Fifteen women have recently come forward with allegations that a powerful figure in the West Coast cocktail scene assaulted them. The women, some from Portland, are sounding the alarm through a blog, “The Reality of Sexual Assault in the Cocktail Community,” with graphic and often difficult-to-read entries about their personal experiences.
Their homepage states: “We want to stimulate a dialogue about what happened to us, why we sat in silence hurting for so long, how we can help others have a voice and how we can end sexual assault.”
One of the accusers, Jeanelle Owings, of Portland, told Street Roots that she came forward because “silence keeps people sick. It’s so important to speak out because this is happening to everybody.”
According to a 2014 report from Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, there are “endemic” levels of harassment in the service industry, with at least 90 percent of women working in restaurants as tipped employees dealing with it in some form.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission cites the restaurant industry as the “single largest” source of sexual harassment claims in the U.S. Many women working in the service industry in Portland told Street Roots sexual harassment and assault were rampant but seldom reported.
“I don’t know any woman who’s spent any time in a bar who hasn’t been harassed and hasn’t felt safe,” said Jessica Rosengrant, a longtime Portland bartender and survivor of sexual assault. “People just don’t realize how pervasive it is.”
Rachel Debely, a server at a busy downtown Portland pub, grew weary when a new manager started to make lewd suggestions, once telling her to “hike up her skirt” if she wanted to earn more tips. She asked him to stop, but he refused. When she noticed him being sexually suggestive to her co-worker, a minor, she decided to take action.
“I knew I needed to stop it,” Debely said. “So I made a phone call to his boss.” In the end, the perpetrator was dismissed from the company.
Sexual harassment is “much more prevalent than most think” in the service industry, Debely said. “But most girls don’t report it because they try to put it out of their minds,” she said, “or they don’t feel comfortable reporting it to their management staff for fear of not being taken seriously and losing shifts.”
The incidence rate of sexual harassment in the service industry is difficult to pin down for several reasons. Few complaints are formally filed with the state labor agency.
From 2011 to 2016, the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries has investigated 87 complaints of sexual harassment in the service industry in Clackamas, Washington and Multnomah counties, making up about 18 percent of the sexual harassment complaints in all industries combined.
Furthermore, an inquiry into the Oregon Judicial Department found that its criminal case tracking isn’t specific to an industry or location of a crime, but instead focuses on the type of case or the specific statute violated – for example, “sex offense.” The numbers aren’t any easier to pinpoint on the civil side, in which court records list torts but do not narrow down which are related to sexual assault and harassment.
“There are just no good statistics because it so often goes unreported,” Rosengrant said. “It’s the rape culture that makes people feel that they deserve the treatment and don’t recognize it as problematic.”
The statistics might not be there, but the problem is.
Rosengrant detailed her experience: “I was followed home from the bar by a guy who worked with me. He tried to force himself on me. I told him to fuck off, but he grabbed me. So I pulled out my phone and was able to get him to leave me alone that way. Having someone on the other end of the line makes a difference.”
Local workers’ stories
Given the lack of data, Street Roots interviewed more than 15 women and five men from different types of establishments in the Portland bar and restaurant scene, in addition to several online accounts, to get an idea of how prevalent sexual harassment and assault are locally.
Of the men interviewed, the consensus was the issue existed but that it was mostly consensual among co-workers and was worse for women, especially from guest to co-worker.
One man, though – a veteran downtown bartender – told Street Roots he has been repeatedly stalked by female patrons, as well as harassed by a male patron.
“But the women have it way worse,” he said. “On busy nights, I’ve seen guys reach up and try to grab them as they’re bending over and things like that. It’s awful.”
Of the women interviewed for this article, here are a few of their many stories. Due to the nature of their accounts, Street Roots agreed to anonymity.
One woman said she was asked to perform a sex act on her male manager in order to retain her job at a popular downtown tavern.
Another woman was terminated for refusing service to a patron who was repeatedly verbally abusive to her, often calling her a “c*nt.”
Another bar worker said her male manager coaxed her onto the roof after closing and then made sexual advances toward her. She bolted and was later met with a barrage of inappropriate text messages.
Another woman said a male patron at the bar where she worked “shoved his fingers up my skirt and into my underwear and then ran off.”
Another reported an intoxicated male patron was sitting on her car when she left work, prompting her to go back inside to retrieve other employees to escort her out.
None of these experiences would be included in any retrievable statistic because none of these women filed a harassment or assault complaint to law enforcement. If the incident were reported to management, an incident report and investigation would likely occur, the results of which would remain confidential within the company.
In the event of a reference check, companies are reluctant to ask much more than basic information like dates, titles and salaries and whether the person is eligible for rehire.
“Some employers may limit the amount of information they give out of caution and fear of defamation suits,” said Charlie Burr, BOLI’s communications director. “It’s an individual choice by the employer, not a legal mandate.”
Kelly Vaughn, a manager and bartender in Northeast Portland and a survivor of sexual assault, said, “It’s definitely a problem I’ve seen in the industry – cases where managers get terminated and then go get hired somewhere else and repeat the same practices. There’s just no way to track it, unfortunately, because managers have to adopt a legal approach. It’s a gray area, very tricky.”
Some high-profile cases of women and girls coming forward have captured headlines recently.
In October, six women filed a class-action lawsuit against the owners of Italian restaurant Nonna Emilia in the Southwest Portland suburb of Aloha, accusing them of sexual harassment and abuse. A comprehensive investigation by BOLI found substantial evidence regarding the allegations that kitchen manager Justin Ceccanti otherwise aided, abetted, incited, compelled and/or coerced unlawful employment practices.
In BOLI documents obtained by Street Roots, the allegations included:
- One woman, who was pregnant at the time, alleged that Ceccanti demanded to walk her to her car, where he assaulted her.
- Another woman claimed Ceccanti “would regularly call female members of the staff profane names such as ‘stupid bitch,’ and made other harassing and threatening statements.”
- Another said Ceccanti provided her and her co-worker with alcohol and pressured them both to engage in sexual conduct; at one point, she said, one of the women was unconscious.
In a separate case, two teenagers sued Stars Cabaret in July, with the help of Oregon Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian and BOLI, on charges of “unlawful sexual harassment of minors.” The girls, including one who was prostituted to customers when she was 13, recently went in front of a judge for closing arguments in the civil rights case. One of the girls came forward a year after the events took place when she confided in a counselor. That one confession catapulted events that would end up causing Stars to go bankrupt, lose its liquor license and send three men to prison for compelling prostitution, first-degree sex abuse and second-degree rape, among other charges.
It is common practice to question a victim’s trustworthiness when it comes to sexual harassment and assault. Look no further than public reaction to sexual assault allegations against celebrities and politicians such as Bill Cosby and Donald Trump.
In the case against Stars Cabaret, in spite of compelling testimony and criminal convictions, the closing arguments carried laments from the defense attorney regarding the victims’ believability. She argued the girls were not credible witnesses, citing inconsistencies in their testimonies.
This distrust is why many women do not come forward. Owings recently wrote on “The Reality of Sexual Assault in the Cocktail Community” blog: “The thought of speaking up didn’t really cross my mind. If I fought for myself or spoke up – as much of my experience in this industry has taught me – I’d be disregarded as dramatic, a liability, emotional, attention-seeking, pathetic, a trainwreck, alcoholic, etc.”
Of the women Street Roots interviewed who worked in the Portland bar scene, all of them had at least one – some had several – personal stories about being on the receiving end of sexual assault or harassment while working in the service industry. Each of the men reported having at least seen it a few times; one said it was “widespread and disgusting.”
But now, several groups of service industry workers are trying to change that. Bartenders Against Sexual Assault, or BASA, formed in 2014 to stand against sexual assault using education and awareness to train bartenders and bar professionals to recognize these dangerous situations and intervene. Its public Facebook group has more than 3,700 followers from around the U.S. and Canada, many of whom work in Portland’s bar and restaurant industries.
BASA hopes to transform society through things like educating bystanders, compelling lawmakers and believing victims.
“We have a duty in our work environments to watch for signs of sexual predators and take action when necessary,” said Stacey Wright, co-founder of BASA. “It’s time to end the silence and the shame in the cocktail community. This is how we create change.”
The blog about sexual assault was quickly shared in BASA’s Facebook group, where it sent shudders through its wide readership and beyond. Perhaps more importantly, it sparked a series of conversations about awareness, prevention and the continuation of victims sharing their stories. The man accused on the site was a prominent individual in the Los Angeles bar scene, who guest-bartended repeatedly in Portland, which is how several Portland women came into contact with him. No one has pressed charges, which is why Street Roots isn’t naming him. The victims’ message, though, is not simply to harpoon the perpetrator; it is more to shed light on the rampant harassment that occurs daily throughout the service industry.
One of the women wrote on the blog: “We need to continue the dialogue about recognizing, reporting and not condoning inappropriate or illegal behavior. We need to continue this conversation because we have allowed a predator to attack his colleagues for several years due to our acceptance and celebration of excessive drinking and drug use.”
Owings, in agreement, said, “Liquor is a drug. If we’re giving someone the legal ability to deal drugs, they should be trained in how to deal with the repercussions.”
Alcohol is present in about half of all sexual assaults in the United States, according to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, though the study is quick to point out that these numbers are difficult to determine because so many women and men do not report. Additionally, at least 80 percent of sexual assaults occur between people who know each other. Furthermore, alcohol consumption by perpetrators and victims tends to co-occur, which means both are consuming alcohol in a socialized setting, like in a bar or at a party. As a result, a victim might feel shame and give the perpetrator what another woman on the blog calls “a drunken pardon.”
She elaborated: “I keep telling myself that if the person who attacked me had been a stranger, I would have gone straight to the police. But what would you do when your friend attacks you while he’s under the influence of alcohol? I pretended it didn’t happen.”
Wright, of BASA, said she was saddened but not surprised when the blog appeared in the BASA Facebook group.
“When one victim speaks out, it tends to create a watershed moment for others to come forward. Telling our stories creates a space for others; it pushes shame into the shadows where it belongs,” she said.
According to Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, 88 percent of workers who experienced sexual harassment said they’d be more likely to talk to their supervisor about it if they had the support of co-workers.
Through BASA and other resources, fed-up servers and bartenders are organizing around the country to foster solutions and educate bar owners and managers in an effort to prevent sexual harassment and assault in the service industry, for both workers and customers.
The Orange County Bartenders Cabinet and Long Beach Bartenders Cabinet in California called for a special meeting on the subject in December. In Canada, the Toronto cocktail community has rallied in support of a sexual assault victim with a protest and campaign called “I Believe Her.”
And in Portland, three women – Rosengrant, Vaughn and Danielle Verbus – have created a nonprofit called Not OK PDX that will provide low-cost training to local bars to educate service staff on the dangers and prevention of sexual assault and harassment. They are calling the educational program SaferBars.
‘We hit a nerve’
Rosengrant came across the flagship program, Safe Bars, while visiting Washington, D.C., and thought, “Why don’t we have this in Portland?”
Safe Bars uses innovative bystander education strategies to empower staff to stand up to sexual harassment and assault when they see it. This empowerment, they believe, will save women from potential aggressors who prey on bar employees and women who have had too much to drink.
“The way I was treated by my peers (after being assaulted) made me snap into perspective. Bartenders feel the need to stay quiet because we’re just so subjected to this atmosphere that we internalize it,” Vaughn said. “We hope that with these trainings we can not only provide a source of comfort for both staff and patrons, but also build awareness if an issue that has long been ignored for way too long.”
A 2014 study from the University of Toronto and the University of Washington found that 90 percent of sexually aggressive incidents involved male initiators and female targets, and almost all involved aggression that was either intentional or probably intentional.
Targets mostly responded with evasion, and staff and third parties rarely intervened, according to the study. The study stated, “Initiators’ level of invasiveness was related to the intoxication of the target, but to not their own intoxication, suggesting intoxicated women were being targeted.”
The study’s conclusion suggests, among other things, that prevention must focus on better management of “highly sexualized and sexist environments of most bars.”
The study’s lead researcher, Kathryn Graham, told NPR, “There should be training for staff on how to intervene.”
This set the stage for Safe Bars, launched in Washington, D.C., in 2013 thanks in part to a $20,000 grant from the NFL. The NFL, which has faced scrutiny for going easy on athletes who perpetrate assault, has responded by investing in sexual violence prevention initiatives.
“It’s a huge, enormous problem, unwanted sexual aggression,” said Lauren Taylor, Safe Bars co-director. “Alcohol and sexuality come together to create a culture of closeness among bar staff that often leads to harassment. Safe Bars wants to engage the whole community; we all have a responsibility to create a setting we want to live in.”
Once the program began, Taylor said, “we hit a nerve. People want to step in and interrupt but don’t have the skills and tools. Once you provide that, they’re off and running.”
With the help of Safe Bars, Portland’s own Not OK PDX has created a curriculum that “should be used as the industry standard,” Rosengrant said.
It incorporates educational materials, personal stories and role-playing to raise awareness. Once the staff is certified, the establishment receives a decal for their window and social media pages, as well as posters to hang in the restrooms that establish it to guests as a safe place. Additionally, Rosengrant said she hopes that “people who are creepy will know they are unwelcome.”
The women behind Not OK PDX hope their program can help Portland have one of the first bar scenes in the nation where bartenders and servers don’t feel like putting up with sexual harassment and assault is just another part of the job.
If you believe that you have been illegally discriminated against on the basis of a protected class or protected activity, contact the Bureau of Labor and Industries’ Civil Rights Division at 971-673-0764 or email@example.com. The BOLI website includes a Sexual Harassment Q&A, detailed information with regard to the complaint process, and more.
Not OK PDX training
Bar and restaurant managers and owners who are interested in offering a Safer Bars class to their staff can reach Not OK PDX at firstname.lastname@example.org to set one up. The cost is $50.