Don’t be that guy

Sunday National, 24th October 2021.

I had one university classmate who would stagger past tipsy and plunge headlong into drunkenness long before everyone else on a night out. You would see the palpable ripple of interest from men across the room as she became visibly the worse for wear, followed by a tightening circle of their attention, then gradual approaches from random – often solitary, always acutely sober – guys trying to peel her off from the group, steer her into quiet corners, pull her into private conversation.

We always stonewalled them as best we could – but it was obvious these predatory strangers were drawn to her by her apparent lack of self-control. Some would back off. Others were more persistent. But these episodes weren’t isolated. They were repeated, week on week. These young men weren’t singular creeps, but part of the standard cast of characters you encountered in student unions, bars and clubs. What is it you find so attractive about women whose capacity to consent is so obviously impaired?

You will have seen the headlines. Police Scotland are currently investigating reports young women have been spiked or injected with needles in cities across Scotland, including Stirling, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Dundee. Examples are now being picked up across the UK.

Emma MacDonald is a 21-year-old Glasgow student who believes she was spiked by injection in a Glasgow bar. MacDonald mercifully made it home safely with friends after she began to lose physical control at the venue. She woke up the next morning with a distinctive mark on her arm, “like a scar with a pinpoint in the middle,” which she believes was the injection site. She told Channel 4 this week “it makes you feel so sick that’s what someone’s intentions are with you. I’m honestly still in shock. It is disgusting. It is really, really shocking that people think they should go on nights out and that’s their intention.”

In Edinburgh, students have organised a Girls Night In campaign, boycotting nightclubs in the city to “bring attention to the severity of the situation” and to encourage venues to take the issue seriously. The campaign, they explain, is rooted in “fear and anger regarding our safety and health.”

The law on this, at least, is clear. If you can prove it. If complaints are taken seriously. Injecting any kind of intoxicant into another person’s body is a seriously aggravated assault. Depending on the circumstances, the courts could treat it as assault with intent to rape. Administering a substance for sexual purposes stands alone as a crime under section 11 of the Sexual Offences (Scotland) Act 2009.

If the victim doesn’t know the substance is being administered – whether concealed in a drink or in a syringe – and the purpose of administering it is to stupefy or overpower them – the courts can impose up to five years imprisonment. The behaviour could also be prosecuted under the common law as “administration of a noxious substance” – a crime we more usually associate with Victorian poisoners rather than student clubs in modern Scotland.  

You can understand the sense of alarm these stories have generated amongst young women across the UK. After months of being shuttered up in their homes, young folk finally the opportunity to enjoy a bit of freedom – and they’re immediately confronted with a story as sinister as this.

As Kelly Grehnan of 50:50 Parliament has written, “worrying about our safety is an integral part of our existence as women,” and “it is drummed into us from a young age that our actions determine our safety.” You can refuse offers of drinks from strangers. You can take care not to leave your glass unattended on the bar top. You can’t avoid a covert needle in a crowded club. Like the death of Sarah Everard, this story underscores that women cannot be responsible for ending the violence they experience. Only men can.

You don’t need to look far for similar stories. Just this week, the High Court of Justiciary threw out an appeal against conviction brought by a man called Raymond Nyiam. Nyiam was convicted of raping two complainers while they were intoxicated and incapable of giving or withholding consent. He met each of these young women in the course of nights out in central Edinburgh in 2017 and 2018. On each occasion he accompanied them home. On each occasion, he opportunistically raped these heavily-intoxicated women. Nyiam was jailed for seven years.

Reflecting on these news reports, one of my law students tweeted this week “You can’t even enjoy a night out because half your time is planning how not to get kidnapped.” It is difficult to know which emotion I felt more strongly reading that – anger or sorrow. If any of you are even tempted to dismiss this as teenage overstatement, take yourself in hand.

When young women tell you that they are afraid, believe them. When eighteen year olds tell you living in our society has already taught them to think this way, taught them to map escape routes in their heads, taught them to devise avoidance behaviour, taught them to invent new ways not to get assaulted – when young women tell you that their nights out can feel like hostile environments with the eyes of predatory always men on their back – and now, perhaps, with needles in their arms – believe them. If your first reaction to reading these stories is to say “but men can be victims too,” or to throw out some version of the “not all men” defence – you’re missing the point entirely.

If you feel inclined to respond this way – ask yourself, why do you feel the need to change the topic of conversation so quickly? What is it about stopping for a moment, and actually listening to what women and girls tell us about their everyday life which makes you so uncomfortable? When people point out that the overwhelming majority of victims of street harassment, domestic abuse and sexual violence are women and girls, and that men are overwhelmingly the perpetrators of these offences – why can’t you just confront that reality, rather than trying to find ways to quibble with, or minimise, or otherwise deflect from this litany of destructive behaviour?

You may not assault, and harass and victimise the women in your life. Most men don’t. But if your need to justify your discomfort matters more to you than actually listening to and trying to understand what women and girls live with day and daily in our society when they try to tell you about the violence they experience, to explain the fear they live with, the objectification they often come to take for granted – then you seriously need to review your priorities.

Police Scotland have just launched a new publicity campaign which attempts to reframe narratives about violence against women by focusing on challenging and changing men’s behaviour, rather than focusing on what women and girls can to do avoid being sexually assaulted or harassed by men. “Don’t Be That Guy” represents an important shift of emphasis.

Men need to park the defensive reactions – and actually listen. Because most of us just don’t understand the experiences the women in our lives all take for granted. Most of us don’t understand what it means to go about our lives against the background hum of anxiety. Not really. If we listen, we might learn something we didn’t know about what it means to grow up and live as a woman in modern Scotland.

If we want to recentre the conversation on men in a constructive way, then let’s talk about what it is about our culture which helps create men and boys who can contemplate behaving in this way. Let’s recentre the conversation on how it can be that taking sexual advantage of the stocious, the unconscious, the asleep, or the black-out drunk can ever seem an acceptable thing to do. Let’s talk about why men are capable of so fundamentally dehumanising people like this. And more than anything else, let’s work to change it.

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