Two Wellington women have made news calling out Courtney Place’s Vinyl Bar, for its shockingly negligent response to sexual harassment earlier this month. Jay Thompson-Munn and Victoria Kershaw ran an inspiring ten-day campaign that is raising important questions about rape culture in Wellington’s nightlife. It’s a campaign that other bars, venues and patrons should take note of, before they consider brushing off women’s complaints of harassment.
Women, take heed – we need to do more of this.
On the weekend of 15 July, Thompson-Munn approached bar staff at Vinyl five times to ask them to deal with a man who was grabbing, pulling at, and verbally harassing herself and Kershaw. After a young male bartender shrugged and told them “You’re in a bar”; they spoke to the bouncer, who simply claimed he couldn’t leave his post. The man persisted with his harassment, so the two women left the bar with their friends.
“Jay made a sincere complaint,” says Kershaw. “To be shrugged off – is unreal. Then to speak to the bouncer and also be shrugged off… then it was, okay, we’ll e-mail. We don’t want to make a big fuss. We’ll give them the chance to rectify it – e-mail never responded to… so, what do we do now?”
They went to Facebook and Twitter – and, in short, were forced into taking on the job of running a ten-day campaign in order to have their complaint heard.
“Usually, I wouldn’t have even reported that behaviour,” Kershaw says. “Because I had accepted the narrative that that is what you should expect on a night out… it’s disgusting, people are horrible. And then people are horrible, and we tolerate it. I realised that by never speaking up about it, I was basically [complicit]… if you make it so that women can’t talk about harassment, then why would anybody stop?”
Vinyl Bar have finally responded with an apology on Facebook that has been reported in the media, which states how “A Courtenay Place bar has apologised over its handling of a sexual harassment allegation.”
Is that really the story? “Now it’s the big thumbs-up, well done for accepting accountability,” says Kershaw. “Where really, it’s like, we backed you into a corner,” she says. While Vinyl bar now accepts the kudos, it was Kershaw and Thompson-Munn who put in the work and braved a barrage of toxic backlash, to ensure that sexual harassment is recognised, acknowledged and responded to appropriately in this instance and in future at Vinyl.
Vinyl Bar’s statement itself, though, is impressive. Most women have a pretty keen sensitivity to the empty promise, and the face-saving apology for sexism, since they’re pretty par for the course, for us. But this… it’s good.
Recently two different groups of women experienced sexual harassment in our bar. This would have been distressing enough on its own, but unfortunately our response was inadequate. We want to apologise and share publicly what we’re doing to ensure this doesn’t happen again.
Here’s a list of some of the things we did wrong:
– We didn’t realise someone in our bar was a threat to the safety of our patrons.
– A staff member who was approached by a woman seeking help inferred that she could expect to experience sexual harassment because she was “in a bar”.
– A bouncer who was approached to remove the person causing problems advised that he couldn’t leave his post.
– We deleted the original complaint from our Facebook page.
– We felt we needed to confirm the incident with CCTV footage before responding.
– In response to the criticism we were receiving, one of our staff members sent a group message asking their contacts to boost good feedback on our page.
While we did intervene on the night, some staff responded well and others didn’t. That isn’t ok. Sexual harassment is a form of violence experienced by far too many women, and those who come forward about it should expect to be taken seriously and be met with a swift, sensitive and competent response. We failed in this, and we unreservedly apologise to the women who were hurt by this and to the wider community who are rightfully disappointed in us.
We want to make Vinyl a safe and fun space for everyone, so we’re making some changes. We’re reaching out to the Wellington Sexual Violence sector to help us train more staff in ethical bystanding and dealing with sexual harassment. We’re speaking to all staff involved about what they did wrong, and what we expect of them in the future. We’re also publicly sharing this in the hopes that other Wellington bar owners and staff will learn from our mistake and know that there’s help available to make bars safer spaces.
Lastly, we want to thank the Wellington community who reached out to us about this. Thank you for holding us to account, thank you for taking the time to explain what we did wrong and thank you for caring about the safety of women in our bar. We are open to any more thoughts or suggestions from our community, and you can contact us here on Facebook or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This a pretty exemplary response to being called out on sexism. I would have liked the property management organisation that looks after my house to follow it, after one of their employees burst into my room one morning while I was naked in bed, and proceeded to argue with me about his right to be there. Massive Magazine could certainly have followed this example, after publishing an image of rape as a magazine cover earlier this year. The taxi company that’s asking my friend for “more proof” that a cab driver asked her if she was keen for casual sex could follow this example. The builders who spent days doing maintenance at a friend’s all-female flat while loudly discussing which tenant was most fuckable could follow it, too. Hell, White Ribbon New Zealand could follow it.
What did Kershaw make of it?
“Whoever the P.R. company is that they got to write that for them,” she says, “did a really good job. I can tell you now that is not their style of communication – I can tell from the prior messages we’ve been sent, and the style of the Facebook in general – they paid someone smart and they got really good advice… Whoever wrote it, they’re very clever. They did what you should always do when you’ve really fucked up, which is be really transparent, really honest, and admit fault and apologise, and state what are you going to do to make it better. It ticked all of those boxes… But they didn’t reach out and apologise to us first. It was a P.R. thing… I had really mixed feelings about it.”
She said that prior to the update, the bar had disingenuously denied being able to identify the man in question; had been more concerned about the consequences of drawing attention to his intoxication levels, because their liquor license is up for renewal. The bar’s code of practice, standard in hospitality, does not even include reference to sexual harassment or abuse, despite this being rampant.
In any case, Vinyl Bar hasn’t suddenly become a harassment-free fortress of feminism – the problem of sexual harassment is pervasive.
“It’s fucking rape culture,” says Kershaw. “Being out and feeling like you have the right to touch people and to speak to them however you feel like.”
Rape culture is entrenched, and working against it is not just a matter of booting out the odd weirdo from a bar. Most bars promote and capitalise from rape culture, from the culture that says that, when men go to bars (when men go out at all), they’re entitled to have sexual access to women. They’re entitled to ogle, grope, harrass, objectify, touch, pressure, mock, manipulate and violate women. That’s their due, that’s fair game, that’s nightlife, and that’s business.
Boys, and men, are supposed to go out and be able to binge, perve, score and be obnoxious while listening to Robin Thicke singing about Blurred Lines. When you are a woman and you go to a bar – you’re part of what’s on offer, you’re part of the package deal. So when a bar steps in to call out sexism, they’re violating that unwritten law. When a bar denies men all the access to women this culture generally grants them, it’s ripping them off, and selling them short. There will be tantrums and sulking: it’s a boring old prudish party pooper bar, the boys’ll head across the road.
So, most bouncers will not actively seek to stop harassment, and that is not only because most bouncers are male, and are to varying degrees sexist themselves, or at least don’t always see sexual abuse even when it whacks them square across the face. It’s also because it’s an unspoken, but important, part of the business model of most bars to offer men access to women and to promote that access. In everything from their music and media, dress codes, advertising, the names of their drinks – it’s in the culture. Bouncers are employed to keep things under control for the sake of the business, but not to override the rules and compromise that business.
That’s why Kershaw had such a hard time being heard, and why she has been subjected to gaslighting and intense efforts to undermine her complaint. “It’s classic narratives around women: making a big deal out of nothing, making a fuss, being over the top – people are just trying to have a good time, you know – he didn’t touch your boob, so, what’s the problem.”
Kershaw has also been thoroughly interrogated. “Everyone wanted to know: “Oh, I don’t want to make you uncomfortable, but – where exactly did he touch you?”… It made me start to doubt myself… the more times we were rebuffed, and the more others commented, I was like – but was it sexual harrassment? And started doing further research myself,” she says.
“Sexual harassment can be someone looking at you in a way that makes you uncomfortable. Standing too close to you.” But, apparently, women have no right to keep themselves safe from an obvious threat. We have to wait to be violated, and then we can see if we can get some assistance.
And what happens when harassment does lead to serious assault? Then we can try our luck. Only thirteen percent of sexual abuse cases result in a conviction in New Zealand. There is no justice following sexual violence, and even where there is a conviction, trauma remains and women can expect to be retraumatised at the hands of the legal system. Our support services are underresourced. Harassment is both a form of and a precursor to sexual violence, it is a threat; and when a woman points it out, action needs to be taken.
It would be fantastic to see more bars, clubs and men as individuals, listen to women and take action action against sexual harassment before abuse happens, rather than shrugging women off until it does; and take action against rape culture.
A real commitment to ending sexual abuse though, will mean bars responding instantly to complaints – and it will also mean harder work than that. It will mean managers asking themselves to what extent their business actually depends and relies on promoting sexual abuse, and in what ways. That’s harder work and a bigger commitment than a Facebook status update, but it needs to happen.
Nga mihi, Victoria, and Jay for what you’ve done to move this conversation forward.
Thank you for the work you’ve done for women, this past eleven days. Thank you.