7. Safety is Still Far from Guaranteed at Bars and That's Not Okay

How women and marginalized people aren't always safe traveling or going out solo, plus lovey-dovey-dreamy tarot and beer.

Gaslit, Unsafe, and Failed: Being a Woman Alone on the Road or at a Bar

A few years ago, my friend and I arrived at the Airbnb we’d booked for our visit to Nashville and found a series of surprises. First, the host was there even though he’d said he wouldn’t be; it was supposed to be a self-check in. Then, he informed us that his plans had fallen through and he’d have to remain at the apartment, too, even though we’d booked with the “Entire Place to Yourself” filter and were not exactly cool with the idea of a dude stranger in the house with just us two women. Next, this host took us on a tour of the home, and upstairs, changed his mind, informing us that, actually, he’d be sleeping in his room, next to the only other bedroom, even though we also booked a two-bedroom property. He told us that he had an air mattress we could borrow, but that we “really should both share the bed.” 

As we tried to quickly strategize how to respond to an inconvenience that was starting to feel downright threatening, he said he’d be going out for a while and that he’d see us later. My friend then discovered there was this sort of camouflaged door leading directly from his bedroom to the room he wanted us to share a bed in, and that it had no lock on our side. 

It took deep—too deep—Googling to find an Airbnb customer support number, and then too much dialing through to assure them that yes, this was an emergency. It then took way too long and far too much explaining to finally get the person on the other end of the line to agree that yes, this was a dangerous situation and yes, we’d be refunded. We knew we had to get the hell out of there, but we also needed to know we’d get a refund before we looked for somewhere else to stay.

After we peeled out of the apartment complex and sped to what felt like a safe distance away to pull into a parking lot and search for a cheap hotel, we sat there volleying questions back and forth: we were correct in reacting that way, right? That was a bad, creepy, threatening, possibly dangerous situation, right? That wasn’t just an innocent Airbnb host in a jam, was it?

This is what we do. Society has programmed us to roll with the punches, “punches” being sexual harassment, abuse, and assault, and the pervasive threat of all of the above. That’s why you should consider a catcall a compliment, not get so worked up that your customer gave you an solicited massage—he was being nice!—and not be such a difficult bitch and tattle when your coworker makes aggressive moves on you when no one is looking.

One place where this attitude is just suffocating is the bar. Because, you came out for a good time, didn’t you? Bars are the physical space equivalent of mini skirts: you were asking for it. You’re a woman who entered a bar and now you’re complaining that you got some male attention? Wow, okay, bitch. “I was doing you a favor,” “You’re like a four, anyway, sad for you,” “You should have been honored”—just a few of my favorite responses from men I’ve shut down at bars.

I wasn’t even alone in Nashville, but in that scenario, without a big, strong, heteronormative man, I guess my friend and I were as good as solo. And it made me think of the story Beth Demmon shared on the Bitch Beer Podcast, about being a woman covering the beer industry, who often travels alone for events and the like. Take a listen if you haven’t; staying in a far-from-secure Airbnb alone on the road inspired Beth’s must-read Good Beer Hunting piece, Buzz, Kill — The Physical, Psychological, and Financial Price Women Pay for Working in Beer.

Men—and I’m obviously not talking about the many men out there who totally get this and are fighting alongside us to do something about it (thank you!)—range from laughing off our fears to spewing rage and hatred when we voice them. But it’s gaslighting: of course women, those who identify as women, and nonbinary people aren’t as safe traveling or sitting at a bar, the latter where alcohol is just opening up all those ugly urges in people, alone.

Before I even launched this newsletter, I started writing an essay about visiting bars alone. Because as someone who went from living at home to college to New York with my now-husband, learning to venture out into the world, and survive and even enjoy being alone has been a huge part of my becoming, idk, whatever I am. And a lot of this happened at craft beer bars, specifically, where I felt comfortable to while away an afternoon solo. I felt secure, free to read or talk to the bartender or chat about beers with the person next to me. I don’t know what I would have done without this outlet during the first year or so I lived in Brooklyn, after my mom had just died. After the first few weeks, all your people have to get back to their lives, but there’s nothing recognizable for you to get back to when you’re grieving like that. I valued the option of sitting at Owl Farm or The Gate with a book, just to be around humans without having to engage.

But lately I’ve realized: A, not everyone is even made to feel that security at every beer bar, and B, the bars that I’d been visiting are just a segment of bars, and during a certain segment of the day. There are exponentially more bars I probably wouldn’t go to alone at night. Which isn’t right or fair or sustainable. All of us have to be alone at some point. We move to new cities, we break up, we lose people. If I find myself in a different situation, in a different town in the future, will I hole myself away after the sun goes down because it’s not always safe for a woman to go to a bar by herself?

That’s the age-old solution. It’s not safe for women to travel or go to bars alone, so they should just stay home. Women: expected to do the whole #stayhome thing Covid made trendy since the dawn of time.

The Reclaim the Night March started in 1977 in England, inspired by similar marches in response to sexual harassment and the danger of murder and rape, and timed to the murderous reign of Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper. Women were angry that police response was so slow, and that the press and public didn’t seem to care about the victims until it was a student, and not a sex worker, who was killed. Additionally, the police’s way of handling this was to tell women to not go out at night. This was impossible for women with night shifts, and in any case, absurd and wrongheaded. Men attack women, but women get grounded.

Decade after decade, nothing changes. Women are unsafe as they’ve ever been, and when we dare ask for safety, we get told to stay home.

It’s—inexcusably—become a part of life, just something we deal with day in and day out. Ash Eliot wrote about this well on the website of her initiative, Women of the Bevolution. We’ve been talking about this “part of life”—perpetual lack of safety—again lately in the wake of craft beer’s reckoning with sexism and abuse. We can’t let the energy die down when we’re at the very, very start of the long, difficult road toward safety and equity in beer; similarly, the fight has got to start to make everything from bars to Airbnbs safe for women.

We’ve also been talking about it lately because for the first time in over a year, bars for most of us are back to full capacity. I had a similar experience to Ash’s in the sense that I was recently back at a bar—with a male-dominated customer base—and the size of the crowd felt like an assault on the senses. Did we ever really drink among this many bodies, crammed together so close? (Do we need to ever again?)

On this night, as I sat at the bar with a female friend, two men came up and started harassing us. As one spoke to my friend—I couldn’t even hear him over the din—the other laid the top half of his body across my back, just sort of draped there. I jolted away at the same time as my friend told his friend to get lost, and they did back up, but then stood there for a while staring at us and cursing at us. When we asked the bartender what to do, she shrugged. “I cut them off, that’s all I can do.” I don’t blame her. She was the only person working in that entire bar. No other bartender, no bar back, no security. What could she do? She, herself, was a woman alone in a bar. This bar had failed her as much, if not more, than it was failing its female patrons.

No happy ending here, not yet, anyway. All I can say is that we need to keep talking about this, loudly. And we can’t stop until there is safety. In the meantime, too, let’s highlight the bars and breweries with systems in place for both employees and customers, like Ask for Angela, which started in the UK and has yet to fully catch on here. I remember seeing signs about asking staff for help in any uncomfortable situation at Cloudwater’s Bermondsey taproom back in 2018. Where have you seen similar solutions set up, and/or where have you felt safe?

Beer Tarot!

I pulled the Page of Cups, this jazzy-dressed character.

Cups are the suit of water and deal with emotions, love, relationships, and connections. If you remember from this issue, these “court cards” in each suit represent personalities. The Page is sociable and good company, a fun friend to have—or be. They’re artistic and creative, a dreamer, generous and intuitive, and they love to be around others. This card could be telling you to embrace these qualities in yourself or in a friend, or even that you’re seeking a presence like this in your life.

The Page of Cups also signals good news is coming in terms of some relationship in your life—some positive event or change will happen with a significant other, family member, friend, or your kid. Finally, this card is a reminder to go ahead and dream, make the most out of your imagination—but don’t go crazy and forget your practical side or forsake your responsibilities. You need that part to make those dreams come into fruition. This Wedding Cake Sour from Collective Arts is perfect for the Page of Cups. With raspberry puree, vanilla, and Meyer lemons, it’s an ode to good love news in its theme, plus it’s an imaginative mix of ingredients, and it’s from an especially arts-forward brewery.

This Week’s Boozy Reading Rec

I think we can all agree that we’ve only just begun to chip into giving a platform to underrepresented communities in beer. It’s so overdue and so vitally important, so let’s not let up on the gas pedal as we finally hear from more non-cishet white guys making beer—this translates to more resources for these breweries that may be owned by people from marginalized groups, and contributes to a more diverse beer scene. I loved reading “Five Asian-Indian Craft Beer Pioneers in North America to Watch” on VinePair, penned by Ruvani de Silva, who is a brilliant writer and a joy to follow on social media, too, by the way. Ruvani spotlights breweries from Connecticut to Texas to Ontario; get to know them and see which beers you can get your hands on depending on where you are.

Until next week, here is Darby at Grimm Artisanal Ales. There is no beer in this picture, but I still love it because, I mean, look how much fun she’s having.