Local News: Advocates push for a secure nightlife in Vancouver
On a Monday afternoon on Main Street, Stacey Forrester and Ashtyn Bevan are meeting to catch up and regroup after their successful fundraising event—aptly named “Friendzone”—the week before.
The two form the Vancouver chapter of Good Night Out, aimed at defining and fostering good nights out. Specifically, nights out free from the backdrop of social attitudes that normalize or trivialize sexual assault and abuse—better known as rape culture.
“We wanted to make a cultural shift in the city, to make our night life economy [safer] and more accessible for everyone to go out and have a good time,” says Bevan, then adds matter-of-factly, “it’s definitely geared for heterosexual men.”
“In general, nightlife culture is really built on the backs of women. There’s a lot of rape culture that’s perpetuated in the whole set up,” she says.
Examples of this include women getting in free to fill the venue, staff and crowds who don’t understand female bodily autonomy or when no means no, and staff that may have limited understanding of how to detect a vulnerable customer.
A rollercoaster ride
In her final semester at Simon Fraser University in a communication for social change class, Bevan was tasked with creating a project. She was inspired by Good Night Out, a worldwide campaign that partners with clubs, bars, pubs, and other venues to prevent and confront harassment. It began in London, U.K, and chapters have since opened across the U.K.
Shortly after, Bevan met Forrester, who runs Hollaback Vancouver, an organization that takes on street harassment, and formed a partnership. Together they opened the Vancouver chapter, which is the only one in Canada.
Two years in, the duo have faced road bumps along the way, including a partnership with Blueprint—who are behind Vancouver nightlife staples like Celebrities, Caprice, and Fortune Sound Club—that didn’t pan out.
“They weren’t really meeting our expectations of what we consider accountability and safer space,” says Forrester.
“When it came down to the harder things, like mandating staff to attend our training, or giving a bit of thought into the acts you book and if they perpetuate rape culture, they weren’t willing to do those harder things.”
“Since we’ve started, it’s been a rollercoaster of who's been on our roster and who hasn’t,” says Bevan.
“When we first started we went totally wild, big ambitions,” says Forrester. Now, she adds, they’re happier taking it slow with a quality over quantity mandate, bringing on venues who walk the walk.
A Good Night Out now has three certified venues: Red Gate Arts Society, The Brickhouse, and The Waldorf. Certification means staff, security, and management have received training and undergone an audit—a safety checklist.
Training challenges rape myths and victim blaming, identifies what sexual harassment looks like, how to prevent harassment and drug or alcohol facilitated sexual assaults, and even provides Narcan training to reverse a drug overdose (Forrester is a nurse).
They say the most common complaint they hear is from women who don’t receive help when complaining about inappropriate behaviour.
“Security staff is like, ‘Well, what do you expect? You’re in a night club, that’s what people come here for,’” says Forrester. “A big part of the workshop is challenging those beliefs, and rewiring your brain to ultimately just listen and believe people … we also have to remember that the people who have experienced sexual violence, the continuum of it, you don’t get to say how they’re going to respond to it.”
Bevan adds that they also address accessibility, including wheelchair access, gender neutral bathrooms, and access to safe water from the bar or a station.
Forrester says they try to talk to people as much as they can, and their training is geared toward people who may have little understanding of what constitutes harassment.
“We break it down, what harassment looks like, and how these behaviours can affect someone so they can see the big picture.”
Trained volunteers conduct venue audits to incorporate a variety of community perspectives.
“What constitutes safe for me could be very different for you, could be very different for someone who's just turned 19, or someone who is racialized,” says Forrester.
People want change
Their determination to make the Vancouver nightlife scene safer and more inclusive hasn’t slowed down. This year started off with a successful online crowdfunding campaign, a fundraiser event, and plans to launch an app.
Fundraising proceeds will be used to purchase coasters that detect GHB (commonly referred to as the date rape drug) and ketamine for their certified venues. The decision to buy the coasters was based on an incident reported to them by an individual who was slipped a date rape drug in the afternoon.
Anecdotally, she says audits at otherwise great venues can fall apart with the bouncers.
They won a community partnership with Red Academy to develop a prototype of a Good Night Out app. They hope the app, which shows certified venues, reviews, and will allow users to rate venues and report issues, will help convince venues to come aboard.
“It’s hard, even though we get praise from the city and people in the community, it’s hard to actually get venues on board,” says Bevan. “It’s more tangible to show the venues … you have some issues, this is what people are saying” says Bevan.
Forrester notes that from what they hear, the attitudes of door staff can undermine an otherwise great venue.
“It’s reflective of how institutions take complaints of sexual violence. As we’ve learned, the RCMP have dropped the ball, school campuses have dropped the ball,” she says. “For bouncers to also drop the ball in this area is not surprising, it’s kind of how systemic sexual violence is.”
This summer, they also plan to reach out to festivals, to expand on a partnership with Bass Coast, an annual electronic music and arts festival that takes place in July in the Nicola Valley.
They hope to train staff and volunteers at festivals to challenge the acceptance of rape myth and culture, and to provide education to crowds on how to intervene.
Forrester stresses their training is available to any venue.
“Ultimately, we’re accountable to the people who reach out to us … whether it’s through us or through other means, we want to see people take this issue seriously,” she says.
“We don’t want these things happening. On Sunday and Monday morning, we don’t want these horrific stories to be coming through from people who had a bad night out.”
The comments and reports they hear from people on the receiving end of harassment in Vancouver’s nightlife—usually women or members of the queer community—fuel their fire, says Bevan.
”It’s clear people really want a shift in the city.”