Bystander Intervention, “neat”: engaging bar staff in sexual violence prevention

Dear Engaged Bystander: Two seemingly unrelated facts about me: I am a huge fan of primary prevention. And I am a Yelp-er. I rely on the consumer-review website for guidance about the best tailor in my neighborhood to where I can unfailingly find delicious ravioli or patio dining.

So what do these things have to do with each other? I notice that while most reviewers (including myself) will praise an establishment or take it to task for the quality of the service or the price of the drinks, we rarely include “How safe do we feel there?” as an aspect of the service or atmosphere.

That’s precisely where the primary prevention comes in.

Bars and lounges have historically been problematic spaces in the fight to prevent sexual violence. Expectations about alcohol are maddeningly intertwined with expectations about sex, and all of this takes place in the low-lit din of spots where the behavior of people who would look to hurt someone else might fly under the radar.

Bystander intervention at bars is not a new concept, but most often, it is directed toward encouraging individual patrons to protect potential victims: look out for your friends, come together and leave together, and don’t let your friend leave with someone if they seem to be too intoxicated. Those are all excellent and sensible tips, and I think ones that can be effective.

But what if we could take it further? Rather than try to reach and skill-build with every potential reveler, what if we could make effective bystander intervention part of the atmosphere at a bar? For the past few years, that’s what we at the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center have been trying to do, and I’d like to highlight some of the unique and innovative aspects of the project.

How we got started working with Bars

The bar trainings BARCC conducts across the city grew from our relationship with the Boston Police Department’s (BPD) sexual assault unit, and from the BPD’s relationship to the Liquor Licensing Board. The police department had identified a handful of “hot spots” in the city—areas with high concentrations of popular bars frequented by both large numbers of college students and tourists alike—and collaborated with the licensing board to call a meeting of bar owners and management in that area, to which we were invited.

A bar without a liquor license might as well be a vacant storefront, so linking the conversation about sexual violence to licensing was key to getting the attention of bar owners --  an audience that we might otherwise have a difficult time reaching. The police and licensing board were also able to address some legitimate concerns of the owners: in the past, bars who repeatedly called on the police risked being seen as “problem” establishments and therefore would jeopardize their license.   The police and licensing board assured bar owners that the bars who did call the police to handle sexual violence-related matters would NOT jeopardize their license. Finally, the police and licensing board introduced BARCC staff and the training programs that we could offer to bar staff.

Tomorrow, I will write about some of the practical tips we learned along the way.
Thanks for reading!
Meg Bossong
Community Mobilizing Project Manager