By Aubrey Violeta Gelpieryn, The New Boundaries*
It’s Friday night, and you’re at your local bar. As soon as you order, there’s someone standing behind you offering to buy your drink and trying to talk to you. No matter how many times you insist that you’re fine and want to be alone, this person doesn’t leave. What are you supposed to do next?
“What’s surprising is the persistence of men,” said Jordan Clarke Halsey, 23, a bartender at Barcelona Wine Bar in Washington, D.C.’s Cathedral Heights neighborhood. “When you’re watching behind the bar it’s so obvious that women aren’t interested.”
Halsey says that despite this, bartenders don’t always know when or how to step in.
Safe Bars, a D.C.-based organization that took off in 2016, holds two-hour bystander intervention trainings for bar staff and management with the goal of creating a safer and more welcoming nightlife culture.
“A safe bar is a place where the staff have been trained to have your back,” said Lauren Taylor, the co-founder and director of Safe Bars. Her training sessions focus on fostering discussion and communication among restaurant and bar staff.
Safe Bars has led trainings in nine cities and counties around the country. Taylor has close to 100 requests for trainings. She says the #MeToo movement sparked an increased interest, both by individuals and by groups, to take part in the training.
Miguel Brajas, the co-manager and event coordinator at Ten Tigers Parlour in the Petworth neighborhood of Washington, D.C., completed the Collective Action Safe Space training through Safe Bars with his staff in August.
Brajas says that even before the training, they made efforts to be all-inclusive with the events held at his bar. As a gay hispanic man, Brajas says his staff have always known that diversity and inclusion is one of his top priorities.
Most of what they were taught at the training were already being implemented by his staff, said Brajas, but the Safe Bars training helped reinforce what they should do and gave them more options.
Taylor says this is usually the case.
“We walk in knowing that in most establishments people who work there are already doing things,” said Taylor. “I have found that among the staff there hasn’t been a sharing of techniques.”
Most Safe Bars trainings turn into a conversation and skills session where everyone learns from everyone else. A large part of this is focused on knowing what signs of escalation look like, so that bartenders can prevent things from getting worse.
Every training is experiential and participatory. Staff take part in simulations and act out what they would do in different situations before kicking someone out of the venue. The trainings are all a variation on “direct, distract or delegate,” according to Taylor.
An important part of the training is making sure the staff knows the owners or managers have their back and that their job won’t be in jeopardy for taking steps against sexual misconduct.
For Brajas, this is one of the most important parts of keeping his bar safe.
“Our bar staff is really close knit,” said Brajas.
“We have a zero tolerance policy.”
According to Brajas, this policy means security will remove anyone who is engaging in questionable behavior from the bar. This, along with constant communication between staff, is what Brajas says prevents sexual misconduct at his venue.
“Any little thing that happens or is brought up to my attention, if I talk to the person that doesn’t seem comfortable and they bring it up, the person who is making them uncomfortable is asked to leave,” said Brajas.
Not every bar has a security team to handle issues of misconduct. According to Leah Waynberg, 40, a bartender at Fado Irish Pub in the district’s Chinatown, she typically will have to ask a male who is working with her to remove someone from the pub if they are doing things that are making customers uncomfortable.
In Safe Bars trainings, Taylor puts emphasis on looking at the whole range of sexual harassment and gender-based violence. She has noticed that bystander intervention training is most effective when bar staff communicates about and is aware of all behaviors.
An example that Taylor has seen participants act out in Safe Bars trainings is if a man who didn’t take no for an answer was hitting on a woman at the bar. In this situation, the bartender just moved a drink a few seats over to separate the man from the woman.
“It’s a spectrum. You can’t ignore the lower things,” said Taylor. “That’s when bystanders can prevent things from getting worse.”
The Role of Alcohol
In the wake of the #MeToo movement, alcohol is a reoccurring excuse used by perpetrators of sexual misconduct; however, according to Taylor, this excuse isn’t valid.
“Alcohol does not cause sexual assault,” said Taylor. “However, it is the most commonly used date-rape drug.”
As Safe Bars expands into more cities and states, Taylor is learning that not all locations have the same issues and needs. In Juneau, Alaska, a prominent issue is cruise ships dropping people off to drink and shop in the city for a day or two. In Colorado, more concerns were raised by bar staff about tourists, as opposed to locals.
These trainings don’t just help guests at the venues, they are also used to help create techniques to keep people safe and comfortable in the workplace.
It’s not just establishments that sell alcohol that are worried about drunk behavior creating a dangerous environment for staff and patrons.
Her most surprising client? A chain of coffee shops.
Peregrine Espresso requested a training, even though they don’t serve alcohol, because they were having problems with drunk people coming to their coffee shops after a night of drinking.
From Behind The Bar
Sexual misconduct at bars can become a workplace issue when the person being harassed is taking orders or serving drinks.
Halsey says he struggles drawing the line of what is acceptable behavior from patrons towards him when he’s trying to ensure he gets paid.
“Tips are essentially my entire income,” said Halsey. “You get in this strange mindset where it’s like let them have their fun, it’s for a tip.”
While other industries are noticing changes in the wake of the #MeToo movement, Waynberg, who has been serving and bartending for 21 years, hasn’t noticed any difference in her place of work.
“I’ve seen zero change in how they [male patrons] act towards women,” said Waynberg. “They’re still flirty, they still think that they can reach across the bar and touch you, lots of sexual innuendo.”
This is something that Taylor has tried to change with Safe Bars trainings.
“We trained an upscale restaurant/cocktail place and the staff kept saying that because it’s so expensive the people coming there feel so entitled to everything — including the staff,” said Taylor.
Staff often rely on their managers to support them in situations where patrons make them uncomfortable. This is why clear communication is so important.
At Ten Tigers, Brajas says his bartenders have had instances where they have served a customer and then took the drink away after something inappropriate was said.
“At the end of the day us being comfortable is more important than the dollars they would give us,” said Brajas.
“I will say as opposed to serving the bar does offer you a little bit of protection, at least physically,” said Halsey. “When you’re on the floor serving, people can touch and grab you and stuff.”
Waynberg has had similar experiences. She says being a bartender makes her feel like she has more power and control, than she had as a server.
“When I was on the floor it was different because they felt like they could touch,” she said. “But fortunately there is a bar between me now, so they can only leer and say things.”
She says she doesn’t know a single woman who works as a server who hasn’t had a man try to touch or grab her in her place of work. And it’s not just men.
“Women who sit at the bar do a lot of the same things that men do,” said Waynberg, when talking about how people have reached across the bar to touch her male colleagues.
Halsey has noticed that his female co-workers tend to opt for one of two directions when choosing their “personality behind the bar.” They will either dress more sexually to appeal to customers, or dress in baggier clothes in the hope of being ignored by the men behind the bar.
While Waynberg, doesn’t think the #MeToo movement has had an impact on behavior at bars, she thinks there’s been a change in the attitudes of women bartenders.
“I noticed a shift in how female servers and bartenders feel more empowered,” said Waynberg. “I really think it started before #MeToo though. I think it was something coming and #MeToo gave a name to it.”
*This story was originally shared on The New Boundaries and has been re-posted here by the author.
Aubrey Gelpieryn is a journalist currently in New York. She enjoys writing about music, politics and current events.