Bars and lounges have historically been problematic spaces in the fight to prevent sexual violence. Expectations about alcohol are maddeningly intertwined with expectations about sex, and all of this takes place in the low-lit din of spots where the behavior of people who would look to hurt someone else might fly under the radar.
Bystander intervention at bars is not a new concept, but most often, it is directed toward encouraging individual patrons to protect potential victims: look out for your friends, come together and leave together, and don’t let your friend leave with someone if they seem to be too intoxicated. Those are all excellent and sensible tips, and ones that can be effective.
But what if we could take it further? Rather than try to reach and skill-build with every potential reveler, what if we could make effective bystander intervention part of the atmosphere at a bar? For the past few years, that’s what the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center has been trying to do, and I’d like to highlight some of the unique and innovative aspects of the project.
How we got started working with Bars
The bar trainings BARCC conducts across the city grew from our relationship with the Boston Police Department’s (BPD) sexual assault unit, and from the BPD’s relationship to the Liquor Licensing Board. The police department had identified a handful of “hot spots” in the city—areas with high concentrations of popular bars frequented by both large numbers of college students and tourists alike—and collaborated with the licensing board to call a meeting of bar owners and management in that area, to which we were invited.
A bar without a liquor license might as well be a vacant storefront, so linking the conversation about sexual violence to licensing was key to getting the attention of bar owners — an audience that we might otherwise have a difficult time reaching. The police and licensing board were also able to address some legitimate concerns of the owners: in the past, bars who repeatedly called on the police risked being seen as “problem” establishments and therefore would jeopardize their license. The police and licensing board assured bar owners that the bars who did call the police to handle sexual violence-related matters would NOT jeopardize their license. Finally, the police and licensing board introduced BARCC staff and the training programs that we could offer to bar staff.
I hope that others can learn from what we have done so far and share with us some other successes (or mistakes) along the way. Here are four tips:
Tip One: Constructing bystander interventions as part of good customer service
The foundation of our training is that we’re merely expanding their professional skills of the bar staff, and sexual violence prevention is part of excellent customer service. When a bar is seen as safe, comfortable, and enjoyable, with friendly and helpful staff, it leads to repeat business and good tips.
This is not altogether different from the language we use around other types of bystander interventions. The message is, “You don’t have to be a superhero, and the types of steps you can take are the same sorts of things you already do to be a good (friend/colleague/professional, etc.).”
Tip Two: Grounding skill-building in real service-industry experience
This is has been one of the most important pieces of building the credibility and efficacy of the training program, and we include it in several ways.
The initial piece of the training is designed to broaden the perspective of the participants. As with most folks, many service industry staff imagine that sexual violence in a bar setting primarily involves blitz attacks by strangers in restrooms or after patrons leave the premises, or drugging of drinks with some of the more widely-known drugs like rohypnol or ketamine.
We don’t minimize those experiences, because they certainly do happen, but we also bring in a great deal of research on friend/partner/acquaintance assaults (which could include an individual someone just met that evening) and what the grooming behavior might look like. After presenting that information, we solicit feedback from participants, to ask if they can provide examples of similar behavior that they’ve seen.
The examples and case studies we use are pulled from the experiences of longtime service industry staff who helped us create this training. Marcella, a 15-year veteran in the restaurant business, shared this story: She 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 rounds of shots to the table. The problem was that he asked Marcellato 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.
From working directly with the service industry, we learned that staff in different roles have very different levels of responsibility and “status” in their work setting. We learned that security staff, servers, bartenders, and management all see different sides of the scene from night to night, and they have many different interventions and opportunities at their disposal. Service staff suggested that when we split into smaller groups to practice bystander skills, we build “teams” from each role, to foster communication between different roles and to practice utilizing the different interventions that each person can do in a given situation. We feel that this is key to the success of our program. For example, while a patron’s sexually inappropriate behavior might not rise to the level of being ejected by the bouncer, it might merit a check-in by the server or manager, or the bartender monitoring the amount of alcohol being ordered and consumed by the patron or whomever they’re with.
Tip Four: Helping bars and restaurants support a safe environment with passive messaging
In addition to providing resource information about our services to the service staff, we wanted to have information available to the patrons of each establishment. BARCC invested the time and resources to design posters that could be adapted to the bar’s aesthetic and then helped to hang them in various locations (staff-only areas, restrooms for both genders, and general patron areas). Here are just some of our messages: “We care about your safety. If someone is bothering you or making you uncomfortable, let [insert name of security staff or manager] know” or “We’re looking out for your safety tonight. Help us out—let us know if you or someone else would like some assistance.” The purpose of these posters is multi-level. BARCC wanted to place bystander messages as reminders for staff about what they can do, let patrons know that the establishment was on the lookout for everyone’s safety and comfort, and let patrons know that they too can have a role in keeping themselves and their friends safe.
For more information about BARCC’s bar training program or if you would like to see one of our posters, you can contact me directly at MBossong@barcc.org org.