Why Philly’s ‘Safe Bars’ program stalled, and how it might get fixed

Other cities have been much more successful in adopting the sexual violence prevention training.

Love City Brewing is one of just four Philly bars with the certification

Love City Brewing is one of just four Philly bars with the certification

Facebook / Love City Brewing
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Only four establishments have signed up to be certified “Safe Bars” since a local nonprofit brought the national sexual violence prevention program to Philadelphia.

That’s…not a lot. In other cities, the same initiative has seen great success in the six years since it launched. In Washington, D.C., where the program was piloted, at least 35 bars have the certification. In Denver, the number is nearing 20.

Why are Philly bars dragging their feet?

A combination of denial and fear of being associated with misconduct, suggested Erin Wallace, proprietor at Devil’s Den in South Philadelphia. Her tavern was first in the city to get certified, followed by Bainbridge Street Barrel House, Raven Lounge and Love City Brewing.

“I think a lot more people don’t sign up because they want to believe this isn’t happening in their bar,” Wallace told Billy Penn. “It’s like, if they take this class, they’re admitting that their bar has problems with sexual assault.”

Nationwide, around 50% of sexual assaults involve alcohol. The Safe Bars program aims to catch those instances before they happen. Local anti-sexual assault organization WOAR introduced it to Philly in 2017, offering to teach bar owners and front-of-house staff how to spot uncomfortable body language and other warning signs.

“We provide them with bystander intervention techniques and tools that ultimately will allow them to see sexual harassment and assault before it could possibly happen,” said LaQuisha Anthony, one of WOAR’s education and training specialists.

Bars that complete the 2-hour training get a sticker in their window, certifying them as a safe space. WOAR charges $150 to $400 per training, depending on the size of the bar.

That cost has likely been a roadblock, Wallace said, as well as the nonprofit’s insistence on training the entire staff at once, since it can be tough to get all employees together at the same time.

WOAR is working on fixing both those issues, according to Anthony.

A preventative measure — not a stigma

A new advisory committee of bar owners and staffers has been set up, Anthony said. She has also found funding that will allow WOAR to waive the Safe Bars training fee, and she’s working on creating workshops for individual bartenders and servers, so they don’t have to coordinate disparate schedules.

Anthony said she’s found local bars are resistant to having their name attached to sexual violence — even in connection to prevention.

“Many think that if they sign on, they’re associating themselves with the act in some way, as if to imply they’re having an issue with this at their establishment,” Anthony said. “It’s like, no, this is a preventative measure.”

With the exploding popularity of online dating, strangers often meet for the first time in bars or restaurants. Wallace, of Devil’s Den, said the certification gives her a sense of peace — if her customers are in danger, then her staff will be able to safely intervene.

“It was kind of eye opening,” she said, recalling the training program. “Nobody wants to see anything bad happen, and you can sometimes read clues that something’s not right.”

Meanwhile, Anthony said she understands the reluctance on behalf of bar owners. It’s uncomfortable to talk about sexual violence — let alone to imagine it in your own shop. She’s seen some success when she can chat one-on-one with individual proprietors to help them understand the value.

She’s also been seeking partnerships with elected officials so she can host open houses in their districts to encourage people to learn more about the program in person.

“In order for us to end sexual violence, we need bridge these gaps in the communities,” Anthony said. “That means we all need to come together from different angles…We’re building community here.”

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