Powerless: the dark side of student nightlife

Under the strobe lights and blaring music of nightclubs many students and young people are sexually harassed and even assaulted. Perpetrators are unpunished as bouncers and staff often turn a blind eye. The victims are left feeling scared, powerless and miserable.

For many students, the nightlife is as important as any other aspect of university. It is a chance to dress up, let loose and meet new people. Yet sexual harassment continues to be a huge problem with little action taken to tackle the issue.

I interviewed five students from different universities around the country about their experiences of sexual harassment in nightclubs.

“It’s very frustrating because you’re trying to have a good time… but you have to stand up for yourself and often be put in a position where the guy is drunk and you don’t know how he’ll react”, explains one female student at Bristol University. “When I say no, it is often not received well. I’ve had one guy pour his drink over my hair. Another guy called me frigid. It’s not nice and it’s certainly not flattering”. A female student from Lancaster University says she finds harassment occurs “a lot of the time… I’ve had men not leave me alone and keep asking me to kiss them or go home with them. I’ve had men push me up against a wall and force me to kiss them”.

  • 85% of women under 25 have been sexually harassed
  • Only 19% of women report being surprised when they are sexually harassed

It is common for first years, or ‘freshers’, to be targeted as they are perceived as particularly vulnerable as they may accidentally drink too much or be less aware of their surroundings in a new city. One female student from Liverpool was harassed on her first night out at university. “He wanted to kiss me, and I was like, no, I don’t want to, sorry, but he just wouldn’t leave me alone and even tried to pull me towards him and told me to ‘shush’. I literally had only ever been in a club once before this so I felt like I’d led him on… purely because we’d danced together. It wasn’t until later I realised it was wrong.  I didn’t feel safe to be there… it put me off going out to clubs at all”.

A male student at the University of London says it is also an issue within the gay community. “There’s definitely a sense of it being normalised…a lot of the time the men will buy you a drink or something so then they feel like they own you… It’s also a lot easier to do it without bringing attention to other people as the music is really loud, the lighting’s a lot darker, most people are drunk and aren’t paying attention to what’s happening around them… It’s almost a safe space for creeps”. He said that a man had “put his hand up [his] shorts”, and tried to kiss him. He added that many of the men who harass students are older, “either bankers or quite successful businessmen”.


One female student at Newcastle University went on a night out with her girlfriend and found men “ogling and making crude comments… Basically thinking that whatever is happening, is happening for their benefit… I’ve also had some guys being weird about me being with a girl and being really inappropriate”. She also found that men often try to kiss her despite her objections. “There’s not really any consequences so they just do it… There’s such a culture of going out on the pull and I don’t think they see the line”.

Many attribute alcohol and so-called ‘lad culture’ as factors that heighten the sexual harassment epidemic. One female student explains, “under the influence of alcohol women are generally more vulnerable… so men can take advantage that way. Also in clubs, lad culture seems to be more prevalent”. Another student adds, “people assume that because someone is drunk, they’re okay with it, because they’re obviously out to pull if they’re out having a drink. On another level, if you’re drunk, you have less self-awareness and control. You’re vulnerable and people see you as an easy target”.

I asked them what they think should be done to help combat and prevent this kind of behaviour. “Bouncers are there for our safety but often I’ve felt they only interfere when it’s gotten too bad. Like a fight breaks out. They could intervene sooner. I don’t go to clubs much anymore because of this reason”. Another adds that, “clubs don’t feel obligated to do anything despite the people having been their customers. More of a presence is needed, but at the same time, it might make people feel uneasy if more security is present. Greater training should be provided for staff on what to look out for, but the majority of those staff will be bar workers who are typically occupied the whole night as well as don’t have much of a chance to look out for these things. So it’s a bit of a tough one really”.

Finally, I asked them what they would tell the men who harassed them if they could. “If they were reading this article I guess I’d just hope that they’d take away that it’s not okay and to stop and apologise to those they’ve wronged”. Another thought that men need to “read body language better”. Another suggested that, “obviously they are an unhappy person to cause someone so much suffering. Every person is worthy of respect and I think they need to be reminded of that.”.


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