Breaking the silence on sexual harassment in barsBy Melita Kiely
Rape culture is so heavily ingrained in society that it actively needs to be challenged – but is the industry ready to speak out on the issue?
Picture a woman perching patiently by the bar waiting to order a round of cocktails for herself and her friends. A man appears next to her and offers to buy her a drink, which she respectfully declines. He pursues the proposal with words of flattery, all the while edging closer and invading her personal space until they are within touching distance, much to the woman’s obvious unease.
Despairingly, this recurrent scenario of verbal and physical harassment has become the norm, with victims’ claims far too frequently silenced by counter cries of “overreaction”. The severity of rape culture is grossly overlooked within society; the notion that it is acceptable to grab or grope another person and mask it as “banter” seems to have become widely accepted. But the reality is this type of behaviour still constitutes sexual assault.
Zero tolerance policies
“Sexual harassment is serious no matter what,” emphasises Kate Gerwin, general manager at HSL Hospitality and Bols Around the World 2014 champion. “Just like physical violence, sexual harassment is serious and we [need to] have a zero tolerance policy.”
Alcohol acts as a fuel to lower inhibitions, but can also be a trigger to forget sexual boundaries – but being inebriated cannot pardon such behaviour. Alcohol education charity Drinkaware recently recruited market research agency ICM to conduct a study into alcohol-fuelled sexual harassment among young adult students. The findings exposed that more than half of female students (54%) and one in seven male students (14%) had been on the receiving end of offensive sexual comments, abuse or inappropriate sexual touching on a night out in the last 12 months.
It’s a precarious situation that left 64% of respondents feeling “disgusted”, 54% feeling “angry” and 38% “afraid”. And yet, more than a third (34%) of those students said they did not feel confident their university would believe them if they reported the incident.
Being drunk is ‘no excuse’
“Students have told us that drunken sexual harassment is a common and unwelcome part of a night out, yet they don’t feel empowered to stand up to it,” says Elaine Hindal, chief executive of Drinkaware. “Touching another person in a sexual way without their consent is legally defined as sexual assault. It’s a criminal offence and being drunk is no excuse for it.”
Off the back of these findings, Drinkaware has launched a new campaign titled “You wouldn’t sober, so you shouldn’t drunk”, which endeavours to draw attention to sexual harassment, break down the “entrenched attitudes and behaviours” surrounding alcohol and provoke debate on what is indisputably a taboo topic. However, it’s not the only organisation working towards change.
In Savannah, a city in the US state of Georgia, the local Rape Crisis Centre has embarked upon a new initiative to prevent sexual assault through training bar staff on how to recognise and respond to potential sexually-motivated crimes. The centre is now approaching individual bars to provide training for staff members to spot warning signs of when a person has been drugged and when to restrict service of alcohol, in addition to promoting basic bystander intervention techniques.
“Local response to the BBT [Bar Bystander Training] has been favourable,” notes Kesha Gibson-Carter, executive director at the Rape Crisis Centre. “We would like to see bar staff and management take a lead role in their public acknowledgements of being against sexual violence. If a bar staff person’s actions can prevent one assault, a difference is made.”
Still, when it comes to drug-facilitated sexual assault the chances of catching an attacker sneaking something sinister into an imbiber’s drink are slim. Door searches can only go so far, and even the most acutely aware bartenders cannot possibly keep their eyes on all guests for the entire evening.
“If someone is going to slip a tiny minuscule pill into a drink you’re either going to see it, or you’re not – and that is in no way a reflection of how seriously bar staff take their roles of responsibility,” says JJ Goodman, co-founder of the London Cocktail Club. “You can do bag searches and body searches when people enter your bar, but at the end of the day these people are cunning and have their ways to slip the system. It’s definitely something that needs to be tackled – but while nobody wants to see it happen, nobody is really willing to talk about it. We need more education and open discussions if we’re going to make a change.”
But it’s not just consumers who are confronted with sexual harassment on a night out; bartenders are put at risk with every passing shift. As the face of the bar, they are depended upon to provide witty conversation and nightly entertainment, which can all too easily be misconstrued by patrons, who then exhibit unwanted attention and incongruous behaviour. From bartenders’ admissions of receiving unwelcome touching and attempted kisses to nightly stalking, it is evident the risks are alarmingly real.
More training needed
“No bar I’ve worked in has ever had a sexual harassment policy,” explains Stephanie Shen, head bartender at The Liquor Rooms, in Dublin. “It’s not really talked about. The bar industry doesn’t have a very structured approach to training [when it comes to sexual harassment].”
Incontestably there is a great amount of work left for the bar industry to do in order to stamp out sexual harassment. Women – and men – need to be empowered not to tolerate unwanted sexual advances, no matter how widespread society’s acceptance of unacceptable behaviour has become. Bar staff need to be better equipped to handle these testing situations and perpetrators need to be held accountable for their actions, both at a social and legal level.
“I definitely think training for young female bartenders on how to deal with these situations would be highly beneficial, going into things like body language and how to communicate effectively,” adds Shen.
“I would like to see management take more of an interest in these matters and communicate that it’s not okay behaviour, and that bartenders have their support.”