A space that is safe for patrons in a comfortable environment is one that will flourish. Bars and clubs are places that people socialize for fun; but unfortunately they can also be locations where some people give others unwanted sexual attention and, in some cases commit acts of sexual violence. Alcohol is the most common substance used in sexual assault. Bartenders and other restaurant and bar staff can play a vital role in creating an atmosphere that leads to greater safety for all patrons.

Bar staff often will not witness blatant physical or sexual violence, but more commonly might see something that causes a gut reaction that something is a little “off.” For instance, you may observe that one patron is giving another customer or staff member unwanted attention. Not all people feel safe rejecting unwanted advances and it may be unclear what the role of bar staff is in intervening in such situations, but it is important to remember that there are steps you can take to safely intervene to prevent/stop harassing and inappropriate situations, and to keep your establishment safe for patrons and staff.


Here are some questionable behaviors or situations your staff can look out for as potential indicators of harassment or vulnerability:

• Pressuring one or more people to drink, or buying unwanted drinks
• Giving one or more people unwanted attention
• Staring at a person or group of people, making lewd or inappropriate comments, making sexual jokes to friends or other patrons
• Intoxicated patrons without a safe friend or a safe way to get home
While this list is a good starting place, it is by no means exhaustive. If someone’s behavior seems inappropriate or unsettling to one person, that feeling is usually shared by others but they may just be afraid to say something. Encourage your staff to talk to each other when they notice questionable behavior. Also remember that these behaviors are not exclusively directed to members of the opposite sex and that harassment can occur across the spectrum of sexuality and gender identity.


Once you have identified that something seems wrong, here are a few ways you can intervene. Keep in mind, intervening shouldn’t require getting physically involved and, ideally, you should have support from other staff. You can use one or more of these at the same time, depending on the situation.
1. Direct: Confront the offender, talk with the victim, and stay nearby.
2. Distract: Create a distraction so someone can check in with the person you are concerned about and offer assistance if needed.
3. Delegate: Talk to others involved in the situation, or who are friends with the victim or offender; talk with other staff or security at the bar; or talk with bystanders or others who might be able to effectively and safely intervene.

These situations are nuanced and there are many options to safely stop unwanted sexual harassment. Below are two sample case scenarios to help you consider ways that a bartender or server might respond.

Scenario 1: Every Monday, Alex comes into your bar for trivia night. You have gotten to know him through the weeks during trivia, but you don’t interact with him much when he visits the bar on the weekends. Over the past few weekends you have seen him leave with a different woman each night. The women always stumble toward the door and can barely stand. You realize that he only ever talks to women who are alone and that he has never come into the bar with the person he leaves with. Concerned, you start to pay closer attention when Alex walks in tonight. You and your co-worker notice Alex bringing a young woman her third drink in 30 minutes. Your co-worker says, “Alex is the man, I wish I could get that many girls.” While you recognize that for some people, Alex’s behavior is considered normal, your gut reaction is telling you that he is purposely getting women drunk so he can take advantage of them. And you are correct! A lot of things that may be accepted as normal in a bar setting can actually be predatory and maybe even against the law. Now, you are concerned not only for the women Alex targets, but also the culture among bar staff that reinforces this predatory behavior. Consider some of these intervention options as ways to address what Alex is doing:

1. Direct: Point out to your manager that Alex is currently feeding drinks to a woman who is intoxicated and alone (this is not the first time.) Both of you tell Alex that you’ve been noticing his behavior and that he needs to leave immediately and is not welcome back. This also communicates to other patrons that their safety is your priority.
2. Distract: Distract Alex by creating a fake scenario, like telling him that because he is a loyal customer you want to get his input on drink specials for next week. Doing this will take the attention off of the woman and take Alex out of the situation. You could also work with another bartender or server to check in with the woman while you have Alex’s attention. Keep in mind, this may only be a temporary fix.
3. Delegate: Ask the bouncer at the bar to remove Alex and let him know he’s not welcome back. The bouncer holds a position of authority and will be respected in the space. While he does this, check in with the woman Alex was targeting and make sure she has a safe way home.

Bonus option: Since you are concerned about overall culture of the bar, suggest to the manager to make the next trivia night’s theme, “Consent is Sexy/Required.” Donate the proceeds to your local Rape Crisis Center.

Scenario 2: Jordan is a doctor at the local hospital, who came into your restaurant to grab a cocktail after her shift. She often sits at your table because you two have enjoyed chatting from time to time. Tonight she is alone at her table, reading a book. All of a sudden a man approaches and starts a conversation with Jordan. You can tell that Jordan is trying very hard to be polite, but after a few minutes she lets him know she needs to get back to her book. However, the man does not leave, but pulls up a chair and moves closer to Jordan. You hear him say to her, “I know you didn’t actually come here to read.” You think to yourself, “How rude!” and you can see by Jordan’s face that she is completely put-off by the interaction. Despite that, she seems reluctant to forcefully say anything. You don’t want to allow an environment where patrons feel their personal space is not respected.

1. Direct:  Say to the man, “Excuse me, she said she doesn’t want to talk. Please respect her space.” While being this direct might feel uncomfortable, it lets the man know Jordan has your support. Stand there until he leaves her table.
2. Distract: Tell the man you think his car is being towed. When he leaves to look, you have time to check in with Jordan. You can assure Jordan that you agree she should be able to sit alone without harassment and make a plan for if he returns to her table.
3. Delegate: Have the man’s server bring him his check, encouraging him to leave and thanking him for coming in. This will give him a subtle social cue to leave.

Remember, sometimes effectively keeping a situation from escalating will require a combination of strategies.

This article has primarily discussed how to handle subtle displays of harassment. Unfortunately, there may be other times when violence occurs quickly or when there is little advanced information to help you proactively intervene. If you have knowledge that a crime has occurred, if you saw someone spike a drink, or if you suspect violence may occur, it can be helpful to future investigations if you help gather any information about a suspected offender. For example, swap a suspected drug-laden drink and keep the cup, take a picture with your phone of the suspected offender, or talk to other people who witnessed the behavior. If there is danger, call 911 or local law enforcement for help. Don’t put yourself in harm’s way.

For more information or resources, contact South Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault (SCCADVASA). 803-256-2900. www.sccadvasa.org

Adapted from: The Bar Outreach Project © 2012 Our VOICE, Inc.

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