When Dates go Wrong: Bartenders as Guardian Angels

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By Rachel Raczka
illustration by anna o'connell

“Text me in an hour and if I don’t respond within 20 minutes, start calling. This the bar we’re going to. This is what I’m wearing. Here’s a screenshot of his photo.”

That was the protocol when my friends and I went through a period of rapid fire online dating. Potential awkwardness was almost always a given when meeting up with a stranger at a bar, but the unspoken risk of something much scarier had us swapping photos and leaving contact details with a friend.

There was always that sigh of relief when finding a woman behind the bar. She’d check in. She’d ask how it was going when the date went to the bathroom. She’d offer food and make sure our glasses of water were full. It seems foolish in retrospect not to realize these bartenders weren’t just being hospitable; they were keeping an eye on our safety.

In 2016, the Lincolnshire County Council in England took it a step further by creating Ask For Angela, a campaign that encouraged patrons to literally ask at the bar for someone named Angela if they were feeling under pressure. The program was done in conjunction with PubWatch, a volunteer-based neighborhood group, and the Lincolnshire Rape Crisis organization.

Similarly, a concept called “angel shots” made the rounds in December when a poster from The Iberian Rooster in St. Petersburg, Florida, popped up on social media. The bathroom notice instructed women to order an angel shot to signal an uncomfortable situation. The request could be escalated “with ice” (call an Uber), “with lime” (call the police), or “neat” (walk me to my car).

The widespread media coverage of the code words caught owner Russell Andrade off guard. Because, well… it was meant to be discreet and for his location only. “We didn’t put up the sign for any attention,” he told The Tampa Bay Times. “That sort of goes against the point.” Others even copied the initiative. Hooters added angel shot posters in the women’s room at a South Africa location.

Clairessa Chaput, the Northeast winner of last year’s Speed Rack bartending competition, isn’t sure how practical the angel shot concept is. But she noted that she and her colleagues are eagle-eyed when it comes to spotting predatory behavior. “I think women have the intuition to look out for other women,” Chaput said.

Perhaps it’s personal dating experience that adds to the sense of responsibility. “I’ve been on my share of dates from Tinder and I can totally relate,” said Jacki Schromm, assistant general manager at Lion’s Tale, a cocktail bar in Boston. “Sometimes people can be too forward and if it gets uncomfortable, you might not know how to get out of a situation besides ‘Let me try to call my friend.’ It’s nice to have someone behind the bar to go to.”

Angela skeptics were quick to point out the program’s gendered restraints. However, Hayley Child from the Lincolnshire County Council said the posters appear in both male and female restrooms. Angel shots also faced scrutiny. Some object to the amount of responsibility placed on victims while giving perpetrators a pass. Others feel it complies with societal pressure for women to handle sexual aggression quietly.

“I prefer approaches that empower the people who are targeted and the bystander,” said Lauren Taylor, director of Safe Bars, a program in Washington, D.C., that trains bars on bystander intervention techniques. “You want to discourage the unwanted behavior and hold aggressors accountable.”

Taylor has worked with 43 D.C. bars since 2014, and she’s set up Safe Bars programs that offer classes in nine other metro areas. While she’s found most bartenders already have their own methods to diffuse aggression, her program creates the space for discussion.

“We explain the spectrum of sexual violence and the importance of dealing with things when they’re on the lower end, before they escalate,” explained Taylor. Meaning: cutting a patron off.

“Alcohol doesn’t cause sexual assault. It’s the weapon. It incapacitates the targets or camouflages the results, like ‘I didn’t know what I was doing. I was drunk.’”

In 2014, a study by the U.S. National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism looked at 258 aggressive incidents at bars found third party patrons intervened 21 percent of the time, but they found the bar staff rarely gets involved. Their conclusion? “Prevention needs to focus on addressing masculinity norms of male patrons and staff who support sexual aggression and better management of the highly sexualized and sexist environments of most bars.”

Natasha David, co-owner of Nitecap in New York’s Lower East Side, remembers the days of being a young cocktail waitress who was told to “giggle things off until they go away” when a customer or a colleague crossed the line. Now, as a manager and business owner, she sets the expectations for her staff and patrons.

“I made it very, very clear to my staff, especially the women who work for me, that I do not tolerate that kind of behavior,” she said. “They know if anyone acts inappropriately with them, I always have their back.”

David considered hanging a poster in the same vein of angel shots or Angela in her unisex bathrooms, but hasn’t yet decided. For now, she’s posted “house rules,” outlining the bar’s no-tolerance policy toward discrimination.

“I never want my bar to be a place where people feel they have the permission to behave that way,” she said. “I think that sends a signal to anyone who is thinking about doing something here.”

 

Rachel Raczka is a lifestyle writer based on the East Coast. She tends to write about the idiosyncrasies of travel, fashion, and love, and always saves room for dumplings.

Anna OConnell is a Cincinnati-born, Chicago-based artist and a graduate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She lives with her husband in a jungle of houseplants. www.annaoconnell.com @drawnandeaten

 

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