A night out with rounds of drinks is a treasured celebratory social gathering and one that the women of Long Island Safer Bars Initiative has been working diligently to bring to higher standards of dignity, prevention, and ambiance for bars in the Patchogue area.
A collaboration between The Retreat, The Safe Center LI, and LI Against Domestic Violence, the organization has created programs in Suffolk and Nassau counties to reduce instances of sexual violence against all individuals. According to the Initiative, “Sexual violence is a public health issue and alcohol use has been shown to increase the instances of sexual violence.”
With an exuberant nightlife being commonplace across Long Island, it is a sobering statistic that in 81 percent of alcohol-related sexual assaults, both the victim and the perpetrator consumed alcohol.
“We want to change the culture,” said Nicole Keller, who heads the program. “We want to take a community approach and saturate the environment with different interventions to prevent sexual violence and minimize sexual aggression.”
Before training is deployed to a bar or restaurant staff, a risk assessment of the establishment is performed. Staff members of the Initiative locate areas of concern, including sections with poor lighting or parts where it would be easier to corner someone. Bouncers, cameras, and lights are all components of the hardware of safety that the Initiative brings forth.
After the physical environment is evaluated, the Initiative provides training to local bars’ staff—bartenders, waiters, managers—to recognize the starting points of sexual violence and eradicate them before they escalate into sexual assault. The course is two sessions, each approximately two and half hours long, designed to be as engaging as possible to facilitate a dialogue about unwanted behaviors and how to best be “upstanders” instead of “bystanders”
Sarah Samson, one of two conductors of the course, said, “An upstander is an active bystander, someone who will intervene when a situation of unwanted attention or other potentially unsafe scenario is recognized. In order to be an upstander, you must be knowledgeable enough to be observant of when these situations are happening.”
The first day of the course covers the wide spectrum of flirting versus unhealthy sexual aggression. Acknowledging the role of hookup culture within nightlife and not shaming people, especially women, Samson said, “We want people to be able to go out, have a good time, make connections they want to have, but we also want to leave at the end of the night having lowered the level of sexual aggression. What we are really trying to solve is how to embrace wanting sex, but not being predatory.”
The course invites staff to ask questions and broaden their understanding of sexual violence to turn their thinking away from the ingrained “victim blaming” or “harm reduction” tips of the past.
Whereas bar safety has often been a litany of “don’ts” for women—don’t leave your drink unattended, don’t go to the bathroom without a girlfriend, don’t walk anywhere dark, don’t openly vocalize your distress and instead order an “angel shot” (a coded drink that means that a date is not going well and assistance is needed to avoid a dangerous situation)—the Initiative seeks to stop sexual violence at its source: the aggressor.
What follows in the training is how to intervene in escalating situations of sexual violence.
In the second day of training, communication via body language is studied. “We have the skills, we are just learning to use them better,” said Samson.
With sexual aggression being defined as catcalling, leering or blocking, unwanted hugging and unwanted touching, staff can recognize when someone is the unwilling recipient of these and step in to redirect the energy of the moment. Even with something as simple as going up to the victim and asking, “Are you ok? Come talk to me if you’re not,” staff members can create a team environment where they look out for patrons.
“It’s particularly difficult for women because we’re socialized to be polite,” said Samson, stressing the importance of observing body language. “We can give the person a look, or a quick assurance that we’re here to help. This takes the responsibility off the customer to tell the aggressor to back off.”
While Long Island Safer Bars Initiative has plans to educate areas across Long Island that include nightlife hotspots Babylon, Farmingdale, Bay Shore, Port Jefferson, The Nautical Mile, Rockville Center, and the Hamptons, they first came to Patchogue to instill their training and have found the village to be welcoming of receiving the tools for a safer environment.
Patchogue Chamber president, David Kennedy, called the Initiative a “great service to restaurants,” especially with Patchogue “[having] a reputation for party time.”
One of the most popular events put on by the Patchogue Chamber is Alive After Five, where bustling Main Street is closed to traffic and open to live music and other festival activities.
Kennedy led the chamber to mandate that any bar/restaurant participating in Alive After Five be certified by the Initiative and undergo the two-day training.
“It was easier to introduce the work of the Initiative because we have a monthly restaurant meeting within the chamber,” said Kennedy. “And the reception was enthusiastic as we in Patchogue pride ourselves with wanting a fun, but safe atmosphere for all our patrons.”
Part of that overall theme of safety has included asking bars and restaurants not to create high-energy situations with music kept at lower decibels. “In the past 10 years, Patchogue has really come around,” said Kennedy. “We can’t sit on our laurels, we have to do the right thing.”
Mike Lauria, owner of Rudi’s in Patchogue, echoed Kennedy’s sentiments and was keen on having his staff undergo the Initiative’s training. “We set up cameras outside, added lights to a dark alleyway in the back,” said Lauria. “We screen our employees; most are through word-of-mouth from current employees, and we make sure we have good staff that will keep up the culture of a blue-collar, neighborhood bar and grill for the family.”
Of the Initiative’s work, Lauria said, “I think the group does a fantastic job; my partner and I thought the training was great and it’s really helpful for newer places.”
David Bustamente, owner of Gallo, prides himself on “being a family business” that was “the second place in Patchogue after the BrickHouse.”
For Bustamente, the Initiative’s training reinforced procedures that were already in place for his restaurant. “We wanted to stay up-to-date with all courses being offered, and we have lots of communication within our staff during service.”
“By focusing on the social-ecological strategies, we have shown that a multi-strategy, public health model has been most effective in curbing sexual aggression,” said Keller