Bar Culture and Safety Part 2: Raising the Bar

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

  • Going out to the bar is not always a fun experience for everyone.

    Going out to the bar is not always a fun experience for everyone.

Written by Abigel Lemak

Going out to the bar is not always a fun experience for everyone. 

Bar culture, especially in university towns, can be understood as a force that allows for certain kinds of social behaviour otherwise deemed unacceptable. Bars provide a space where it is often tolerated for people to get drunk or simply “pumped-up” and harass others. 

When asked how they experienced bar culture in Guelph, students expressed concern towards the bar scene as a woman.

“It’s totally different, guys don’t even know, they don’t even get it,” said Katrina, a third year student.

There seemed to be an understanding of different roles coded as acceptable at the bar for men and for women.

“I think bar culture is really interesting,” said Cynthia, a fourth year student. “I feel like everybody is on guard but still follows their instincts a lot and you can link it as animalistic...it is different for guys and girls, a lot of guys take it very seriously, like this is where they’re going to meet a lot of girls.”

This culture is often understood as intrinsic and therefore unchangeable, a belief that Raise the Bar won’t stand for. 

“We’re looking a little bit bigger, we’re looking to change the culture,” said Emma Slykhuis, Raise the Bar’s Campus Communications Director.

Raise the Bar is an open collective of U of G students and staff as well as community members interested in changing bar culture in Guelph for the better. 

“Basically, I had a really bad experience at a bar, where I spoke to them about feeling uncomfortable in their bar and they just gave me terrible feedback and basically told me they didn’t care,” said Slykhuis. “[Bretz] and I starting talking about what I could do with that really bad experience, and we kind of decided to do something positive about it.”

Andre Bretz PhD, teaches at the University of Guelph and is working in collaboration with Take Back the Night and Guelph-Wellington Women in Crisis to ‘raise the bar’ on bar culture and safety in Guelph, collecting stories of sexual harassment at bars from men and women in hopes of understanding what the problems are and how to prevent them from happening. 

“We’re going to be approaching breweries and pubs and things like that because this is directly affecting them, more than anyone else really,” said Bretz. “We’re asking them that more information be out there, that people be aware of this so that the culture can change within Guelph.”

Raise the Bar is currently working on putting together and holding training programs for downtown bars in order to address their concerns and work towards providing a safe space for patrons to enjoy.

“I think feeling unsafe and dealing with sexual harassment we have--especially women--have all experienced at bars and this is obviously a problem,” said Slykhuis. “It’s not just at one bar, so we should address the problem.”

There is a great history of community action and involvement at Guelph, and when it comes to a question of changing a culture, volunteer support seems integral to success.

“It has to be [done by] volunteers,” said Bretz. “What we’re going to be doing is educating bar staff and management in their rights and responsibilities, both under the law and what’s going on in Guelph in terms of sexual assault and sexual violence...It’s really about trying to create a volunteer group who know about the problem and are willing to work towards a different culture.”

It seems to be a question of education and awareness when it comes to bar safety for both bar staff and patrons as well as circulating information that may not be easily accessible or apparent to the public.

“The hospital for example is providing a lot of information regarding sexual assault and date rape drugs, so we’ll be educating these bars regarding that,” said Bretz. “The ministry of labour last year changed its requirements for bars regarding harassment policies and regarding sexual violence policies. Several bars have updated their policies, but there are bars that update their policies on paper but don't actually follow through.”

Rather than an increase in security, it’s more a question of asking the right kinds of questions and properly reading a situation once you’ve been trained to see the signs. Beyond staff members, the purpose of changing the culture is to promote a different attitude towards the bar scene and behaviour misunderstood as normative.

“A big part of it is looking to bystanders who are not bar staff necessarily but who can just say, ‘Hey, is everything okay?’ or  ‘Do you need me to talk to somebody?’” said Slykhuis.

Although there are groups on and off campus that provide services to ensure a safe space on campus or prevent sexual harassment, there hasn’t been a group able to link the university to the community regarding safety downtown for students. 

“One of the things that distinguish us as a group, as opposed to Safewalk for instance, or the Women in Crisis Center, is that we’re thinking of ourselves as a bridge group between the community and the university,” said Bretz. “Because it is such a big university based --not problem as such-- it is happening downtown, but the people go to the university for the most part, so we have to approach both town and gown...and we would like to act as an important bridge group between the two, occupying an important niche.”

Bar culture raises many issues prevalent in our society, issues of sexism, gender roles, substance abuse and ignorance among others, but it also poses an important challenge to members of the university and community in working towards a shift. With bar culture and safety becoming increasing hot topics thanks to group initiatives like Raise the Bar, perhaps going out with some friends for a drink will become a less guarded endeavour for some.

“Ideally, it’s a culture shift that we’re looking for,” said Bretz.

For more information, you can visit Raise the Bar’s website here.

To read Bar Culture and Safety Part 1 click here.

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