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Corner Office from Marketplace

Bars step up to head off sexual assaults

Sarah McCammon Mar 13, 2015
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St. Patrick’s Day means a lot of green – especially for bars, who do a pretty good business thanks to parades and, of course, green beer. With heavy drinking unfortunately, comes a higher risk of sexual assault. But some bars around the country are taking steps to prevent it.

Especially for women, sometimes stopping by a favorite watering hole to unwind means having to deal with unwanted attention. Sitting at the bar at Kevin Barry’s Pub in Savannah’s busy tourist district, Stacy Hill of Thomasville, Georgia. relaxes with a friend. But she says she’s careful when she goes out and avoids spending time in places that feel unsafe.

“I think every woman has had a bad experience,” she says. “You know a woman can’t just come into a bar and sit down and drink a beer after a bad day without having someone hit on [her] or hear some comment.”

And sadly, the problem goes beyond annoying comments. Federal health data indicate that alcohol is a factor in as many as half of all incidents of sexual assault. That’s why several organizations around the country are looking at ways to prevent assaults before they happen – especially in bars.

In Savannah, just a few days ahead of the city’s St. Patrick’s Day festival, the local rape crisis center runs a “Bar Bystander” training event at a local pub. Trainer Ron Roberts advises bartenders and staff on when to call a cab for an intoxicated patron, or call security.

Roberts says he incorporates real examples into his sessions.

“One of the bartenders saw a guy drop something in a girl’s drink. He ended up getting a drink and dumping it out when the guy wasn’t looking,” he says. “But he also let that girl know…He put something in your drink.”

Similar programs are popping up in Arizona, North Carolina, Washington and Boston. Gina Scaramella of the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center says keeping customers safe isn’t just the right thing to do – it’s also good for business.

“If they are known as a bar that is respectful to patrons, and pays attention, and seems to care that people are having  a good time – a truly good time – then that will come off well for them,” Scaramella says.

That’s one of the reasons Paula Letcher, co-owner of Bar Food in midtown Savannah, hosted the workshop in her bar. She and her head bartender have been through the training.

“Nobody wants to be a pickup bar or a bar where women get harassed, I mean, for goodness sakes,” she says.

Letcher says she tries to foster a relaxed atmosphere where women or men can come for a drink and a quiet conversation – or, if they prefer, just be left alone.

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