This story is part of Made In Philly, a series about young residents shaping local communities.
When bar workers last month were being taught to combat sexual harassment, one employee asked a question that’s pretty common in these types of training sessions: If we’re trying to prevent sexual violence, why don’t more women learn self-defense?
One of the trainers, Quinn Pellerito, didn’t miss a beat: “What we’re doing right now is prevention.” The difference? “We’re putting the onus on all the people in this environment,” not just on the person targeted.
Pellerito, the LGBTQ education specialist at WOAR, Philadelphia’s rape crisis center, is one of a handful of experts training bar workers in Philadelphia how to spot — and stop — sexual harassment where they work, whether it’s perpetrated against employees or customers. The sessions are part of a two-year-old program at WOAR called Safe Bars Philly.
At the end of July, Pellerito (who is nonbinary and uses they/ them pronouns) and their colleague trained 18 managers, bartenders, servers, and bar backs at Love City Brewing, which became the sixth establishment in the city to become a certified Safe Bar. That means the employees at the brewery at 10th and Hamilton have learned what to do if they see something happening that might constitute intervention.
In some cases, that’s outright groping or sexual assault. But bar workers said during the training that more often they witness unwanted touching, or a guy following a woman even after she’s rejected his advances. Sometimes it’s just someone who’s talking to another person too closely.
Sometimes it’s bar workers themselves who are targeted. One employee at the training teared up recounting being harassed both on the street and throughout her career in hospitality. It’s such a known problem in the restaurant industry that last month the satirical newspaper The Onion ran a headline: “Woman Who Doesn’t Want To Be Hit On Shouldn’t Be Hanging Out In Bar Taking Drink Orders.”
Pellerito, who is 27 and a survivor of sexual violence, said bystander intervention can not only make the bars safer for employees and customers, but it can stop sexual assault before it happens, whether in the bar or elsewhere.
“It prevents people from testing the waters to see what is OK,” they said, “before they actually do something bad.”
Intervening without turning off customers
Some employees were concerned that it’s difficult to balance intervening and offending someone. What if they were wrong? What if they make someone feel like a harasser when they’re really speaking to their spouse? Won’t that make them hate Love City?
Melissa Walter, cofounder of the brewery, said to err on the side of intervening.
“If I get a review that says ‘Somebody is being nosy about my date,’ good for you," she told them.
Pellerito said the point of bystander intervention is to give the person being harassed a moment to pause and think. For a bartender, that can be something as simple as asking those involved if they need more water. It lets the harasser know they’re being watched.
They provided typical bystander intervention techniques tailored to bar workers; for instance, remember the three D’s: distract (tell the harasser there’s a problem with their credit card and they need to see the manager), delegate (ask another employee to speak to the perpetrator), and be direct (tell the person to knock it off or leave).
Those at the training also learned how to evaluate body language. For example, if a woman is turned away from a man or not reciprocating his movements, she may not want the attention. (Experts say women are more frequently the targets of sexual harassment and aggression.)
Walter said intervening in a harassment situation isn’t just morally right, it’s good customer service.
“If I was at a bar and I was chillin’ out reading my book and somebody came up and started talking nonstop to me and I’m not into it, what would I want in that situation?” Walter said. “I would want someone to be like ‘Hey, what’s up? Y’all know each other?’ Give me a second to disengage.”
“And I know we might get it wrong sometimes,” she continued, “but I would rather get it wrong sometimes and prevent a lot of other stuff.”
‘This is about keeping your patrons safe’
Safe Bars originated in Washington, D.C., and WOAR brought it to Philadelphia as part of the group’s focus on sexual violence prevention, said Teresa White-Walston, director of education and training. She said the strategy also includes programs to teach men about “healthy masculinity” and workshops for responding to street harassment.
Now that the program is more established, White-Walston said she expects interest to ramp up this year. Some bars owners feel that if they engage with WOAR, they’re admitting to problems. Others believe their employees have already been certified through the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, which trains workers to identify fake IDs and flag intoxicated patrons. White-Walston said the Safe Bars program expands on those skills.
“This is not about how much you pour for someone,” she said. “This is about keeping your patrons safe.”
Erin Wallace, owner of the Old Eagle Tavern in Manayunk and Devil’s Den in South Philadelphia, had her employees trained as part of WOAR’s Safe Bars program about a year ago. (Other bars that are certified Safe Bars include the Raven Lounge in Rittenhouse and Bainbridge Street Barrel House in Queen Village.)
Wallace said that since the training, she’s seen her employees break up interactions “that seemed a little weird” or interject themselves into conversations to make sure a person who looked uncomfortable was OK.
“I want my customers to feel safe and want to make sure my staff knows what to do if they see something," she said. “Who wants to own a bar where people don’t feel comfortable being at?”