How Bar Staff Around The World Is Rewriting Rape Culture

Not all heroes wear capes. Some mix drinks.

Ilana Gordon
Nov 23, 2016 · 6 min read

Donald Trump may be the most well-known man to admit to “grabbing them [women] by the pussy,” but he’s certainly not the only one. This year, Broadly obtained exclusive police figures demonstrating an upward trend in reported rapes stemming from London’s bars, clubs and pubs — the numbers reveal a 136% increase between 2011 and 2016.

There are less precise numbers available here in the states — as many incidents go unreported, it’s impossible to accurately determine how prevalent sexual assault truly is. However, The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism estimates that 25% of American women are victims of sexual assault and/or rape. Fifty percent of these incidents will involve alcohol consumption by either the instigator, victim or both.

Clearly, bar culture has not always been kind to women. And in the past, bar staff have been reluctant to intervene, even when they find themselves witnessing the harassment firsthand. But with the advent of social media and the creation of programs that train bar employees to recognize and respond to sexual harassment, these numbers may soon begin to dip.

Then: Assault goes viral

Before the internet reached its heyday, tales of sexual assault spread by word of mouth. Women would caution each other to avoid certain bars or clubs where they or their friends endured unwanted sexual advances and lax security. Now, thanks to Twitter and Facebook, these stories are receiving much-needed amplification.

In March of this year, Sonia Ulrich and two of her friends were out to dinner in Santa Monica when they witnessed a date rape attempt. Ulrich followed the victim to the bathroom, where she explained what she and her friends had seen. The three women also notified the bar staff, who called the police. The perpetrator was arrested before he even had a chance to pay the check. Ulrich posted about the incident on Facebook, where it was shared over 120,000 times; the three women were rightfully hailed as heroes.

What Ulrich and her friends did is commonly referred to as “bystander intervention” and it’s a tactic that many universities are trying to introduce on campus. Schools hope that by teaching their students to recognize harassment and to proactively intervene when confronted with instances of it, they may be able to prevent harassers from escalating the situation into something worse.

Bystander intervention seems like a simple solution to a complex problem, but it doesn’t always work. Witnesses often fail to interrupt because they worry they might be misconstruing the situation. And, in a weird twist of social psychology, as the number of people who witness the harassment increases, the likelihood that someone will step in to help decreases. This phenomenon is called the bystander effect, and it can be especially problematic in places like bars, clubs and college parties, where crowded rooms lead to a diffusion of personal responsibility.

Now: Bar staff steps up

In the early aughts, researchers from the University of Toronto and University of Washington teamed up to study the way sexual aggression manifests in settings where alcohol is present. They learned that 90% of incidents involve a male perpetrator and female victim, but there is no correlation between how drunk the man is and how likely they are to harass women. There is, however, a correlation between drunk women and harassment: According to the study, men specifically target women who are drinking heavily and who lack the ability to indicate consent.

Kasey Fielding has worked in Boston bars and restaurants for the last 11 years. In the six months she spent working as a cocktail waitress at a nightclub, she estimates that she had to summon security at least a dozen times to remove creepy men who were harassing drunk female patrons. Fielding says she and her female coworkers took it upon themselves to police the club — their male managers didn’t seem to care.

And bar safety isn’t just a concern for patrons — employees are affected, as well. David O’Neill started working in the service industry in 2013; he currently works in a tapas restaurant in Boston’s South End. After one of the restaurant’s bartenders was attacked after a late night of work, management instituted a new strategy to keep staff members safe: the buddy system. O’Neill says employees are encouraged to escort each other home, even if it means ducking out of the restaurant while service is still underway.

The fight for safer bars

Earlier this month, a Twitter user tweeted about a sign she found in the bathroom of an English bar in Lincolnshire. The poster reads as follows:

“Are you on a date that isn’t working out? Is your Tinder or POF [Plenty of Fish] date not who they said they were on their profile? Do you feel like you’re not in a safe situation? Does it all feel a bit weird? If you go to the bar and ask for ‘Angela,’ the bar staff will know you need help getting out of your situation and will call you a taxi or help you out discreetly — without too much fuss.”

The “Ask for Angela” signs are part of Lincolnshire City Council’s #NoMore campaign, which seeks to increase awareness, promote cultural change and empower victims to report incidents of sexual harassment and assault. The signs represent a new trend of establishment owners willing to go the extra mile for the safety and peace of mind of their patrons.

“Ask for Angela” signs haven’t quite made it to the US, but that doesn’t mean stateside nightlife owners aren’t making an effort to combat harassment. Bar staff training programs are popping up all over the country, in places like Arizona, Boston and Colorado.

The grassroots organization Collective Action for Safe Spaces recently partnered with Defend Yourself, a group that works to empower individuals to end violence and abuse. Together, they started Safe Bars, a program that “trains and empowers staff at alcohol-serving establishments to recognize and respond to incidents of sexual harassment and assault among staff and patrons.” Since the program’s inception, Safe Bars is responsible for training and certifying the staffs of 16 D.C.-area bars. They have also trained organizations in Philadelphia and Colorado to set up Safe Bars programs in their own communities, and they hope to expand to Canada, as well.

Jessica Raven, co-director of Safe Bars, tells me the idea for the program stemmed from a similar initiative in Arizona, where the state mandates that all bar employees complete sexual harassment training. With Safe Bars, participating bar employees undergo a two-hour training session, followed by a check-in six months later to refresh the information and answer questions. As many bars have high employee turnover rates, Safe Bars re-certifies bars after a one-year period.

Raven says the most fulfilling part of working on Safe Bars has been “equipping people to do something about the incidents that they see and experience every single day.” She adds, “Bystander intervention skills are needed now more than ever, as we’re seeing a spike in race-based and gender-based harassment across our city, and I’m glad that I can be a part of the movement to create a culture where everyone plays a role in keeping our community safe.”


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Ilana Gordon

Written by

Formerly: @Dose & @OMGFacts | Also: @thedailydot, @thetakeout, @TheAVClub, @atlasobscura, @mcsweeneys, @Reductress, @The_Belladonnas | @IlanaAbby


Dose is the fast-growing media company behind and Our team of writers, storytellers, video producers and curators craft compelling stories for a digital-first audience.

Ilana Gordon

Written by

Formerly: @Dose & @OMGFacts | Also: @thedailydot, @thetakeout, @TheAVClub, @atlasobscura, @mcsweeneys, @Reductress, @The_Belladonnas | @IlanaAbby


Dose is the fast-growing media company behind and Our team of writers, storytellers, video producers and curators craft compelling stories for a digital-first audience.

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