A new program teaches bartenders how to stop sexual harassment and assault

Sadie Cunningham (center, denim jacket) teaches Ziggy's staffers how to handle harassment

Sadie Cunningham (center, denim jacket) teaches Ziggy's staffers how to handle harassment Betsy Taylor, Canvas Health

It’s Saturday night and you’re getting your drink on. Maybe you hit the dance floor, work up a fine sweat. Then: Someone invades your bubble and threatens to kill your buzz.

They get too close, they keep insisting on buying the next round, they want to know your name. You look for the bouncer, but the door’s too far away. It’s crowded, and you can’t escape. You’re stuck, uncomfortable, maybe even a little scared.

It’s an all-too-common scenario for bar patrons. Which is why there’s Safe Bars, a national training program that’s new to Minnesota, which tries to help establishments recognize sexual harassment and teaches intervention methods to staffers.

The two-hour training is free and covers the spectrum of sexual violence -- from sexual harassment to rape -- as well as how to interrupt a predator on the make. Facilitator Sadie Cunningham teaches four ways for bar employees and servers to intervene: direct (approach the situation, identify the behavior, and intervene), delegate (ask someone better suited to intervene, like a bouncer), distract (tell the predator there’s an issue with the bill that they need to address to separate them from the victim), and respond (address victims with a phrase like “How can I help you?” rather than “What do you want me to do about it?” that makes that person feel safer).

Trainees also learn the verbal and non-verbal cues that can indicate that harassment is underway. A predator might put their arm around the victim or try to isolate them, for example, while a victim might look around for help or pull away.

Alissa Acosta has been in the industry for about 15 years. Currently, she’s the bar manager at Ziggy’s in Stillwater. It’s a venue with a bustling nightlife scene, where inappropriate comments and touching aren’t exactly rare occurrences. She opted to have Safe Bars train her staff, who are often newbies and don’t know how to handle sticky situations.

“We have live music almost every night, so we have a lot of dancing, a lot of physical contact between customers,” she says. “It was kind of a no-brainer to bring something in like Safe Bars to get everybody more aware of things to look for and make sure we have a safe environment for people to come and enjoy their night.”

In the training, Acosta and her staff learned how to recognize predators and how to interrupt harassment, like walking in between predator and victim and asking, “Can I get you anything?”

Shortly after the training, Ziggy’s staff had opportunity to put the new skills into action when, on St. Patrick’s Day, a female patron complained that a man kept trying to dance with her. Staff moved the woman to a different area of the bar. Eventually, the guy left. Acosta says she’s now confident she and her staff can calmly remove people from potentially dangerous situations without causing a scene.

The Safe Bars training strategies are also helpful when staff are the victims of harassment inflicted by customers. “This is something they experience themselves and see happening all the time,” Cunningham says.

Brendan Sikes, a 21-year-old male server at Ziggy’s, says it’s not uncommon for older female customers to flirt with him when they get drunk. Sometimes they slip tips into the middle panel of his apron, as if to cop a feel. Once someone grabbed his butt. Normally, he’ll just shoot the ladies a salty look. The harassment hasn’t reached the point where he feels he needs to say anything, but he acknowledges it’s wise to be prepared in case things escalate.

“You need to know how to handle situations like that,” he says. “It doesn’t just happen at Ziggy’s. I’m sure it happens everywhere, in one form or another. Knowing how to protect the good customers from potential predators or people who don’t have the best intentions, you have to know how to take care of that situation.”

Safe Bars can also address staff-on-staff harassment. “We encourage establishments to review their policies on staff sexual harassment,” Cunningham says. “We also leave our resources for those who need support after being a victim of sexual harassment or assault.”

Bars that have completed the training receive Safe Bars window clings, a way of letting potential patrons know their complaints of harassment won’t go unheard. Sikes thinks the identifier will make people feel safer.

While training bar staff and servers in bystander intervention is a well-intentioned endeavor, it’s unclear how effective Safe Bars is; Cunningham knows of no statistics or studies regarding its efficacy. Still, she’s optimistic about the program’s value and is seeking more trainees. “I’m hoping that with the recent media coverage around sexual harassment, sexual assault, and the conversations we’ve been having that more bars will be interested,” she says.

Acosta believes the Safe Bars strategies are helpful for anyone, whether they work in the industry or not. “It never hurts to have this set of skills and have this awareness of what’s going on around you, to make sure that you’re keeping yourself out of situations,” she says. “It’s good to know all around, not just for bartending, but even just for going out.”

Safe Bars is currently available to bars and restaurants in Washington County through Canvas Health. Interested venues can contact Sadie Cunningham at 612-418-6559 or [email protected] to sign up.