My friends and I have a game plan when we head out to a bar. It’s often unspoken but always the same: ignore anyone who makes one of us feel uncomfortable. Tell someone when you’re heading to the bathroom or going outside. Keep an eye out for who’s hitting on one of us.
Now, in an important community-building move, bartenders are starting to be trained to help judge and look out for harassment behavior.
In New York and across America, there has been an uptick in night-life training courses for bar staff. Elise Lopez, assistant director of the Relationship Violence Program at the University of Arizona, helped create a program being implemented in Patchogue. The first session, she said, is for learning about the importance of bystander intervention. “People are going to tune out if they don’t think or know that sexual assault is a huge problem in bars.”
Twenty-five percent of women in America will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime. More than 50 percent of those cases include alcohol. It is important to understand this statistic. Alcohol does not cause sexual assault. Predatory behavior is what leads to sexual assault. While alcohol may be a component, drunkenness is more often a characteristic of the person being preyed upon, not the perpetrator.
A recent study published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, “Blurred Lines? Sexual Aggression and Barroom Culture,” found that the drunkenness of the target (usually a woman), not the perpetrator, heightens the persistence and invasiveness of harassment in bars, and that “staff are unlikely to act as guardians because sexual harassment and sexism are integral to bar culture.”
The second session of training involves skill development — what is sexual aggression vs. what is flirting? Lopez laid out the possibilities: Are they in love? Are they enjoying it? Are they on a first date? Is the other person uncomfortable? Are they dating and this is a pattern of violence? Is someone looking nervous and not smiling? Or is the nervousness because “OMG this person is so hot?”
“The very worst thing that can happen is you intervene, they don’t need help and we’re a bit embarrassed!” said Lopez.
Nicole Keller, project coordinator of the Long Island Safer Bars Initiative, says the bartender should intervene whenever he or she feels uncomfortable. “Maybe it’s when someone is slapping a girl on her behind, or maybe a guy is getting worryingly loud, or forcing drinks on someone,” she said. “All of those things are on the spectrum of violence.”
Let’s be clear: Any kind of behavior along that spectrum is intolerable. Understanding that makes it possible for people to detect this behavior when the danger level is still relatively low.
While tactics that reduce harm are crucial, community norms surrounding sexual violence need to change. Research has found that intimate partner violence declines not as people drink less, but as society moves toward gender equality.
While it is unquestionable that sexual harassment can happen to people of different genders and sexualities, the bulk of these assaults are endured by women. Lauren Taylor, founder and director of Safe Bars, points out that “The average man doesn’t have to worry about getting raped if they get too drunk.”
Colleen Merlo, executive director of Long Island Against Domestic Violence, said that the newfound popularity of night life violence training has coincided with the #MeToo movement. While this type of predatory behavior has always been a problem, “It just so happens we’re in a time when people are paying attention,” she said.
Isobel van Hagen is an intern in Newsday Opinion.