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Not so long ago, it would have been unthinkable for a bartender to confiscate a drunk patron’s car keys. Today, drunk driving is a serious societal taboo, not to mention a major liability for bars.

So what if bartenders took sexual assault, another very real risk in their midst, as seriously as they take drunk driving – before their patrons stumble out the door and into the night?

It is the direction more bars are heading in, as servers become increasingly mindful of the links between sexual violence and booze, as well as the unique opportunity they have to step in. Last week, Ontario announced it would be investing $1.7-million to train frontline workers (including bartenders, servers and management) to spot and safely intervene when they see sexual harassment across the bar. Rolling out in three years, the voluntary online training is intended to help hospitality staff prevent sexual violence.

Ontario is investing $1.7-million to train frontline workers to spot and safely intervene when they see sexual harassment across the bar. (

The eyes and ears of bartenders are particularly important, especially since they are often the only sober observers around. Multiple studies have shown that rapists frequently use alcohol as a tool with their victims: 74 per cent of perpetrators and 55 per cent of victims of rape were drinking, according to a study of college students from Kent University.

Many socially conscious bartenders are now rethinking their responsibility to guests, beyond not overserving them. They’re attending bystander intervention workshops, mentoring each other on red flags and best-practices and even printing up creative bathroom signage to let patrons know they’re looking out for them.

“There’s awareness within our community that these kinds of things happen and that they are preventable,” said Veronica Saye, a beverage manager at Toronto’s Bar Begonia. “Whether it’s last call or you’re busy, if you’re seeing a situation like that it’s much more important to deal with it than people getting their drinks. It ends up being part of your job, if you have any sort of sense of morality.”

A still from New Zealand’s Who Are You? bystander intervention PSA. The film shows a man isolating a young woman at a bar and then sexually assaulting her at her apartment, before showing how bystanders could have foiled the attack.

Throughout 12 years in the bartending industry, Saye has witnessed and thwarted several would-be sexual assaults. Her technique involves paying extra careful attention to victims, sometimes physically standing in between the two people.

“Women have a hard time telling men to leave them alone. When bartenders step in, it’s not to humiliate anybody. If it isn’t addressed at that stage, it can escalate,” she said.

Lauren Mote, a beverage consultant for the Four Seasons, has mentored other bartenders in the industry on the issue through the years.

“Whether it’s friends, colleagues or a Tinder date, we can spot that type of behaviour from a mile away when people come into the bar or restaurant,” she said.

A still from New Zealand’s Who Are You? bystander intervention PSA. Hospitality staff, including bartenders and bouncers, are increasingly being trained to prevent sexual violence.

Fifteen years ago, Mote found herself on a bad blind date at a Toronto bar with a man who wouldn’t take no for an answer. Mote excused herself to the restroom and approached the bouncer at the front door. “You don’t know me, I don’t know you,” she said.

“I told him I was on a weird date and asked, ‘Can you remember what I look like, remember my name and remember that we had this conversation?’ ” Later, when Mote’s date went to the restroom, the bouncer hailed her a cab. “I was able to prevent something quite heinous from happening because I trusted my instincts,” Mote recalled.

Increasingly, women don’t have to rely on their instincts alone. Besides vigilant bartenders and bouncers, a number of formal bystander campaigns are emboldening hospitality staff around the world to stand up and do something when they see the troubling signs in front of them.

On Facebook, Bartenders Against Sexual Assault now counts more than 4,000 members who swap stories and tips on how to best intervene.

An image from Ontario's Draw the Line campaign aimed at engaging Ontarians in a dialogue about sexual violence. (

Ottawa’s Project SoundCheck has been offering bystander-intervention training to staff and volunteers at music festivals since 2015.

The program was launched after research from the Ottawa Hospital’s Sexual Assault and Partner Abuse Program found that a quarter of victims had attended mass gatherings; more than 90 per cent of this cohort had consumed alcohol or drugs, with more than 60 per cent passing out at some point during the assault. In Toronto, staff at a campus bar at Ryerson University received training to intervene when they witness unwanted, sexually aggressive behaviour, Chatelaine reported.

At one bar in the United Kingdom, management posted clever washroom signage that quickly went viral: “If you’re on [a] date and it’s not going well, come to the bar and ask for Rachelle or Jennifer and we’ll get you out of it and/or get you a taxi,” read the note.

In Washington, D.C., a two-hour training program funded by the NFL, called Safe Bars, teaches staff how to recognize intrusive and unsolicited sexual advances.

In Scotland, trainers with the police-affiliated Violence Reduction Unit are showing bar staff how to distract abusers, disrupt interactions or intervene more directly. They’re using a powerful 2011 PSA from New Zealand’s Who Are You? bystander intervention campaign, which includes a tool kit for bar staff. The eight-minute film shows a man isolating an inebriated young woman at a bar, before dragging her to a cab and sexually assaulting her in her apartment.

The PSA then works backward to show how her best friend, a roommate, a stranger in line at the club and the bartender could have easily foiled the attack. The steering group behind the film hopes to make its training mandatory in that country.

In New Orleans, La., bar owner T. Cole Newton posted similar signage in the women’s and men’s washrooms at Twelve Mile Limit to let all of his patrons know exactly where management stands on their safety. “People don’t report things that happen to them or things they see because they don’t want to be perceived as a nuisance or meddling. I wanted to be abundantly to be clear that we really want people to let us know because we can’t see everything,” Newton said.

Newton penned a widely circulated piece last month for bartenders, managers and owners looking for practical tips – never send a woman a shot from a stranger without her permission, for example.

Servers who send over unwelcome shots are staging dicey interactions, where some women may suddenly feel indebted to men they’ve got no reason to trust.

“Women often won’t explicitly reject those advances because men are dangerous,” Newton said.

“You can tell that they’re afraid of being explicit, which is why bartenders should be more forward about doing that ourselves.”

Helping to end sexual harassment at bars

Undo isolation

“This is a tactic that perpetrators use: Get her drunk and get her away from her friends,” said Julie Lalonde, Ottawa manager of the bystander intervention campaign.

She recommends checking in with the victim – not the abuser.

“People often make the mistake of asking the guy who might appear more sober, ‘Hey, do you know her?’ or ‘Hey, is she good?’ If he’s got bad intentions, of course he’ll tell you that he knows her and that she’s good. It’s important to ask the person who’s been targeted, ‘Are you okay? Do you know him? Did you come here with friends?’”

If he can’t answer simple identifying questions such as what her name is and who she came to the bar with, it’s a red flag.

Find her friends or, if she’s been abandoned, call her a cab, put her in it and scan her ID for the correct home address.

Enlist help

Fiona McNamara is general manager of New Zealand’s Sexual Abuse Prevention Network, training hospitality staff since 2009.

When they run workshops with all the staff at a bar, McNamara often sees bartenders, servers and managers speaking openly about the issue of sexual predation on the premises for the first time.

“This means that later, if something happens, people know they can go up to another bar staff member and decide how best to intervene,” McNamara says.

“Maybe the person who spots it isn’t the person to intervene. Perhaps it’s someone with more authority like the manager or a bouncer.”

McNamara advises that bar-backs can also be enlisted to suss out situations, since they typically cover more ground than bartenders do, collecting glassware from around the club.

Trust your gut

For women on a first date, Vancouver bartender Lauren Mote recommends choosing a place you frequent and know the staff.

“Women have to do quite a lot of extra legwork to make sure that we feel safe. In an uncertain world where we still want to meet new people … it’s always good to know what your Plan B and C are and not be afraid to use those.”