Research shows that alcohol is used as a weapon or an excuse in about 50% of sexual assault cases, putting bar staff in a unique position to help keep people safe. In DC, a number of bars are training staff on how to recognize harassment and how to prevent it from escalating to assault.
"Earlier this year," a woman named Star told the DC Council at its 2015 roundtable on street harassment, "the security manager of Tropicalia, a popular venue on U Street and an ABRA establishment, sent me to the hospital when he attacked me for objecting to unwanted touching. He said, 'I can touch you however I want,' while he put me in a bear hug and crushed my ribs."
Similar incidents of sexual and gender-based harassment, frequently shared on a local blog that collects these stories, happen too often in DC nightlife.
The program, called Safe Bars, trains bar and restaurant staff to recognize subtle signs that someone may feel unsafe or uncomfortable, and to intervene before it escalates. Safe Bars is headed up by two groups working to stop harassment and assault in DC: Collective Action for Safe Spaces and Defend Yourself.
Here's a map of the participating locations in DC and Maryland:
After a pilot year in 2015, the Safe Bars program relaunched in June 2016 and trained 20 local bars in the first six months through grassroots outreach and positive press that led many bars to request trainings on the Safe Bars website. Research shows that the environment around an aggressor can change their behavior, and calling out less severe incidents of harassment tells people that any unwanted contact won’t be tolerated in a space.
While many bartenders and servers who have been in the industry for a long time have already developed a lot of creative strategies for responding to the issues that frequently arise, the Safe Bars training gives them an opportunity to share those strategies with each other and learn new skills.
In a training at Colony Club, a bar in Park View, one participant shared a distraction technique that she has used to intervene when she saw someone being harassed. She approaches the person and says, "I know you were waiting for the bathroom to open up. It’s open now.” This simple distraction strategy channels energy away from an aggressive situation and gives the person being targeted an easy way out.
In 2016, 20 bars across the District got Safe Bar certification for their staff, and would-be patrons can recognize them by the yellow stickers in their windows.
Safe Bars has already had a positive impact on nightlife safety. I’m the Executive Director at CASS, and one of the co-directors of the Safe Bars program, and I recently received this email:
I was at 801 [one of the participating bars] when a somewhat drunk male patron who I was making friendly conversation with went to reach for something at the bar and put his hand on my stomach and pushed me out of the way. The bartender witnessed this and said, 'Hey, you should not touch a woman like that. You need to leave.'
The bartender told the woman who emailed me that he'd seen the same person shove another woman. "I really appreciated that he called the patron out," she said. "The patron was surprised but apologetic and hopefully it kept him from touching other women that night."
As the popularity of the program has grown over the past year, similar ideas are popping up around the world. In the United Kingdom, the Lincolnshire Rape Crisis Center started a campaign with posters in bar and restaurant bathrooms that tell patrons to “Ask for Angela” to discreetly ask bar staff to intervene and get them out of an uncomfortable situation.
i saw this in a toilet and thought it was important and should be a thing everywhere not just lincolnshire !!!! pic.twitter.com/oO45I7gaJL— strawberry girl (@iizzzzzi) October 18, 2016
Now, a new campaign at The Iberian Rooster restaurant in Florida tells bar goers to ask for the “Angel Shot” — neat to get an escort to your car, or with ice to get you a ride home.
The Safe Bars program here in DC includes safety messaging, too. During Domestic Violence Awareness Month, Safe Bars partnered with DC Coalition Against Domestic Violence to distribute posters to bars telling patrons: “You deserve to be treated with respect” — the same messaging as the ads that Collective Action for Safe Spaces later worked with Stop Street Harassment to launch across the Metro system.
The growing popularity of Safe Bars is encouraging, but there’s still a long way to go in making bars safe places for all members of our communities. .
There has been a spike in incidents of hate-based harassment and violence in our city since November 8th. While bars and public transit have made great strides toward fostering safe environments, it’s important for every space to be safe for our most marginalized community members.