LaQuisha Anthony (left) and Leah Dirkse from WOAR teach bartenders about Safe Bars Philly in 2017

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Leah Dirkse, 27, witnessed a woman being sexually harassed at a bar about a year and a half ago. The woman was being straddled by a man who was singing karaoke. Dirkse checked in with the woman and the DJ, who she felt didn’t handle the situation well.

“It just really frustrated me,” said Dirkse, an education specialist at Women Organized Against Rape.

Dirks realized then she wanted to work to improve the way that sexual harassment is handled in nightlife spaces, so she started doing research on prevention programs that nonprofit WOAR could implement.

Safe Bars Philly launched after Dirkse, who works in WOAR’s Education and Training Department, stumbled across the national program Safe Bars during her research.

The sexual harassment prevention program trains bar staff to stand up against sexual aggression. The program launched in D.C. two years ago through a partnership with local organizations Collective Action for Safe Spaces and Defend Yourself. Grant money helps further outreach, including training Philly’s WOAR staff who are, in turn, training local bar, club and restaurant staffs.

“Hearing specific experiences from people about particular establishments in the city,” she said, “we thought that Philly could really benefit from it as well.”

Millennial targets

People between 18 to 34 years old are more likely to become victims of rape and sexual assault, according to Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, an anti-sexual violence organization.

In Philadelphia, men and women between the ages of 21 to 24 and 25 to 29 were the highest groups of rape victims last year, according to Pennsylvania’s Uniform Crime Reports.

In September, Philadelphia magazine published a story about The Dolphin where, as of last month, more than 20 people have said they were drugged. “What I went through was disturbing, scary and a direct product of rape culture,” said a woman who shared her experience. The South Philly bar said it has made some changes in light of the allegations, including adding surveillance cameras.

Bars, clubs and restaurants are easy places to target people, not just because of alcohol consumption, but also because those spaces provide opportunities for predators.

WOAR staff training their volunteers for Safe Bars Philly. Credit: Courtesy / WOAR

How Safe Bars training works

Dirkse and LaQuisha Anthony, 35, an education specialist at WOAR, are the main co-facilitators of the Safe Bars Philly training, which takes about two hours. The training starts as a discussion with the staff and then includes role playing scenarios.

A few of the topics they discuss:

  • Sexual harassment and inappropriate behaviors, and what both of those look like
  • Sexual harassment situations they may have missed
  • Experiences of sexual harassment they’ve witnessed at work

The roleplays are modeled after the Green Dot strategy, which outlines the 3 Ds of bystander intervention: direct, distract and delegate.

“You’re directly confronting the person,” Dirkse said. “Creating a distraction, which would be a little more indirect. And then delegate would be if you feel like you’re not in a position where you can intervene, [you] find the person who has the power to do so.”

After the training, the establishment will receive a window decal so people will know they’re a Safe Bar.

Happy Hour Pledge

WOAR is also working on a “happy hour pledge” with community organizations who would agree to only hold happy hour events at future Safe Bars.

“I feel like it might be female owners that end up expressing interest in this, just being able to relate to the prevalence of the issue,” Dirkse said.

Dirkse is scheduling Safe Bars Philly trainings for November. She has a partnership with Penn Violence Prevention, and is working to get five campus bars trained. She also has a partnership with Erin Wallace, who owns Devil’s Den in South Philly and Old Eagle Tavern in Manayunk.

“I think it would make a lot of sense for, if you’re going to open a space, that you can prove you’re equipped to deal with [sexual harassment] when it arises,” Dirkse said.

Dirkse added that Safe Bars Philly can’t guarantee complete safety, just safer spaces that are equipped to handle sexual harassment when it happens.