June 2023

Good night, stay safe

The night is a place where boundaries fade, you can experiment, and you can let down your guard. But it is also a place that is plagued by intimidation and discrimination. Being able to go out safely at night is a real issue, which increasingly more clubs are trying to address. So what’s it like in Utrecht?

text: Malou Gouders
photography: Queer in Wonderland

‘Are you okay?’, or ‘Ask for Angela’. Anyone who frequents clubs or pop podiums has probably seen them: posters informing visitors about having a safe night out. And the ones with captions like: ‘No racism, no sexism, no hate’, setting out the zero-tolerance policy on unaccep­table behaviour. Attention for social safety during a night out is not only increasing in the clubs; everyone is getting in on the act with events venues even posting about it on social media. Detailed Instagram posts with house rules are increasingly common on the Utrecht nightlife scene.

Inclusive nightlife

Safe nightlife is one of the focus points of the Utrecht Night Vision, in which the municipality is laying down its ambitions regarding the city’s night-time culture for the years to come. The policy document states that by 2013, every night-time visitor must be free to express themselves, without the threat of discrimination and aggression. ‘Discovering who you are is an important aspect of night culture. To do this, the environment needs to feel safe,’ says Shaked Franke, coordinator of the Utrecht Night-time Forum (Nachtoverleg) set up to unite and represent the local nightlife sector. ‘Unfortunately, nasty things still happen on a ight out. It’s essential that we monitor developments closely.’

The Night-time Forum is challenging the municipality to think about its responsibility regarding social safety, and to take more, faster action to recognise and prevent unacceptable behaviour. The municipality is funding Safer Clubbing training courses for night-time hospitality venues, for example, during which staff are taught to deal with and de-escalate volatile situations and make night venues safer and more inclusive. The courses focus on the different ways that people perceive their personal space, and how this can depend on context, gender, sexuality and cultural background. But there’s a lot to be gained in other areas too, continues Saked. ‘A lot of the measures focus on the city centre, but some nightlife is further out of town; take the Werkspoorgebied. You need to keep the people who go there (and back) for a night out safe too. This includes improving bus connections and more lighting on the bike lanes.’

Eyes and ears

Measures to prevent unacceptable behaviour are already in place at the door and inside many clubs, parties and events. At technoclub BASIS you get a briefing about the house rules as you go in. WAS., the pop-up nightclub in the old laundry of the Werkspoorkathedraal, goes even further. Long queues can form at the door, as the bouncers explain exactly what is expected of visitors. ‘Is this your first time at Club WAS.?’, they ask. Followed by: ‘We are a safe place for all. Discrimination isn’t tolerated.’ WAS. also employs an awareness team to mingle with visitors and intervene if they notice unaccep­table behaviour. ‘We call them our ‘fabric conditioners’,’ says club manager Robin Schoemaker.

‘The bouncers don’t patrol the dancefloor here; it cramps people’s style. But the awareness team act as their eyes and ears. If someone is being hassled in the venue, we send in the awareness team to assess the situation. The bouncers then remove the offending person if necessary.’

‘Can I help you?’

Hosts are a common sight in various other clubs and at parties. They are clearly recognisable and can be approached if there are problems. In TivoliVredenburg, they wear shirts with the text ‘Can I help you?’, and at the Utrecht events venue La Cassette they wear fluorescent red armbands. Other party organisers put their own security staff on the door of a venue, or employ a team to patrol the dancefloor. Inspirational, says Vasco Vlasveld, night-time programmer at EKKO, which often works alongside party organisers. ‘We’re considering how we could implement measures like these at our own club nights.’

Pep talk

You’ll sometimes see a party organiser’s awareness team in De Helling too, explains night-time programmer Lévi Smulders, but it’s not always suitable in the pop podiums. ‘Our programme is too varied to have a team permanently deployed. Not every target group appreciates it. Other rules are a permanent fixture. De Helling, WAS. and EKKO all provide Safer Clubbing training courses, and they pay a lot of attention to the vibe among their staff. Lévi: ‘The mentality in the workplace is paramount. If the staff are professional, friendly and open-minded, this will rub off on the club-goers.’

Despite the positive developments, we’re not there yet. Very few festivals provide awareness teams or a pep talk at the door. The sites themselves usually ask visitors to treat each other with respect, but this is difficult to enforce. Elevation Events, responsible for Utrecht festivals including Soenda and De Leuke Festival, is currently only introducing new safety measures at Orbit. ‘Orbit is a new, relatively small festival, where we are running a pilot with awareness teams. But I think that we’ll probably use them in larger events in the future,’ says Jasper Coenen, owner of Elevation Events, which also runs Club WAS. and has all the relevant experience of safe nightlife.

Another side note to the optimism: not all of Utrecht’s night-time hospitality venues are on board. Hardly surprising, according to Shaked. ‘You know to take precautions if you throw a party for the queer community, because this group is more vulnerable. But it might not occur to you if you’re running a bar with a Spotify list as entertainment.’ So the step to implementing safety policy has to be as easy as possible for bars organising ad hoc functions. ‘It would make a huge difference if owners themselves could inspire each other to improve safety policy within their own networks. Instead of enforcing rules, the municipality should facilitate meetings between these entrepreneurs and help them to understand the importance of social safety.’

According to Shaked, every discussion of the subject represents a step forwards. ‘Social safety policy isn’t done and dusted after attending a course. Ideally, you should meet every week to talk about it so that people running night-time venues realise exactly what’s going on. But in the meantime, I’m delighted with this increasing awareness.’

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