This upstate New York bar is a model for nightlife safety
The Watershed in Ithaca, New York, trains its staff in bystander intervention, creating a safe, welcoming environment for anyone to gather and revel.
Early in 2016, when my business Dave Thomas and I were making plans to open our own bar, The Watershed. At that time, I was following some the controversies surrounding NFL players who were accused of or were charged with domestic violence and sexual assault. Following this controversy, the League funded bar safety programs in D.C. and Baltimore. These bar safety trainings taught bartenders and servers how to recognize and deescalate potentially dangerous situations in bars and venues where alcohol was served. According to the National Institutes of Health approximately half of all sexual assaults are committed by perpetrators who have been drinking alcohol, while approximately half of all sexual assault victims reported that they were drinking alcohol at the time of the assault.
With my 15 years of experience working in bars and restaurants where harassment was commonplace, I decided to make it a priority for The Watershed staff to receive a version of this training. Empowering bartenders to assist and intervene on behalf of customers was something none of my previous employers had prioritized. I didn’t want my employees to be helpless when these incidents occurred in our establishment.
I decided to reach out to the Advocacy Center of Tompkins County. Having spent a year helping answer their crisis hotline for those who experienced sexual assault, domestic violence, or trauma, I knew that if anyone had a training like that it would be them. Little did I know that my friend Naomi Barry was their new education and outreach advocate and that she was developing just such a training from her perspective as a former bartender. It was a perfect meeting of purposes, and in October 2016 we conducted the first Barstander intervention training with our staff of nine bartenders.
Since then, The Watershed has opened and flourished, raising the expectations around what a bar is and could be.
One thing the training has taught us is how to discourage a potential perpetrator. In order to de-escalate a potentially dangerous situation you engage the potential victim, not the perpetrator. In practice this looks like going over to the table, asking the potential victim if they need anything or refilling their water—whatever excuse we can make. This lets the potential perpetrator know that you are paying attention and care about the potential victim. The grooming of victims by perpetrators often involves separating their victim from “the pack” and they will prey on people who are alone or who don’t know anyone. An establishment can discourage a perpetrator just by paying attention to the potential victim, because the perpetrator will know that we’re not going to make it easy for them to take this person to a second location.
Many people still think of bars as dangerous places where vulnerable folks shouldn’t go. But they're also a gathering place for social interaction and community building.
Another bar safety practice from the training is not allowing folks to order drinks for other people, unless the bartenders know that they’re together and that the other person wants the drink. At The Watershed we call the practice of ordering drinks for other people “king pinning.” The perpetrator will use generosity and largesse as a pretext for getting their potential victim drunk through social pressure, even if they’re not going to drug them. Grand gestures of generosity are also strategies for getting the establishment on a perpetrator’s side, because they assume that the bar needs or wants the money. We do not allow folks to buy rounds for the house or order a round of shots for anyone who is not enthusiastic about wanting that alcohol. This is a practice centered around informed and enthusiastic consent, which is our standard for judging consensual activity of any kind.
Dozens of bars and restaurants and event staff have undergone Barstander Intervention training along with members of the public throughout Ithaca and Tompkins County. The training and the expectations surrounding alcohol and social spaces have created a new standard for establishments and patrons alike, and we have seen a real change in the attitudes surrounding consent and sexual violence in our community.
Many people still think of bars as dangerous places where vulnerable folks shouldn’t go. But they’re also a gathering place for social interaction and community building. Being a bartender is perceived to be one of the most dangerous jobs in the service industry, and we believe that that doesn’t have to be the case.
Being able to foster a safe space for staff and patrons alike is a big part of creating the kind of business that will not only succeed financially—The Watershed is widely embraced by the community and is a great deal more popular than we had dared to hope it would be—but also ethically. At The Watershed we strive to be a social asset to the community we arose out of and inhabit, and the Barstander Intervention training is an important part of that.