Consent-Based Spaces in New York City after the Repeal of the Cabaret Law

Copyright of the House of Yes

 The way children react to boundaries has always been fascinating.  Boundaries provide them the freedom to express themselves within specified guard rails as opposed to prohibitions, which can be much more restrictive and therefore incentivize children to break the rules altogether. Living within boundaries feels akin to agreeing to paint within the lines while living with prohibitions feels akin to having your paint and brush taken away. The former leaves room for discretion and creativity whereas the latter shuts down this space completely. This dichotomy can be applied to the New York City dance club scene since the repeal of the New York Cabaret Law in 2017.

While the New York City Cabaret Law attempted in part to create a safer nightlife by completely prohibiting dancing in establishments without cabaret licenses, dance clubs in the post-Cabaret Law era are attempting to create safe, inclusive, and legal spaces by setting boundaries related to consent that all patrons must agree to prior to entering the space. Both the Cabaret Law and the consent-based programs are  intended  to police bodies and culture in New York City nightlife. However, while the restrictive Cabaret Law had the effect of pushing social dancing into spaces that were illegal and unregulated, the permissive consent-based programs create boundaries that make social dancing safer for everyone.

Enacted in 1926, the Cabaret Law made it illegal to host musical entertainment, sing, dance or engage in other forms of amusement without a license. While the law persisted for 91 years, the enforcement of the law was at an all-time low leading up to the repeal. Still, by 2017 only 97 out of roughly 25,000 eating and drinking establishments in New York City had a cabaret license.[1] These low numbers are the result of the costly and time-consuming obstacles of acquiring a cabaret license, which required the approval of several agencies in addition to operating in areas zoned for commercial manufacturing.

While the Cabaret Law sought to control behavior that it deemed unsafe—as well as to demonize dancing by portraying it as amoral—the result was that it pushed nightlife into underground, unregulated spaces. This was especially true for the dance music scene that started with disco in the 1970s and continues to the present. Given that these dance parties were happening illegally in abandoned warehouses or lofts, the safety and security of the partygoers was severely compromised by spaces that were not compliant with fire codes and fell outside the radar of police and other emergency response teams. In effect, instead of protecting New Yorkers from “criminal activity” in nightlife establishments, the Cabaret Law pushed regular New Yorkers into even less safe environments.

Since the 2017 repeal of the law, the boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens have seen a proliferation of spaces dedicated to dancing, including House of Yes in Brooklyn and Nowadays in Queens. What these two clubs have in common is their strict consent rules: every customer entering their establishment must abide by specific rules of conduct which include agreeing not to touch anyone, in any way, without clearly expressed verbal consent. Though these rules benefit everyone, they are specifically designed to protect historically abused communities from unwanted sexual advances, including women and the LGBTQ+ community. Fascinatingly, these programs have had an impact on public policy. 

Drawing on Henri Lefebvre’s concept of the “right to the city,” the repeal of the Cabaret Law has allowed New Yorkers to create legal spaces that protect their right to the city by allowing social dancing and recognizing spaces created for dancing as invaluable to city life.[2] Inherent to Lefebvre’s concept of the “right to the city” is the idea that an urban environment is a space for creativity and expression with a resistance to capitalism and bureaucratic order. While social dancing fits strongly into this definition, the repeal of the Cabaret Law does not signify  resistance to capitalism and bureaucrats. Instead, the repeal was made possible precisely because political actors as well as business owners saw the expansion of the nightlife scene in New York City as a market opportunity.

While the right to the city entails the protection to participate equally in urban spaces based on a diversity of activities available and accessible to all city dwellers, the concept of “urban rights” can be defined as a crucial right to be in a public space.[3] This means that the “urban right” is characterized by the existence of public space that grants equal access to every member of an urban society regardless of an individual’s economic, racial, sexual, and other social/ascriptive identity. Given their emphasis on consent rules that forbid physical contact of any kind without explicit permission, House of Yes and Nowadays are creating environments where all individuals can feel safe and supported while expressing themselves through dance. Though  these rules protect everyone, they are especially important in safeguarding the urban rights of women and LGBTQ+ individuals who typically encounter unwanted sexual harassment and experience frequent invasions of their personal space in nightlife environments.

These kinds of consent-based programs have existed within the context of illegal underground dance parties prior to the repeal of the Cabaret Law, especially in spaces created for sexual expression in the LGBTQ+ community. However, the legality of the new dance spaces afforded by the repeal of the Cabaret Law means that women and LGBTQ+ individuals don’t have to attend illegal dance parties in order to participate in events where their consent will be asked and upheld.

While both House of Yes and Nowadays have established programs aimed at creating safe spaces for all their patrons, they each have adopted their own brand of consent-based programs. Given that House of Yes describes itself as a “temple of expression” and hosts parties where costumes are mandatory, it is no surprise that its consent program is enforced by what it describes as “consenticorns”. While this term might make the role of enforcement seem frivolous, the program is actually taken very seriously. It consists of waivers, signage (“If you feel something, say something”), staff training, and a code of conduct policy posted on all event pages. When partygoers enter the venue, they are immediately greeted by a consenticorn and are asked to agree to the following statement: “You are not going to touch anyone, in any way, without getting express verbal consent. This is true for all gender variations. Anything that is not a ‘Yes’ or a ‘Hell, yes’ is a ‘Hell, no.’ And should anyone, at any point, feel unsafe, look for one of us with a horn. We’re the consenticorns, and we’re here to help you.”[4]

Most of the consenticorns have been trained by Emma Kaywin, a sexual-health educator for hospitals and civic groups, who now co-directs House of Yes’s consent-based program. By February 2019, eighty people had been trained in de-escalation strategies, including how to talk about microaggressions, consent violations, “over-inebriation”,  and violence. As House of Yes co-founder Kay Burke told The New Yorker: “It’s really about people looking out for each other and not feeling like there’s this nanny-state babysitter of a night club.”[5] The program is so successful that the waiting list for training is seventy people long and other party organizers have begun to hire the consenticorns for freelance gigs.[6] Clearly, there is a need and demand for this kind of service.

 Although Nowadays does not use a creative term like consenticorn to brand its consent-based program, its message is no less impactful. Instead, the venue has a fleet of “safer space crew” on and around the dance floor who wear red bracelets. Similar to House of Yes, prior to entering the main venue, patrons are greeted by a door manager in a small room, and asked to explicitly agree to a set of rules. These include no tolerance for violence, non-consensual touching,  the use of racist, homophobic, transphobic, sexist or other discriminatory language, and leering.[7] If anyone feels unsafe in the space, they can reach out to the “safer space crew” to help resolve the problem.

While these consent-based programs still control bodies within their establishments  in order to ensure safety, they do so in a way that protects the urban rights and the right to the city of all individuals who enter their doors with the goal of respectfully participating in a social dancing event. They create boundaries within which individuals have the freedom to be themselves and express their creativity through dance. This stands in stark opposition to the prohibition on dancing under the Cabaret Law, where individuals were not even allowed to dance in public spaces in order to mitigate the risks that come from nightlife activity.           

The success of the consent-based program at House of Yes inspired New York City Councilman Rafael Espinal to introduce legislation with the goal of codifying consent and ensuring safety from sexual harassment in nightlife establishments. In fact, Espinal partnered with the co-founders of House of Yes, Anya Sapozhnikova and Kae Burk, to launch an awareness campaign about consent.[8] On October 31, 2018, Espinal proposed a three-part bill that would require all nightlife venue staff to receive proper bystander training as part of their initial hiring process, the display of      posters explaining the rules of consent were highly visible in the venue, and  the Mayor’s Office of Nightlife to post information relating to consent and training on its website.[9] In his support for the bill, Espinal specifically stated: “Unfortunately, harassment is so common at some nightlife venues that many women see it as part of the experience of going out.”[10] Clearly then, part of the impetus for proposing an increased awareness of sexual harassment in nightlife establishments is the protection of the urban rights of women, and this includes spaces for social dancing. Some of the concerns with the bill related to the hesitation on the part of the nightlife venues to assume responsibility and liability for harassment occurring in their spaces.

While the bill has yet to be enacted into law, if properly implemented, it would reinforce the protection of urban rights of all individuals. However, the mere fact that this is a conversation that is part of official political discourse is a major win for those who are frequent targets of sexual harassment in nightlife establishments. In accepting the need for social dancing spaces, New York City leaders are also faced with acknowledging the need to reinforce safety and respect in nightlife culture. New York City nightlife is being set on a path to self-improvement.


Works Cited

[1] Annie Correal, “After 91 Years, New York Will Let Its People Boogie,” The New York Times, November 6, 2017, sec. New York, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/30/nyregion/new-york-cabaret-law-repeal.html.

[2] Henri Lefebvre, Writings on Cities, ed. Eleonore Kofman and Elizabeth Lebas, 1 edition (Cambridge, Mass, USA: Wiley-Blackwell, 1996).

[3] Don Mitchell, The Right to the City: Social Justice and the Fight for Public Space (Guilford Press, 2003).

[4] Emily Witt, “Is 2019 the Year of the Consenticorn?,” The New Yorker, February 4, 2019, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/02/11/is-2019-the-year-of-the-consenticorn.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] “Safer Space – Nowadays,” 2019, https://nowadays.nyc/safer-space/.

[8] Jarret Lyons, “Council Member Rafael Espinal And Bushwick’s House Of Yes Team Up To Combat Sexual Harassment,” Bushwick Daily, November 5, 2018, https://bushwickdaily.com/bushwick/categories/music/5693-bushwick-council-member-rafael-espinal-and-bushwick-s-house-of-yes-team-up-to-combat-sexual-harassment.

[9] Daisy Prince, “New York Introduces Three Bills to Put an End to Sexual Harassment at Clubs and Bars,” Document Journal, October 31, 2018, https://www.documentjournal.com/2018/10/new-york-introduces-three-bills-to-put-an-end-to-sexual-harassment-at-clubs-and-bars/.

[10] Lyons.