A new study has found that in situations of sexual aggression at bars, most attackers are very clear on the fact that their victims are not consenting. The results made obvious what so many already know: despite claims of misperception, in most cases it is very clear that the attacker’s advances are unwanted by victims. Many attackers purposely seek out women who seem vulnerable or unable to consent, and “she acted like she wanted it” is never, ever an excuse.
As part of the study, which will be published in May, researchers collected narrative descriptions as well as quantitative data for over 1,000 occurrences of aggression on visits to 118 large bars and clubs in Toronto in a two-year period. This included dance clubs, sports bars, pubs and concert venues. The researchers for that 24.4 percent of the observed incidents included sexual aggression. Variables like gender, intoxication and the aggressor’s level of invasiveness were also noted, as well as the responses of the targets and intervention by others.
According to Kate Graham, an author of the study:
“We found that while misperceptions in the making and receiving of sexual advances do occur, especially in the highly sexualized environment characteristic of many bars, most of it appeared to be intentional harassment or aggression done for the amusement or gratification of the person making the overture, or for the amusement of his friends. This interpretation is supported by the finding that sexual aggression was related to the intoxication level of the target but not for the aggressor — that is, if the incident was about misperception, [it] should involve intoxication of both people.”
The aggressors they studied were intentionally seeking out intoxicated women to prey on. “These men,” says research scientist Jeanette Norris, “are the ultimate opportunists.”
The study began as part of the Safer Bars program, which was developed to reduce male-to-male aggression in bars, but when the researchers noticed the high prevalence of sexual aggression that lives within the nightlife scene, they couldn’t help but add that component to their analysis. According to Graham, the team saw “considerably more [sexual aggression] than we were expecting.”
Last year, the researchers surveyed bargoers in Windsor, Canada. As they were leaving the bar district, participants were asked about two forms of sexual aggression: unwanted sexual contact and unwanted persistence. Over 50 percent of the women reported experiencing at least one of the two by the end of the evening.
Graham noticed a strangely high level of tolerance by bar staff and bystanders when a woman faced unwanted advances. “I don’t think you could get away with this sort of thing in most settings,” she said. “If a stranger came up to a woman, grabbed her around the waist, and rubbed his groin against her in a university cafeteria or on a subway, she’d probably call the police. In the bar, the woman just tries to get away from him.”
Norris concurred. “Bar-based aggression is almost certainly more likely to involve people who do not know each other very well or at all,” she said. “This could have at least two consequences. First, perpetrators might be more likely to depersonalize and dehumanize the targeted woman. Second, it might lead perpetrators to feel more ‘protected,’ that is, to believe they are less likely to suffer any consequences for their actions.” It’s hard not to think that high-profile rape cases like Steubenville and Maryville, in which rapists certainly did not face proper consequences for the harm they did to their victims, are in the minds these aggressors that Norris is referring to. That’s just not acceptable.
Thankfully, the researchers also offer solutions. Graham and Norris suggested measures that could make it clear to men that assault and unwanted persistence is not okay. They believe establishments should consider posting signs in the bar and restrooms indicating that unwanted advances will not be tolerated by the bar’s staff, with a list of specific examples. Norris laid out more details (emphasis mine):
“A necessary component of this approach is to train staff to intervene: first, a warning, but if the behavior persists, the person will be asked or forced to leave. Men have to be given clear messages that there will be consequences for this type of behavior if we expect men to change. Conversely, the onus should not be placed on women for ‘preventing’ sexual assault.”
Let’s get back to the real issue at hand: teaching rapists not to rape, rather than teaching victims to avoid being raped. Norris would agree. She mentioned that our society needs to make a major change in order for statistics to decrease, stating that there need to be more straightforward messages to men that this kind of aggression is not appropriate, and that women should be taught that “a sexually aggressive man is someone who has a problem and the onus should be placed on him to stop his unacceptable behavior.”