Jen Calleja discusses practical responses to sexual harassment and assault in (literary) spaces, and how utopian hope can inspire and inform tactics for real change
I inhabit distinct but clearly connected fields of artistic practice – writing, translation, music. There are many things that join them; they are areas of creativity and collaboration where working with peers and trust are key; they are where I often feel among like-minded people who share my values and motivations; they offer platforms where I can express myself fully; and where my (net)working and social lives often crossover and intermingle. There is also one thing that is far less positive but very real that connects these fields for me: I have been sexually harassed and assaulted while participating in all of them.
Harassment and assault happens in creative spaces not because of the nature of those particular spaces, but because they happen everywhere, in every workplace, in the street, in public places, in homes, on campuses. It happens because we live in a patriarchal society, and misogyny and discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community are at pandemic levels. Time and time again, anecdotal and statistical evidence, as well as media reporting, shows us that this is a vast – and often minimised – problem.
So, if the problem is so enormous, how could literary spaces help to end it? What would be the point in even trying?
Five years ago I felt hopeless about the state of things and my – or anyone’s – power to change how they were. On top of having been harassed in different places and situations since childhood, I had also been groped while playing and attending gigs, been forcibly kissed at literary events and even during a meeting with another translator, and been creeped out to the point of deep discomfort by messages and with people in person – that is, I had been made to feel objectified, dehumanised, gaslighted and disrespected in spaces I wanted to be in the most. And I had witnessed or heard from close friends who were experiencing the same or other vile things.
These instances made me feel a nagging shame and permanently changed my behaviour in spaces I’d previously felt were both a sanctuary and where I could thrive. It made and can still make me feel numbing anger, nausea and depression, and I am always on high alert. But something has helped me channel some of this fury and hopelessness into something positive and productive – the Good Night Out Campaign.
Good Night Out is a grassroots organisation founded in London in 2014 by sexual violence activists and training facilitators Bryony Beynon and Julia Gray. Through their work as the voluntary co-directors of the London chapter of anti-street harassment organisation Hollaback!, they established that many people experienced harassment and assault in licensed premises, and that as it wasn’t a legal requirement for these spaces to have specialist training in how to handle reports, this often resulted in poor responses from staff. At around the same time, they were contacted by the club Fabric asking if Hollaback! would offer training for their staff in how to respond to disclosures. They decided that a dedicated organisation was needed. Though the street was still a somewhat difficult place to wrangle, physical night-time spaces had infrastructures, and existing policies and legislation that could be worked with. This is how Good Night Out came to be.
Good Night Out trains all staff in licensed venues like bars, clubs and pubs how to respond to and deal with disclosures of sexual harassment and assault through a one-and-a-half-hour workshop and pre- and post-training consultancy. Once trained, the space will put up Good Night Out posters and receive accreditation, as well as promotion via GNO social media channels and the website’s map of trained spaces. The workshop entails open conversations about what harassment and assault is, how these intersect with other forms of harassment like racism, ableism, homophobia and transphobia, and includes practical ways for staff to respond in the first instance.
The ultimate takeaways intended are to promote a culture of belief and to encourage venues to respond empathetically, professionally and consistently to disclosures moving forward.
Once a venue has been trained it doesn’t mean that harassment won’t happen there ever again – but it does mean that staff will know what to do and perpetrators will be discouraged and dealt with appropriately.
I knew both Julia and Bryony from the DIY music scene in London, and admired their proactive and DIY approach to trying to raise awareness about and help end harassment. Though the prospect of getting involved directly terrified me – how could I, an introverted writer-translator with no experience in facilitation, be useful? –, they were both incredibly encouraging and empowered me enough that I trained as a workshop trainer. I’ve gone on to train dozens of venues and represent GNO at council and pub watch meetings, in print media, and in radio and TV interviews. This direct involvement, though at times challenging, has made my personal wellbeing and my sense of hope skyrocket.
I truly believe we have improved things, including changing people’s attitudes – or at least planted a seed of change. I’ve seen it with my own eyes; that flash of potential transformation on someone’s face.
We’d trained student unions, music festivals, club venues – but what about the literary scene? The spaces where literary events happen can be disparate. Bookshops, arts spaces, galleries, literary festivals, someone’s house, all these pleasant, polite spaces – they’re rarely as raucous as clubs, but harassment and assault aren’t about losing control, or sex, or flirting, or alcohol, or how dark the place is, or how seemingly wild; it’s about power and intimidation. And it absolutely happens in these spaces.
The GNO training has recently been adapted for event organisers like promoters and other individuals or groups who often move around and put on events in different venues and spaces. With this training, they can take Good Night Out wherever they go. Having experienced what I have, and knowing others’ experiences, I was keen to bring this training into scenes other than music that I care about and participate in.
I contacted the London-based literary journal The White Review to see if they would be interested in taking part in a pilot form of this training and help open up this discussion. I felt like they were a likeminded group of people, and would share our impulse to challenge discriminatory behaviour and support change in the literary scene from their dedication to diverse voices and intersectional feminist art and writing. Along with a co-facilitator, I trained The White Review’s and publishing house Fitzcarraldo Editions’ editorial teams a couple of months ago.
We opened up the workshop by discussing how they would like people attending their events to feel, and ways to create spaces that are welcoming and accessible to all. We discussed the unique challenges of running literary events, such as the blurring of the social and the work space, how certain behaviours had become normalised, what was appropriate and inappropriate behaviour, and the different reasons people might not speak up about harassment. We covered a range of scenarios and suggested ways of dealing with them, and offered advice on challenging someone’s behaviour safely, as well as how to follow-up with those involved.
Leading on from the workshop, we’ll be helping The White Review write a code of best practice. The workshops are always intended as an initial beginning to longer and more detailed conversations that have to take place internally within organisations, and we hope that these initial steps in the literary scene will be the start of wider skill-sharing, networking and organising among journals and literary promoters around these issues. We’ve already had interest from book shops and festivals who also want to receive training and accreditation, and hope that word will spread as much as it has in music and nightlife spaces.
Though it might seem extreme and conversely even pessimistic to prepare for these eventualities, the reality is that these incidents are already happening and have been happening for a very long time.
Instead of hoping we might not have to deal with them, it’s so much more positive to create an environment where no one has to worry they won’t be believed or taken seriously or that there will be dire ramifications when reporting an incident – which can all be just as traumatic as the harassment itself. No one on the receiving end of harassment or assault should have to feel that they are the ones who have to leave an event, or any event where a harasser is present, or that they are being made to leave literary circles all together and for good.
Initially run solely by Bryony and Julia, then alongside a small group of volunteers, Good Night Out became a community interest company just over a year ago, and I was proud to be one of the five founding directors. After being awarded ninety-nine thousand pounds funding to cover the next three years from ROSA – The UK Fund For Women and Girls, GNO is now run by three part-time staff, a small team of freelance trainers, and additionally by volunteers. One of the most exciting things I’ve been part of with GNO is also one of the most promising things for the future: co-writing this toolkit with the Mayor of London’s Office based on the GNO training, so organisations and spaces in London can proactively transform themselves into welcoming and safer spaces.
If we want things to change, everyone has to make it happen. At times it can seem impossible to change the world, but we do have the power to change the little slice of it we have, and to set an utopian example that could become the new normal. We just have to have hope, and act.