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I Train Bartenders to Prevent Sexual Assault

MEL's Haley Hamilton chats with Safe Bars director Lauren Taylor about the art of bystander intervention — and what any guy can do when they see sketchy shit at the pub

A little after 11 p.m. on Saturday, January 19th, Olivia Ambrose, 23, went missing just outside of Hennessy’s, a live music venue and bar popular with college students in Boston’s Faneuil Hall district.

She was found — alive — three days later, in an apartment in the Charlestown neighborhood, where she was being held against her will by a man, Victor Pena, 38. Pena had allegedly seen Ambrose drunk and stumbling on the sidewalk. Surveillance footage at the State Street MBTA station, a five-minute walk from Hennessy’s, shows Pena physically supporting and grabbing Ambrose. Boston Police reported that Pena had taken Ambrose’s phone from her as they walked; she was following him unwillingly.

How did Ambrose end up in such a vulnerable position? It happens all the time.

The systems in place that led to her rescue — the surveillance cameras, the quick police work — worked beautifully. It’s the other systems that should have been in place that failed.

According to the Boston Globe, Ambrose was cut off from the bar and asked to leave. Separated from her friends, she began making her way to the nearest train station when she was intercepted by Pena.

Between being cut off at the bar and the 0.2-mile walk to the train station, there were dozens of places where someone — a bartender, a bouncer, a patron, someone passing by on the street — could have stepped in and said, simply, “Hey, are you okay?”

But no one did.

Which is why bystander-intervention-training organizations for places that serve alcohol, like the D.C.-based Safe Bars, are so important.

I talked with Safe Bars director Lauren Taylor about her organization’s mission and how, whether you’re sitting at the bar or standing behind it, we can all be better bystanders.


Alcohol Does Not Cause Sexual Assault, but It Is Used as a Weapon — and an Excuse

Let’s just get this out of the way: The consequence for making stupid decisions, like drinking excessive amounts of alcohol at a bar, is not rape. There is a relationship between alcohol and sexual violence, but let’s be clear: Alcohol does not cause sexual violence. It is used as a weapon to incapacitate a target and it is used as an excuse by the perpetrator.

It also leads to a fascinating double standard. Alcohol tends to pin the blame on the person who was targeted (Why was she drinking so much? She shouldn’t have gotten so drunk). And it lets aggressors off the hook (I didn’t know what I was doing — I was drunk!).

Most People Have the Tools They Need but Aren’t Sure How to Use Them

I also want to say that everything we cover in Safe Bars training is relevant and applicable outside of bars. These are social cues and intervention strategies that everyone can — and probably should — pay better attention to and learn how to use.

Our trainings go like this: We have an opening discussion, so we can get on the same page about what sexual violence looks like. For the people who are in the room, they generate a spectrum of things that can happen, from staring to rape, and that serves to break the silence around some of it and to create a shared understanding of what we’re dealing with and a framework for the rest of the training.

We’re really clear about the fact that what matters in the training is that you are in a bystander position, you’re a witness. We don’t care who is doing the harassing/being harassed; it could be staff on staff, patron on patron, patron on staff, whatever.

The other thing is we don’t do is walk in wagging our fingers, saying we know how you should do your job better.

We know people in hospitality care about people, they care about guests’ safety, and we know a lot of people in the industry are already doing these things. We’re not here to say you’re doing it wrong, or to say, Hey, here’s this thing called sexual harassment/violence — maybe you’ve heard of it?

We’re just here to honor the tools and strategies people are already using, and build on them.

A lot of times, you have one or two things you do when you see a problem, and your coworker has one or two things they do, but you’ve never had a chance to sit down and share them.

And so just the simple skill-swap aspect of it, even if we were there for nothing but to facilitate the swap, [matters]. Everyone gains skills.

We really work on how can we tell when someone’s not comfortable in a situation, when sexual aggression is unwanted — how to read body language and look for subtle calls for assistance.

We introduce strategies for intervening, building on the ones people are already using, and then we practice them.

Bystander Intervention Can Be Very, Very Simple

We are all bystanders, you know? Every day. People have a lot of barriers to intervening and most of those are culturally imposed and sanctioned. Like, Don’t get in other people’s business. But my experience is that if people have strategies and an opportunity to practice them, we overcome those barriers.

Most people want to be good people. Training is just a way to overcome those barriers of “it’s not my business,” and to equip people with a better understanding of what bystander intervention is.

A bystander intervention does not have to end with the cops being called and someone placed under citizen’s arrest. You don’t have to be aggressive. You don’t even have to raise your voice. You can be very low-key and have very big benefits.

It can be as easy as saying, “Hey, how’s your night going?”

Both Women and Men Benefit From Intervention Training

I’m never surprised when I go into a bar to do a training and I see three women and 15 men. It’s just the way a lot of bars still are.

Women, most of the time, are already very perceptive about what a potentially predatory situation looks like — and how to deal with it as a bystander — because this is something they personally deal with on a regular basis: unwanted sexual attention.

Men may not know instinctively to look for those things, but if they have a chance to learn about what to look for and what to do about it, they’re going to use those strategies.

That’s not to say that women don’t need this kind of training, to have these kinds of conversations, or to say that all men are oblivious to problematic behavior, but I think it does make a difference. Women feel safer in spaces where there are other visible women on staff.

The vast majority of the men — those who speak up in sessions, anyway — want to do right.

One Perfect Example of a Dude Who Stepped Up

A bartender told me this story: There was a man creeping on a woman, both were sitting at the bar, didn’t know each other, and the woman was giving off “no” body language, some mild vocalization of “I’m not interested,” but nothing loud and super-direct.

The bartender could tell it wasn’t wanted. He took the guy’s drink, moved it down three or four seats and said, “You’re sitting here. You know why.”

I’ll never forget that. It was just so right and so beautiful.

Everyone can do that. It’s really that easy.

I always say that the cost of stepping up is usually very very low, but the cost of not stepping up and checking can be very high.