy. But as I once heard “patriarchy is emboldened by shame and silence”, so I know that we have to keep on breaking the silence and call out predators. 

We also need to stop being ashamed of the harm that happened to us. We have to keep trying to change the conversation, look for important voices and give relevant people the platform to speak out. Praise the sexual educators, activists, influencers, journalists, politicians and other figures doing that work. But we can’t shift responsibility for that to people of good will. Who is responsible for the lives of citizens? Government. I don't feel smart and educated enough to explain how it should work. But I know it doesn't work. We all do. 

That’s why we have to vote for politicians who will act in our interest, starting with local authorities.

© Helena Majewska

The news about what is happening to Ukrainian women is devastating. It shows not only brutality and degeneration of Russian troops but also what a man is capable of when he is given the power and control. We’re trying to understand why there are so many cases of sexual violence all over the world and one of the answers will always come down to one thing: power. 

I talked to my best friend about the current war situation and we were crushed by the conclusion that we have no words to describe it. This is just evil. It’s happening right next to us. We’ve been living here with pretty normal life, doing our jobs, going to parties and at the same time our Ukrainian sisters were brutally raped and killed by Russian troops. And I don’t want to sound like sexual assaults at European clubs don’t matter while crimes like these happen but it somehow gives you the perspective on human capability to do horrible things if given the incentive to do so. The real danger here is the feeling of impunity. So we must act on it, somehow.

I feel faint when I think about it all. Will men ever agree to give up this power? How many of them are victims of the same system, and how many of them actually like to hurt us? What must happen so they are confronted with the truth about what they are doing?

This interview was realized with the help of Katarzyna Kwiatkowska from Oramics. The pictures are the work Helena Majewska who has been documenting Polish nightlife for a while now. She’s been to countless events, capturing moments, faces and emotions. You can check out her work here.

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About the interviewee 

Magda Staniszewska is a journalist, activist, DJ and music enthusiast associated with regime brigade, multidisciplinary collective of DJs, musicians and visual artists. Her head is most concerned with issues of social inequality and availability of psychoeducation. 

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