Coasters Can Help Put Consent Culture on the Table, But We Need to Hold Venues Accountable
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Coasters Can Help Put Consent Culture on the Table, But We Need to Hold Venues Accountable

Aisle 4's coaster project is a step forward in the conversation about how bars and restaurants can do something about gender-based sexual assault

Artwork by Aisle 4's Aisha Sasha John

Artwork by Aisle 4‘s Aisha Sasha John

In my six years of bartending, no one ever told me about a protocol if I thought a guest was being harassed. I never received any training on how to identify potential sexual misconduct. And I certainly never saw a sexual harassment policy.

Well, that’s not entirely true. After I was offered a job at a high-end craft beer bar, my new boss closed with a handshake and an offhand remark: “Oh, and don’t hit on the customers to boost your tips. We’re not that kind of place.”

Thankfully, things have come a long way since I left the industry. Public awareness campaigns have garnered major media coverage as bars and clubs around the world are recognized for novel approaches to ensuring guest safety. Ask for “Angela” at the bar or order a specific drink and guests can quickly alert staff that they need some assistance—without drawing attention from the person they’re hoping to avoid.

Last week, the Aisle 4 curatorial collective introduced a new tactic: a series of colourful coasters that draw attention to gender-based sexual assault. Dubbed the “On the Table” project, the coasters feature designs and messages from Toronto artists Jesse Harris, Aisha Sasha John, Hazel Meyer and Lido Pimienta. A print run of 10,000 coasters has been ordered, and they’ll be found at 10 bars during the Jan 16–22 run of the Toronto Design Offsite Festival.

Encouraging conversation around sexual harassment and violence is objectively a good thing. Public discussion tends to be tied to major media events—like the Ghomeshi trial or the Steubenville rape case—making it easy to fall into the belief that the particulars of these cases are representative of the majority. And prompting these conversations in bars, restaurants, and nightclubs is a great strategy that goes right to the source: according to a study done by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, about half of all those who commit sexual assault are under the influence of alcohol at the time. Alcohol is also by the far the most prevalent form of intoxicant ingested by victims—much more than GHB or Rohypnol.

But when I read about this latest awareness campaign, I couldn’t shake some pesky questions. Who’s the target audience for these coasters’ messages? If they’re designed to challenge the thinking of potential assailants, is their audience’s behaviour likely to be affected by terms like “gender fluidity” and the patriarchy? And does the presence of a coaster mean that the space it’s in is a safe one for guests?

I know, criticizing these kinds of efforts is just lazy grandstanding, right? Something might be a well-meaning idea, but since it’s not the perfect solution to a systemic problem, it’s time to bash it and rack up those clicks. Education is a crucial aspect of effecting social and cultural change, and promoting nuanced dialogue is key. But I can’t help wondering if these coasters might be making a promise venues aren’t equipped to keep.

Bystander intervention has proven to be one of the most effective ways to stop sexual assaults in public places. Yet it’s a strategy that’s often been left to enterprising service staff to implement and enforce by themselves, without direction or support from above. Great tactics like “asking for Angela” are the result of individual bars taking initiative, and they’re certainly not universal. I’m guessing your neighbourhood local doesn’t have its own codewords posted in the bathroom.

On Monday night, Bartenders Against Sexual Harassment (BASH) held an event at Parts and Labour to address this gap. Their fundraiser was in support of the Dandelion Project—a crowdfunded program that will train bar staff on anti-assault procedures. After venues complete the Dandelion training, the group hopes to place dandelion stickers on their windows or doors to let people know there’s an anti-harassment policy in place.

These types of measures have also received strong support from our governments. In December, City Council voted to incorporate sexual harassment and sexual violence awareness training into servers’ and bartenders’ mandatory Smart Serve certification course. The City’s move follows a commitment by the Province to dedicate $1.7 million in funding over three years to provide such training to hospitality staff at all levels. In an industry that’s infamous for its poor treatment of female workers, these training programs could go a long way in resetting the culture for both staff and guests.

The work of the Aisle 4 collective is a good start. But let’s not let Toronto’s bars and restaurants coast on it.