Step Up in the Club

A new movement tries to enlist bartenders and bouncers to protect women from sexual aggression.

There’s more than one kind of nightclub security.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock, courtesy Bob B. Brown/Flickr Creative Commons.

Anyone who frequents bars or clubs is familiar with the wide variety of creeps who inflict themselves upon the female population. The guy who tries to grind up on every woman on the dance floor; the cocky, insistent jerk who won’t stop coming over, no matter how uninterested—or scared—the women he’s approaching are; the man who sidles up to the drunkest girl in the room.

The bartender and the bouncer notice these guys too. “That’s a normal day at work,” my friend Candace, a bartender in Philadelphia, told me. When Candace sees a guy talking intensely in a female customer’s ear, she’ll often ask the woman whether she’s OK, and if she’s not, Candace will order the guy to scoot down the bar and find himself another stool. Feminist activists across the country are trying to ensure that more bars have someone like Candace serving the shots. While universities are attempting to promote the idea of “bystander intervention”—that is, the notion that the best hope of curbing campus sexual assault is to convince peers to look out for each other at parties, in the dorms, and in bars—a growing number of activists are focused on enlisting bartenders and bouncers to take some responsibility for protecting their customers.

And their customers need it. A recent study, “ ‘Blurred Lines?’ Sexual Aggression and Barroom Culture,” found that the drunkenness of the target (usually a woman), not the perpetrator, heightens the persistence and invasiveness of harassing behavior, and that “staff are unlikely to act as guardians because sexual harassment and sexism are integral to bar culture.” 

Apart from the actual aggression itself, “the biggest problem with sexual aggression is that nobody intervenes,” says Dr. Kathryn Graham, one of the lead researchers behind the study. “We saw lots of instances where the bar staff could see it, but they just didn’t think it was anything for them to intervene in. We saw women complaining to bar staff and they still didn’t do anything.”

In response to this dynamic, several programs have cropped up to train bar and club employees on how to step in. Longtime activists Lauren Taylor and Zosia Sztykowski recently formed the Safe Bars program in Washington, D.C. Just as bartenders are taught to identify customers who have had too much to drink and shouldn’t be allowed to drive, Safe Bars hopes to get bouncers and bartenders to recognize creepers and step in to prevent sexual aggression. During a recent training session, they asked the assembled bouncers to think back on all the sexually inappropriate behaviors they have seen in bars and clubs—the bouncers recalled seeing guys pin women against the wall in dark corners and were very familiar with the man who tries to get his female companion drunk without drinking much himself.

Taylor and Sztykowski then placed the staffers’ scenarios in context, explaining to the bouncers that these aren’t just one-off incidents, but part of a culture in which a staggeringly high proportion of women have been sexually assaulted. They talked about the age of greatest vulnerability, and the role of alcohol in these attacks. Their goal is to make sure that the bar staffers walk away understanding that something is deeply wrong in America’s drinking culture—too many assume that a woman in a bar is open to the advances of the jerks around her—and that it’s their responsibility to create a safe space at work.

As for the interventions themselves, “It’s pretty simple, straightforward stuff,” says Taylor. Stuff like asking the woman whether she’s OK, and offering her assistance if it looks like she needs it; talking to the guy and telling him that his behavior isn’t cool, distracting him with conversation, pressuring his friends to get him out of there, or kicking him out. “It’s just hard to do, for a lot of people, but what you actually need to say or do is not rocket science,” Taylor says.

The importance of staff to general bar safety has been pretty definitively established. Before the “ ‘Blurred Lines?’ ” study, Graham led a study on all types of barroom violence, which concluded by highlighting the “important role of staff in controlling aggression and preventing escalation to more severe and injurious forms of aggression.” Another Graham study found that a lax environment greatly enhances the threat of violence. “Although the aggressive-prone patron might arrive with no specific aggressive act planned,” she wrote, “the permissive environment might stimulate him or her to act on the opportunity for aggression if one arises.”

The Boston Area Rape Crisis Center, or BARCC, was one of the first organizations to champion staff-level training to combat sexual aggression. “We developed this training program, which is aimed at setting up an environment that decreases the support for sexually aggressive or sexually abusive behavior,” says Gina Scaramella, executive director of BARCC. “We explain acquaintance sexual assault and what’s going on with alcohol. When you present the data to people who are really experienced they say, oh, yeah, I’ve seen that happening. But until you give people a way of doing something, it’s hard for them to think about how they would intervene.”

“I was certainly aware of the issue, but it was pointed out to me in much clearer terms in the training that we got,” says Lee Zazofsky, owner of the Paradise Rock Club and several other venues in Boston.

BARCC gets a lot of community feedback about problem establishments too, often the same businesses again and again where women report being harassed and assaulted. But the trainings are voluntary, so only conscientious owners and managers sign up. Those who need the trainings the most are the least likely to get it.

Plenty of bartenders, like Candace, combat the overwhelming tide of barroom horribleness without training. My friend Meredith, who bartends in North Carolina, puts napkins over the drinks of women who go to the bathroom, pours fake shots for those who are being pressured into drinking heavily, and sometimes has the barback drive women home. But victim-blaming runs deep in America, and enough bartenders and bouncers refrain from intervening that a few of my other female friends were surprised by the very topic of this article. They had never even thought of the bartender as a potential ally.