7 Ways Bartenders Can Prevent Sexual Harassment and Assault

People in a bar.
Make it a priority to protect the patrons and staff of your bar from sexual harassment and assault. Photo via iStock/zoranm.

As a bartender and bar owner, I’ve struggled with many of the moral and ethical issues that surround my trade. Among the most troubling is the role that bars, and drinking more broadly, plays in sexual harassment and assault. Alcohol does not cause rape, but it’s often involved, and if bar owners do not actively work to mitigate the role that we inadvertently play as purveyors, then we become part of the problem.

To, instead, be part of the solution, there are practical steps that bartenders, owners and managers can take to help reduce the risk of sexual assault in your establishments. First and foremost is to seek professional training: organizations like the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center (BARCC), Safe Bars (a joint project of the DC-based Collective Action for Safe Spaces and Defend Yourself), and Louisiana’s Sexual Trauma Awareness and Response (STAR) provide indispensable resources on this front, so you can also check if a similar organization operates in your area.

1. Recognize the role we play.

Alcohol is the most common and widely used date rape drug. There are plenty of reasons for this: it’s legal, it’s not socially stigmatized, and it works. Over-consumption of alcohol can be physically and mentally incapacitating and can cause lapses in memory — all are effects that rapists look for in a date rape drug.

While alcohol neither causes nor excuses rape, rapists often use it as a tool, or opportunistically prey on people who have become intoxicated on their own. It can be both a camouflage and a weapon. As a camouflage, victims who were drunk at the time of their assault may question their own complicity (as society often does) or even fail to realize that a crime has taken place. As a weapon, perpetrators often specifically ply potential victims with alcohol to make them easier targets.

Because of how often people blame the victims of rape for having the gall to get drunk, it's worth repeating: alcohol, while often a factor, does not cause rape. Tara Culp-Ressler sums it up effectively: “Getting intoxicated only leads to rape when there’s someone present to commit that rape. When you remove rapists from the equation, the risks of getting drunk … don’t include getting raped.”

Similarly, while bars do not cause rape, they can provide rapists with one of the most commonly used tools of the trade and a venue to use it. A friend who works in the health center of a local university estimates that, of the two or so times a week that she treats a rape victim, almost all of the victims were drinking at a bar with their attackers at some point in the evening. No bars are immune. To put it bluntly, if you’re reading this and thinking, “I’m glad this kind of thing doesn’t happen in my bar,” you’re probably wrong — and pretending otherwise makes you part of the problem.

2. Know that there is no “type."

If your instincts tell you that someone is not to be trusted, trust your instincts. (Don’t take action based on a hunch, though: that’s discrimination.) That awkward, creepy loner in the corner with the weird smell and missing teeth? Keep an eye on him. That funny, smart, well-dressed smooth talker who the ladies love, who is a regular at the bar, who everyone seems to know? Keep an eye on him, too.

Most rapists don’t fall into some easy stereotype — and in fact, the vast majority are people who know their victims, often well. Many are good-looking, successful, and otherwise upstanding members of the community. Don’t ignore allegations or overlook red flags just because someone has a reputation as a “nice guy” or is a regular. There is no type, and there may even be people you know and trust who have a history of committing sexual violence.

3. Let guests know that you’re there to help.

This can be done both passively and actively.

To passively communicate with guests, BARCC recommends posting signs in restrooms to let patrons know that they should report when another patron is making them feel unsafe or uncomfortable. Here’s a picture of the one we just put up in the bathrooms at my bar:

A photo with a message telling bar guests to notify staff of sexual harassment happening anywhere in the bar. The sign in T. Cole Newton's bar lets guests know that the staff are there to help and to warn potential predators that inappropriate behavior will not be tolerated.

There are several specific choices made in the language here. First, guests are encouraged to report not only their own harassment, but also that of others. Some may worry about being meddlesome, but we want people to know that their meddling is more than welcome — it’s a vital form of bystander intervention, a key strategy in addressing sexual violence on a societal level. Second, it is made clear that letting us know about troubling behavior isn’t inconvenient for us. We want to know if something is going on that may require our attention. Really, we need to know in order to effectively tend the bar. Third, I put my name on it. I wouldn’t have — this isn’t about me — but BARCC recommends it. Having someone’s name to reference makes it easier to ask for help.

Also worth noting: we put the signs up in both the men’s and women’s rooms. I want men to know that they are more than welcome to report anything that makes them feel uncomfortable, but I also want them to know in advance that ours is not a space that will tolerate harassment.

I should acknowledge that there were signs up in my bar that said basically the same thing long before I put mine up, courtesy of Ann Glaviano. Ann (who has written elsewhere of her own experience with sexual violence) hosts Heatwave!, our monthly oldies dance party, and displays laminated signs asserting that the "dance floor is a safe space for every body."

To actively communicate, don’t hesitate to approach a guest who may look like they are trapped in an interaction they’d rather not be in. Even a friendly “Are you doing all right?” while bussing the table or taking an order can be helpful — it lets both the aggressor and their victim know that someone is paying attention. That said, you may for a number of reasons get a false negative — that is, someone may tell you that they are okay when they are not. (More on what to do in that situation below.)

If you find an opening and feel compelled to do so, a more specific query — “Do you want me to do something about that guy?” — could make a world of difference, and if you ask when the two are separated, the answer is likely to be more honest.

4. Don’t wait for a complaint to intervene.

On the effectiveness of having bystanders intervene in instances of harassment, and the difficulty sussing out whether there’s a problem that requires intervention, Ann writes:

Regarding the guy in my social and professional circle who stalked and harassed me for for six months, not only did I not ask for help from my friends and supervisors, but also when they asked me if I wanted them to intervene, I told them no. They did it anyway. I was terrified it was going to make the situation worse, but it was absolutely the action that ended the harassment for me. I have seen a woman get harassed at Heatwave! and asked her point-blank if she was okay, and she said yes. It turned out she wasn't. In the meantime a friend of mine picked up on my concern about the situation and ran physical interference (dancing with the woman while physically blocking the harasser), and I also ran physical and verbal interference at the end of the night, and the harasser (finally) left.

If you see or hear something troubling, don’t wait for an invitation to interject yourself into the situation. This can be hard (and awkward), but be tough. A decent person may feel insulted, but they will probably understand why you’ve intervened.

Sometimes the need to intervene is clear. Is a patron attempting to leave with a semi-conscious woman with whom they did not arrive? That’s the kind of obvious trouble that warrants an intervention — don’t let them leave without at least trying to figure out what’s going on. You can even have the person who’s “trying to help them get home” verify that they know each other on social media, for example. It may feel invasive, but at worst, it’s the lesser evil.

Sometimes, however, the situation less clear — some see harassment as inevitable and won’t complain when it happens, others may feel they are at risk of angering someone who is already being aggressive. A seasoned bartender should know how to read things like posture, facial expressions, and tone in order to spot these situations. (If you’ve been behind the bar for more than a shift or two, odds are that you’ve already identified someone trying and failing to politely deflect unwanted attention. Trust your instincts.)

When intervening on behalf of a guest who is being harassed, I haven’t found anything more effective than a simple and direct: “Hey, I think they want to be left alone.”

Especially if your intervention was not invited by the victim, the response might be, “They don’t seem to have a problem with it.” Then they’ll turn back to their target and say something like, “I’m not bothering you, am I?”

When this happens, make it about you. I usually say, “I don’t care if you’re bothering them. You’re bothering me.”

As with any potentially volatile interaction with guests at your bar (cutting someone off, for example), be polite but firm. There’s really no way to have that conversation without pissing off the aggressor, but I’d rather have them mad at me than victimizing someone. Diverting the attention of the aggressor to you might also provide the potential victim with a window they can use to remove themselves from the situation. I cut people a lot of slack when it comes to shitty behavior at my bar — we ain’t the Ritz — but the line is always drawn when their shitty behavior is ruining someone else’s night.

5. Don’t send someone a drink that they didn’t ask for.

Okay, if someone comes up to the bar and orders a round for them and their friends, I’m not suggesting that you track down each friend to verify the order.

But if someone says, “Hey, send that girl a shot,” my answer is always to turn to the girl in question and tell her that this guest has offered to buy her a shot. If she is interested, she will say so, and vice versa. (The interaction goes a lot differently if a shot just shows up: if she rejects it, she’s being rude and wasteful. Don’t put someone in that situation.) We don’t go so far as to outright ban any man from starting a conversation with a woman he doesn’t know without brokering that interaction with the bar first (many cocktail bars do), but we never serve unrequested drinks on behalf of strangers.

A related case arises when a guest orders a stronger drink for their companion than they order for themselves. Consider this scenario, from the BARCC Bar Workshop (via STAR):

[Marcella] was serving a table of two individuals out on a date, but when the woman went to the restroom, the man asked Marcella to bring a few ... shots to the table. The problem was that he asked Marcella to serve his date vodka and him water. When she did bring the shots to the table, she switched them so that the woman got the water. When the woman complained that she had received water, Marcella explained to her what her companion had asked her to do, and said she must have mixed them up. It brought the hidden situation into the open and Marcella was there to ensure that the woman knew what was going on.

This is a tricky situation: the man was misrepresenting his own drinking in a way that telegraphed bad intentions, but if Marcella had just refused, the woman would never have known the man had tried to trick her. I don’t advocate lying to guests (or anyone else) to avoid difficult conversations, but, in this case, I think Marcella made the right call. (Another option would be for Marcella to have waited for the woman to return from the bathroom before serving the shots, and then loudly declared, “One vodka, one water. There you go!”)

6. Make sure their friends know what’s up. If they are alone, be their friend.

More than once I’ve found myself in a situation where a drunk guest’s friend offers to “get them home safe” in a way that makes me wonder about that friend’s true intentions. Is this a noble gesture or opportunistic predation? They can both look the same. If possible, make sure their mutual friends know what’s happening. If the other friends are fine with it, you can be, too. If their reaction is, “Ooh, nah, we’ll get her home,” then you may have just saved the day.

Make sure that if a guest is there with a group of friends, they know when that guest is incapacitated and about to leave with someone they don’t know. The bar staff will be more sober than the patrons, and we may be privy to conversations they aren’t, which often puts us in a better position to see the big picture.

If there’s an incapacitated guest in your bar and they are not in the company of at least one helpful, watchful friend, do not leave them unattended. If you can’t take the time to babysit someone, you can recruit a trusted regular. “Hey, could you keep an eye on them? I’ll get your next drink. Just make sure they stay safe.”

What to do with the guest? You can wait for them to feel better, but honestly, if a guest is wholly incapacitated, the best thing may be to call an ambulance. It may not occur to us, as people who surround ourselves with booze and heavy drinkers, but if someone is completely unresponsive and doesn’t have a friend to help take care of them, they could probably benefit from medical assistance. Also, if you suspect that they have been drugged, medical care may allow prompt testing, which could provide evidence that can later be used in a criminal case.

Don’t just pour an incapacitated guest into a taxi or Uber. Best-case scenario, they get to their house, and then what? They may simply get dropped off on the curb and wind up in a more vulnerable position than they were in at your bar. You’re also leaving that person in the hands of a stranger who you have no reason to trust.

This is important, since the default solution for friends and bar staff alike is often to call a cab. This may be the best tactic when a guest is too drunk to drive but still sober enough to argue about it. It is not the answer if a guest is too intoxicated to stand. Best-case scenario: you’re asking someone else to deal with the problem. Worst-case scenario: you’ve gift-wrapped someone for a predator.

7. Communicate with the rest of your team.

If you have to intervene on behalf of a guest you feel might be in danger, tell the other bartenders, managers and team members about it. You’d do the same thing if you ran out of Ketel One, and there is a lot more at stake here. If you’ve interjected yourself into a situation, let a manager know, regardless of the outcome. If you’ve separated an incapacitated guest from an unwelcome suitor, tell the bouncer. As a bartender, you have a professional obligation to monitor these situations, but you can’t do it alone. A potential aggressor may still try to put one over on the other staff members if given the opportunity.

Here’s Ann again on the Heatwave! incident cited earlier:

Communicating is important. ... I intervened in that woman’s situation, she told me she was okay. I never mentioned it to you. The guy was cut off by the bar but never kicked out. No one mentioned it to me. He was a shithead all night and I got him to leave when we were already outside and the bar was closing — i.e., too late for that woman’s night not to be shitty.

Have you heard something troubling about a guest? You may not want to go so far as to ban someone based on rumors, but be sure that everyone who works there knows to keep an eye on them.

Ultimately, there is no quick fix to make any space completely safe and free from sexual harassment or assault — many of the interventions suggested here may not even be possible on a busy night when the bartenders are slammed and there are too many bodies to keep track of everyone individually (which, again, is why effective communication is so critical).

The knowledge of that difficulty can discourage us from taking action. But, while nobody can fix the whole world all on their own, the worst thing good people can do is nothing. Taking even a few basic steps to create a safer space lets people know that rape and other forms of harassment will not be tolerated, not just in your bar but everywhere. As more people become aware that the rest of us care enough to do something, it adds up to real, meaningful change.

If you or someone you know has been the victim of sexual violence, help is available through RAINN, the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network. Their national hotline for victims of abuse is 800.656.HOPE(4673) — calls are redirected to local centers to help victims find specific resources.

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