Why bars matter for ending rape culture

When we talk about rape culture, it can be easy to detach ourselves from it, to lose sight of it in our daily lives. The micro and macro normalization of sexual violence is so pervasive that it happens closer to home than we realize - as close as the local bar, served up in a shot glass.

A few weeks ago, I had a wake-up call. I was at a bar in Toronto called Locals Only and saw a marquee sign that read, “NO MEANS YES & YES MEANS A***?” The bartender told me, reluctantly, that the last word stood for “anal.” (I later learned that this chant originated at a Yale fraternity.)

Wait, what?

I felt sickened immediately. Like any woman, I’ve experienced and witnessed countless reminders of gender inequality in this city and beyond — but this was particularly poignant. This wasn’t even attempting to be subtle. This was straight up promoting rape culture.

I knew people would want to know about the sign, so I did what any millennial snowflake worth her salt would do: I posted on social media. On Bunz Helping Zone, a Toronto-based online community that’s 20,000 strong, I urged people to demand Locals Only remove the sign. The response was staggering. People shared on their own social networks, pointed out previous Locals Only signs with equally problematic messages, left negative ratings on the bar’s online platforms, and engaged the Toronto industry community. Bartenders, activists, and the ward’s city councillor got involved, major news organizations picked up the story, and the bar apologized and promised to correct its behaviour (with training from the Dandelion Initiative.)

It was a testament to the power of community, and it gave me hope to see hundreds — possibly thousands — of people speaking out. When the Internet mobilizes, collective action is swift.

But here’s the thing: this was only one small win, a crack exposing the deeper, systemic issue of sexual violence — especially violence against women. This was one dent in a far greater fight. The Locals Only situation taught me that bars are an important place to start.

While everyone should feel safe enough to kick back, far too many of us know what it’s like to have to be constantly vigilant when we’re drinking. Bars are in a unique position to take a stand in dismantling rape culture. Because of the prevalence of date rape in these environments, bars should be actively promoting consent, not making light of it. The Toronto industry community has been vocal about the need to make their spaces safe. I would like to see more bars proactively seeking training to prevent sexual violence — after all, we’ve seen what happens when things go too far.

Everyone needs to be part of building consent culture and destroying the systems that hurt the most vulnerable. We all need to open up the conversation, keep our eyes wide, speak out, protect one another, and work together to end sexual violence. I’m grateful to have witnessed the Toronto community in action. Let’s hope more bars choose to be on the right side of history and not wait for last call.

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