How Bartenders Are Learning to Stop Sexual Assault on the Job
Safe Bars was founded in Washington D.C. to train bar staff how to intervene in cases of sexual assault. Now, it's rolling out across the country.
Streets of London Pub co-owner Peter Ore. All photos by S.E. Fleenor
On a Tuesday at 11 AM, bar staff from Streets of London Pub started filtering in off the street. It’s an odd sight: a pub slowly filling with bartenders in the cold light of day. Some of them looked like they could use a drink or a cigarette or a few more hours of sleep. There was excitement and nervous laughter in the room as they settled in and waited for their bystander intervention training to begin.
Still, there were a few groans as pre-workshop surveys were distributed. “Did I skip school to do paperwork?” one participant asked.
Streets of London Pub is a punk rock bar and music venue in Colorado located on Denver’s infamous Colfax Avenue. While the venue prides itself on good shows and a laidback vibe, the owners take safety seriously. It’s why they jumped at the chance to complete the Safe Bars training with The Blue Bench, a Denver-based sexual assault prevention and support center.
“In this day and age, everything is so messed up and there’s so much division between everybody, and to bring something that could possibly unite people and make them feel safe in what is an unsafe world, I mean, no-brainer,” said co-owner Peter Ore.
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Safe Bars was founded in Washington, D.C. by Collective Action for Safe Spaces and Defend Yourself. Now, four additional sites throughout the US use its curriculum, which Blue Bench staff teach at places like Streets of London Pub by way of discussion, role-play, sharing of statistics, and an instructional video.
“It’s really about creating a culture that changes social norms to empower the staff and the patrons so that [sexual assault] perpetrators don’t feel empowered to use those spaces to their advantage,” said Susie Roman, the director of prevention and education at Blue Bench.
The training program highlights that drinking establishments have a strong potential for bystander intervention, especially when the intervention comes from the bar staff present. With perpetrators like Brock Turner blaming their actions on alcohol, a significant component of the training is debunking the myth that alcohol leads to sexual assault. (While many sexual assaults involve alcohol, there isn’t enough evidence to establish a causal link, according to a National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism review.)
Read more: Why Victims of Rape and Abuse Stay Silent
“It’s not bars [and] it’s not alcohol consumption that’s the problem. It’s the perpetrator and their choice to use those things in order to perpetuate sexual assault,” said Roman. “What we know is that when you take the perpetrator out of the equation where people are drinking, rape doesn’t happen.”
Most of the discussion today at the bar came directly from the Streets of London Pub staff themselves. Along with Roman, Blue Bench prevention coordinator Caroline Yates guided staff through a conversation about what sexual assault and harassment look like at their bar and how they react to it (or don’t).
Extreme examples, like a customer slamming someone against the wall, are simple to address: Kick the perpetrator out. As the conversation moved to leering and buying unwanted drinks, Roman and Yates encouraged staff to consider earlier points of intervention. “Perpetrators can blend into the background of normal, consensual interactions,” said Roman. However, sexual assaults are “premeditated attacks where [perpetrators] see someone as prey,” Yates added.
She outlined a pattern commonly followed by perpetrators: Select the target, test boundaries, isolate the target, and follow up after the assault to minimize their behavior. Bystander intervention, Yates said, can be like shining a light on a burglar trying to break into a house—just being noticed can be enough of a deterrent to make many perpetrators back down or leave.
At that point in the training, bar staff had an opportunity to test out responses to specific scenarios during role-play, assuming the roles of perpetrator, target, and bartender. There was lots of nervous giggling and awkward admonishment for not intervening sooner. After a few moments, however, people settled in and started collectively figuring out the best way to break up potential cases of sexual assault or harassment.
Roman and Yates shared alternative ways of intervening known as the “three Ds”: distract, delegate, and directly address. Some staff members felt very strongly that a direct approach was best. Others discussed ways of removing the target from the scenario with a clever ruse, like saying their car was being towed, pretending to be friends with the target, or saying their credit card was having issues.
All staff in attendance agreed that, whatever the approach, communication within the team was paramount to success. Their intervention plan was simple: Recognize unwanted behavior; communicate—directly or through distraction—to the target and the perpetrator that the staff was watching the interaction; and ensure the team is on the same page and are prepared to jump in if the situation escalates.
Becky Stutsman, a bartender of 12 years who currently works at Streets of London Pub, said it was “good to know we’re on the same page and have the same moral basis,” because she’d worked in bars where that wasn’t the case. The “biggest benefit” of the Safe Bars training scheme, Stutsman added, was “knowing that the people I work with see problems that I see as problems.”
“You can just draw attention to the fact that ‘hey, we’re watching you,’ subtly, without it being a fight,” co-owner Ore enthused.
Now he wants to bring the training to his other venues and encourage other bar owners to participate. Patrons can also nominate their favorite venue for training on the Blue Bench website.
“It doesn’t cost anything to do the training,” Ore said. “It just takes some time, and you get to be a better place in the world that needs better places. I mean, if that doesn’t speak to you, then you should probably shut your bar down.”