Portland bartenders training to stop sexual assault before it happens

The Safer Bars program takes the onus off the customer and motivates staff to step in without being asked.

PORTLAND, Ore. -- Amid the crowd of neon beer logos and signs peppered across Crow Bar’s front door and windows on North Mississippi Avenue sits a small, white sticker that reads “Safer Bars”.

“I’m incredibly proud of my staff,” said manager Anastasia Browning.

She talked about her experience on the last Friday of April, which is Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

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The sticker, which currently adorns close to 10 Portland bars and counting, is a symbol that staff are trained to recognize signs of sexual harassment and predatory behavior, and intervene before the situation escalates into assault.

It’s something that has historically happened all too often.

“In the bar industry, it's outrageous,” said Browning.

The training is the work of Jessica Rosengrant and her team at Not OK PDX. Rosengrant founded the nonprofit in 2016, roughly a year before the #MeToo movement and other firestorm campaigns. She did so, citing both a need in the bar industry and a need in Oregon.

Jessica Rosengrant
Maggie Vespa

A study released that same year by the Women’s Foundation of Oregon shows 27 percent of women in the state have been raped. The national rate is 18 percent, according to the study.

For Rosengrant, the statistic had just become even more personal.

“Another friend of mine had gone through a very traumatic situation, and she approached me knowing my background, saying ‘I want to start like a therapy group,’ and I said ‘Well, you’re not really qualified to do that, but I would love to give you some advice on other things you can do,’” said Rosengrant, who has a master’s degree in social work. “It rapidly, very rapidly, turned into this.”

Rosengrant, who has spent years behind the bar herself, said focus quickly took aim at the link between alcohol and sexual assault.

According to one study from the University of Michigan, “Approximately 50% of reported cases of sexual assault involve alcohol consumption by the survivor, the perpetrator, or both.”

Using a curriculum taught across the county, Rosengrant and her friend decided bars and bartenders would serve as an easy and valuable asset in the fight to stop assault before it starts.

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“The training itself takes anywhere from an hour to two hours,” she said of the program, which costs the bar a flat rate of $50. “There is a lot of group discussion, roleplay.”

Much of it focuses on spotting red flags.

“We talk about a variety of non-verbal cues that people might be giving us. Predatory behavior, people following other people, people standing too close to their drinks when they don’t know them,” she said.

Both Rosengrant and Browning said Friday, a key takeaway is the overwhelming effectiveness of simply pointing out the behavior.

“We kind of like put our foot down, and we stand there and we go, 'You know we're aware of what you're having a conversation of, and we want to make sure it doesn't go beyond that,’” said Browning.

“The number of times that I've just made eye contact with somebody and said ‘Hey, I'm watching you.' That alone can make a huge impact,” said Rosengrant.

Still, both women say it doesn’t always end there. The program stresses remaining calm but clear when telling a customer to leave or move away from another patron. Sometimes, they add, the person being pursued needs help leaving. In that case, staff are there to call a cab or walk them to their car.

“I've taken people aside and said 'Hey are you OK? It seems like the situation you're in isn't comfortable,’” said Rosengrant. “Sometimes people say ‘Oh no I'm fine.’ Other times they'll say ‘Yes, thank you. That person is really creeping me out.’”

It’s where the Safer Bars program differs, they point out, from other campaigns with similar goals. For example, a lot of people compare it to the Angel Shot movement, in which a customer’s order acts as a signal to the bartender that they need help.

Safer Bars takes the onus off the customer and motivates staff to step in without being asked. It also, Browning pointed out, empowers female bartenders and staff to stand up to the harassment they face on a regular basis.

In other words, she said, the culture is changing all around.

"For years as a bartender, you kind of just took it with a grain of salt like it was your job, and now we’re kind of standing up and saying that’s not our job,” said Browning. “It’s actually just not OK.”

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