Are Portland Bars Safe for Everyone?

Featured Are Portland Bars Safe for Everyone?

“Where are you guys???” The extra question marks at the end of the text are the first hint that something might be wrong.


A friend is waiting for us at a bar by himself, while his wife and I amble down Congress Street. We’re late (as usual) but when he meets us outside The Bearded Lady’s Jewel Box, his face is marked by a different sort of anxiety, not simple irritation.


“There’s a drunk guy who’s been harassing me ever since I got here. Let’s just go somewhere else.” It’s February. My friend has just officially begun using male pronouns, accompanied by a legal name change and a first dose of testosterone.


This is a suggestion that does not sit well with my friend’s wife. She is ready to hand me her earrings and teach the man in question a lesson. I am ready for a cocktail. We compromise and head back inside to ask the bartenders to eject him.


As we walk inside, my friend scans the crowded room to point out the culprit while a strange hand intimately caresses my buttocks. I turn around, and a man I don’t know is leering at me. A few seconds of disbelief pass before the rage I carry deep inside as a woman has me forcefully pushing him away and yelling at him not to touch me. I am in his face and furious, pounding his chest in an effort to make him understand the singular ownership I have over these fists and every other part of my body.


The man is asked to leave shortly thereafter, although the bartenders' initial hesitancy means I’m close to swinging at his smirking face by the time he walks out the door.


Throughout the entire ordeal, not a single bar patron intervenes. A week later, a different man calls my friend’s wife a “fucking dyke,” after she politely rejects his repeated advances. She and another female friend are both punched in the head during the ensuing bar fight, this time at Brian Boru.


So what is Portland, one of the most restaurant-dense cities in the country, doing to prevent sexual violence and harassment in bars?


Unfortunately, not enough.




Last month, at a privately booked fundraising event, an incident at Empire involving a patron and a bouncer made the rounds on social media. According to the patron, a bouncer wouldn't let her close the door to a single-stall bathroom, insisting it was strictly for men, and afterward physically removed her from another part of the bar.


The woman in question declined to be quoted when reached for comment, citing social media harassment after her initial post about the incident was widely shared. A manager at Empire requested anonymity, but disputed the sequence of events, claiming video footage cleared the bouncer of wrongdoing. The manager mentioned some possible shifts in policy following the incident, with a focus on improved de-escalation training and gender-balanced shift crews. (The manager also said the bouncer involved is no longer employed by Empire.)


In the course of chatting with folks about their experiences with sexual violence at establishments in Portland, I found this kind of discrepancy to be routine. Few people wanted to be quoted, and while rumors of bars where multiple women claimed to have been roofied were shared with me, no one was willing to go on record.


It’s hardly surprising, given the small community and competitive nature of Portland’s food scene. Furthermore, particularly when alcohol is involved, it's hard to separate truth and liability from whitewashed public relations strategies. Unfortunately, sexual violence prevention-training is so chronically underfunded that sometimes the best opportunities for change are reliant on corporate branding.


Andrew Volk of The Portland Hunt and Alpine Club claims he’s tried to create a culture in his establishment that supports both staff and patrons to intervene when situations arise. “It’s not just a social justice issue, it’s a business issue. Management has to be the one to cultivate this culture of intervention," he says. "If workers are afraid to intervene, for a customer, or themselves, that hurts a business’s ability to create a safe space.”


Volk and his wife, Briana, with whom he co-owns the bar, have been trying to bring Safe Bars, a D.C.-based organization dedicated to “training bar staff how to stand up to sexual violence,” to Portland. They are currently fundraising and seeking corporate sponsorship to defray costs for a Safe Bars training.


Cara Courchesne, Communications Director for the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault (MECASA), says this lack of prevention-based training is definitively linked to the funding structure that exists within the world of anti-sexual assault advocacy.


Many federal and state grants, including substantial funding from the Department of Justice’s Office of Violence Against Women, are intervention-oriented — specifically for victims of crime, and responding to their immediate needs. That leaves affordable prevention-based services in high demand, but with limited capacity.


In the meantime, one local organization is stepping up to the task. Shane Diamond, founder and Executive Director of Speak About It, a Portland-based nonprofit that partners with high schools and colleges to educate and empower students and their communities to create healthy relationship practices and prevent sexual violence, offered a bystander-intervention training to Volk’s staff and other members of the United States Bartenders Guild last month.  


Diamond says it was a no-brainer for Speak About It to facilitate this kind of training, given their focus on equipping students with the tools to talk about consent. A dozen service industry professionals attended the workshop. Both Volk and Diamond hope to offer more trainings.


Courchesne pointed out that bystander-intervention and prevention-based trainings are spiking nationally in the wake of the new administration, but they’re mostly for elementary and high school-age students. Sexual Assault Response Services of Southern Maine (SARSSM), one of the most active advocacy organizations in the Portland area, is “booked months in advance” for the educational programs it offers schools.


This offers upcoming generations a powerful tool in fighting sexual violence, but it means that many who have aged out of those programs have never even heard about “bystander intervention.”




Late last year, the service industry at large was rocked by the allegations of more than a dozen female service industry workers who shared their stories of sexual violence at the hands of a well-known West Coast barman through a blog, “The Reality of Sexual Assault in the Cocktail Community.” Although the man was never named, the blog became a national clarion call for women in the hospitality industry to expose the rampant sexual harassment and assault they face daily.


According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the restaurant industry is responsible for 37 percent of all sexual harassment claims. According to a report from Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) United, 80 percent of women surveyed had experienced sexual harassment from customers.


Of that 80 percent, more than a third reported it happened on a weekly basis. Two-thirds of the survey’s respondents had been harassed by managers. Transgender and minority workers reported substantially higher rates of sexual harassment and assault.




“Imagine the statistics of sexual violence are an upside-down triangle. At the top, the wide base, are all of the incidents surrounding sexual harassment and assault — street harassment, assault in bars, rape, attempted rape, flashing, groping, etc. The level below that, much smaller, are the incidents that are reported. Below that, the ones that find a prosecutor willing to take the case. Then the ones that actually make it to trial. And finally, the smallest piece of the triangle, at the bottom, are all the cases where a conviction is made, and an offender goes to prison.”


Courchesne is trying to answer my question about why statistics about sexual assault and harassment in Maine are so hard to find. Maine doesn’t even have a database for sexual assaults that have been prosecuted, much less data about incidents that never made it to trial.


Maine isn’t unique in this, but the lack of data is astonishing — according to a 2015 report from the University of Southern Maine, one in five Mainers will experience sexual assault in their lifetime. The same report claims “14,000 Mainers will experience sexual violence” per year. Yet a Maine Department of Public Safety Report from 2015 found only 373 rapes or attempted rapes were reported to Maine law enforcement that year.


Courchesne tells me, “sexual violence is the most underreported violent crime in the United States.” But in some ways, the cultural shifts needed to address the United States’ shockingly high rates of sexual assault are starting to gain traction. Unsurprisingly, however, the legal system continues to lag far behind.


Last June, BuzzFeed published a letter written by a sexual assault victim to her attacker, then-Stanford student Brock Turner. The woman’s powerful letter addressing both her own situation and campus rape culture instantly went viral. It was viewed more than 11 million times in four days. It remains the website’s most popular post of all time, outpacing former viral content about Disney princesses and exploding watermelons.


Turner was found guilty of three counts of sexual assault but only received six months in prison, sparking outrage and a concentrated effort to remove presiding Santa Clara Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky from the bench. Persky was later cleared of misconduct by an independent commission. Turner served three months of his sentence before receiving an early release.




“I wanted my bar to be a safe space before I knew what that meant.” Nan’l Meiklejohn, owner of The Bearded Lady’s Jewel Box, is sitting across from me at Tandem on a sunny morning, slightly rumpled, but eager to share his thoughts about the work that needs to be done in Portland to address what he calls “the kind of aggressive behavior that’s common in bar culture.”


The day after I was assaulted, Meiklejohn contacted me via social media. I’d shared my story online, and he was sincerely, believably apologetic that I’d been unsafe in his bar. My experience had sparked a renewed discussion with his staff about intervention and personal safety.


I find myself in the odd position of reassuring him that I don’t hold him responsible for my experience. And I don’t — The Jewel Box continues to be one of my regular haunts. I can’t decide if that’s because I find Meiklejohn to be utterly trustworthy when he says he’s been actively looking for ways to actively improve his ability to provide a safe space, or because a few of his recent cocktails have featured lavender bitters, my version of cocktail kryptonite.


But he has proof. He forwards me an email from Mackenzie Morris, owner of Étaín Boutique, a Congress Street lingerie shop specializing in “encouraging body-positive attitudes and ... fostering personal empowerment.” It’s dated January 11, nearly a month before my incident at his bar, and the subject line reads “Small Business and Social Justice.” It’s an invitation to form a “network of local business owners who value the humanity, dignity, and safety of marginalized groups and individuals over perceived ‘commercial success’.”


The first bullet point on a list of proposed shared goals reads, “Fostering safer spaces and advocating for marginalized groups and individuals, including clientele, employees, and any other members of the community.” Meiklejohn praises Morris’s efforts, saying their letter better articulates the reasons he started The Jewel Box in the first place.

I go to Étaín to ask Morris what that means moving forward. "We've established what we're doing, but it's a work in progress," they say. Meiklejohn says he hopes Morris’s proposed coalition sparks a broader discussion among small businesses in Portland to answer his original question — what does it mean to be a safe space?




I sat down with Diamond to ask for some tips on how to empower bystanders and yourself to intervene in situations where they might be witnessing harassment. Here’s what he told me:


  1. Trust your gut. If you feel uncomfortable witnessing something, chances are someone else is uncomfortable too. Don’t discount the power of intuition.

  2. Intervention does not have to be confrontational. Offer to escort someone to the bathroom, or to accompany you to get a glass of water. By removing someone from a potentially hazardous situation without confrontation, the likelihood of a physical or verbal altercation immediately decreases.

  3. If you don’t feel comfortable intervening, find someone else with the necessary skill set. It’s perfectly okay to find someone with more experience or presence to help in a hostile situation. It’s not okay to do nothing.

  4. Don’t be afraid to remove yourself quickly from a dangerous or threatening situation. Diamond points out that a bar tab can always be paid the next day. Put your personal safety as a top priority.

  5. If you’re uncomfortable about a situation or environment, talk about it. It’s unlikely you’re alone in your feelings. Is there a bar you’ve heard is notorious for harassment or unsafe behavior? Tell people. It’s the first step towards community-wide change.

  6. Set clear expectations with your friends before going out. This allows everyone to operate within the same set of guidelines even after alcohol or drugs might have become involved.


It’s clear from these tips that much of the focus of prevention trainings revolve around clear, open communication. Accountability and change can only come from holding a culture that does little to prevent sexual harassment and violence up to the light. But, as Courchesne says, “There’s no panacea for this. It’s gradual cultural change, and it’s hard work.”


[April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. For more information about sexual assault services in southern Maine, contact the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault (MECASA), or Sexual Assault Response Services of Southern Maine (SARSSM).]


Ed: An earlier version of this story stated that the Empire bouncer bodily removed the patron from the single-stall bathroom. It's been corrected to reflect that this happened elsewhere in the bar per clarification of the patron, who wishes to remain anonymous.

Last modified onWednesday, 12 April 2017 13:48