December 19, 2019

Training the folks on the front lines of nightlife safety—bartenders

The D.C.-area nonprofit Safe Bars is part of a movement to make bars and restaurants harassment-free through bystander training.

Safe Bars leads training sessions for staff at bars and restaurants around the D.C. area and around the country. Photo of The Anthem in Washington, D.C., by Thomas Van Veen

When I was growing up, I believed that if anyone tried to rape me there would be nothing I could do to stop them. As a girl and later as a young woman in Washington, D.C., I was scared most of the time, and street harassment constantly reminded me that I was right to be afraid.

Then, in my mid-20s, I took a self-defense class, and I learned that I was wrong. There were actions I could take to stand up for myself—even to stop a rapist.

That knowledge transformed my life. I had less fear and more confidence. I was less angry and prickly, because it was now safe to be kind. I learned how to ask for what I wanted and allowed myself to say “No” when I wanted to. I found my voice.

[ Read more: This upstate New York bar is a model for nightlife safety ]

This transformation led me to become a self-defense trainer. I use an empowerment-based model that’s not just focused on physical moves but also verbal, emotional, and mental strategies for self-protection. I’ve been doing this training for more than 30 years, and my 30,000 students have shown me that I was far from alone in living in fear.

Then, about six years ago, someone told me about Bartenders Against Rape and Sexism, or BARS. It was a light bulb moment for me: bars, restaurants, and clubs are often at the intersection of alcohol and sexual violence–and alcohol is used in half of all sexual assaults–so I thought, let’s do some training there!

Bystander intervention training is an important aspect of self defense: It’s about helping to keep others safe.

That day I went home and Googled the heck out of BARS. Although I didn’t find it, I learned about similar programs that generously shared their wisdom as we decided to develop the Safe Bars training program for D.C.

Bystander intervention training is an important aspect of self defense: It’s about helping to keep others safe. This dovetails beautifully with the hospitality mindset of making customers feel safe and welcomed so that they can have a good time. We encourage hospitality workers to use those same skills to look out for one another.

I’ve been offering empowerment self-defense trainings for a few decades, so it didn’t seem like much of a reach to customize what my team and I already know about sexual violence and training for nightlife.

But because I was never a big bargoer or drinker, learning how sexual violence showed up in nightlife spaces was eye-opening for me. Still, I followed the mandate “Nothing About Us Without Us,” first used in the U.S. by disability-rights activists, and involved bar and restaurant workers at every stage—from focus groups, to curriculum development, to hiring trainers.

People who work in bars, restaurants, clubs, and concert venues share with Safe Bars the awful ways they’re treated by co-workers and managers. Patrons share with us the terrible violations they experience—everything from grabbing to stalking, sexual comments to flashing—often from other patrons. Nothing I’ve heard has shocked me, but plenty of it has horrified me.

Bar staff tell us often about having their tips held hostage by patrons who want their phone number—or a date. Workers who complain about sexual harassment often get their shifts cut. Women at bars are seen as sexually available just because they’re there. And if a bar has a dance floor, everything escalates.

The good news is that the industry has enthusiastically welcomed Safe Bars. In D.C., we’ve trained staff at about 40 establishments, and we hear from workers and patrons alike of the problems prevented or solved. One bar told us about a situation they intervened in just a couple of days after the training: “We actually put the training to work this week when a male guest got too intimate with another patron. We were able to intervene and got him to leave her alone. When she wanted to leave, we helped her get home safely–and she called us later to thank us, and many of the other guests at the bar took notice as well.”

We’ve also trained Safe Bars teams in 14 other cities and towns, so that they have a local program tailored to each community’s needs. For example, in Juneau, Alaska, cruise ships drop off thousands of passengers a day–people who are looking to have a good time and who have no stake in the community. Baltimore and Philadelphia have all the varied nightlife scenes of any big city—from large nightclubs and beer halls to intimate cocktail bars. Smaller towns in Minnesota have the challenge—and benefit–of everyone knowing everyone.

More than just helping out individual people in dicey situations, Safe Bars aims to change nightlife culture to one where patrons and workers are all treated with respect. Most people want to help. We’re just making it a little more possible.

Learn how to start your own Safe Bars program or email for more information.

Safe Bars founder Lauren Taylor

Lauren R. Taylor

Safe Bars

Lauren R. Taylor is the director of Safe Bars and Defend Yourself. She’s been working to stop gender-based violence since the late 1970s, when she was a founder of DC’s first shelter for abused women and their children. Defend Yourself has trained about 35,000 people in skills for stopping harassment, abuse, and assault. Lauren also writes extensively on interpersonal violence and has presented at several national conferences.
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