People dance in a nightclub.
Bills at the New York City Council would require bar and club employees to receive training for dealing with sexual harassment. AP

Bills in the City Council would require nightlife venues to confront predatory behavior and provide bystander training for all employees.

When New York City founded its Office of Nightlife last year, it set out to update the laws that govern the city’s afterdark scene. After eliminating a Prohibition-era “cabaret law” and embarking on a five-borough listening tour to hear citizen suggestions on further improvements, the city is now setting its sights on combating sexual harassment in bars, nightclubs, concert halls, and other nightlife destinations. The goal is to make venues take a more active role in preventing and confronting predatory behavior, and the City Council is considering three separate measures to make that happen.

The cornerstone piece of legislation would require nightlife establishments to display “conspicuous signage” declaring their space “harassment free.” The signs would also inform patrons that harassment can be reported to security or staff, and offer a list of government resources to help victims. Nightlife establishments with five or more employees would also be required to conduct annual sexual harassment training for workers, where they’ll learn how to identify harassment, how to handle a complaint, and best practices for intervening as a bystander.

A separate bill would task the Office of Nightlife with creating an online listing of sexual harassment resources for nightlife establishments, and a proposed resolution calls for mandatory “sexual harassment prevention and bystander intervention training for all security guards who work in nightlife establishments.” This would expand current security guard training requirements that cover legal authority, ethics and conduct, and public relations.

The bills’ chief sponsor, Council Member Rafael Espinal of Brooklyn, believes these measures could set a precedent for regulating nightlife behavioral norms.

“It’s no secret that [sexual harassment] happens in nightlife,” Espinal says. “I thought this was a rational step to take.” In the resolution to update security guard training requirements, Espinal cited studies that “consistently show that a majority of women expect to experience sexual harassment during a night out with friends and view this as a normal part of the nightlife experience.”

Ariel Palitz, senior executive director of the Office of Nightlife, said in an email that she supports the efforts and praised the managers at a Brooklyn nightclub—House of Yes—for offering advice in crafting the legislation.

“Sexual assault and harassment has no place in our nightlife spaces or anywhere,” Palitz said. “At the Office of Nightlife, we are happy to engage in partnerships with experts who are on the ground to develop an awareness campaign to encourage businesses to post helpful information to keep their patrons safe and free from harassment.”

New York City isn’t alone in responding to the #MeToo movement with new legislation. The heightened national conversation surrounding the issue in the past year has also prompted some response from state and federal lawmakers across the U.S. A USA Today investigation found a 10 percent increase in new laws that address sexual harassment, as well as a rise in public hearings on the matter. Advocacy organizations, however, say the laws on the books still fall far short of what’s needed to support victims, hold perpetrators accountable, and make spaces safer for everyone.

Espinal says he wants New York to focus on fighting sexual harassment in the nightlife industry, and that he was inspired, in part, by an education initiative out of Washington, D.C., called Safe Bars. As reported by NPR, the group’s goal is to “educate bystanders on what to do when they see sexual aggression [and] work with bars in D.C. and train staff to intervene and help victims of aggression.” A Safe Bars organizer explained in the piece that observant bystanders can confront a perpetrator directly or help in easier ways, like by pretending to know the person who is being harassed, and telling them a friend elsewhere in the bar or club is calling for them.

“Sexual harassment has always happened, especially in nightclubs because it’s a recipe for disaster for consent violations: it’s dark, there are strangers, there’s alcohol,” says Anya Sapozhnikova, a co-founder of House of Yes who helped Espinal with the bill about new signage.

At a City Council hearing where the legislation was discussed in November, representatives from several advocacy groups hailed the chamber for taking on this subject. Some even said the laws should be expanded—to include training for 311 and 911 operators on how to effectively respond to harassment claims, in one example. Others raised concerns that regulating too harshly can further threaten nightlife’s already shaky public standing.

At the hearing, Eric McGriff of OutSmartNYC, an organization that aims to prevent sexual violence in nightlife, took exception to Espinal’s statement that alcohol plays a key role in harassment cases, saying that outlook perpetuates “shame toward the nightlife community.”

“Blaming the venue or alcohol … allow[s] us to avoid talking about the actual perpetrator,” McGriff said. He also pointed out that sexual violence “does not mostly happen in nightlife spaces;” it more often occurs at work, and across a broad spectrum of public spaces.

Striking a similar note, Andrew Rigie, executive director of the NYC Hospitality Alliance—an advocacy group representing all facets of hospitality, including nightlife—says the spirit behind Espinal’s law is to crack down on sexual harassment in bars and dance halls, but that doesn’t cover the entire scope of the problem.

“Harassment happens at the gym, at the movie theater. This is not exclusive to a bar, a nightclub, or a restaurant,” Rigie says. “We think that this training, if it’s going to be mandated, should be more expansive, and it shouldn’t just protect people who are out eating or drinking. It should be protecting people who are working out at the gym, at the doctor’s office, or going to see a movie.”

Rigie also notes that both the city and the state recently passed broad laws requiring anti-harassment training in workplaces. Espinal’s bills add to the requirements for nightlife establishments, which will then have to maintain records that all the annual trainings have been completed. Rigie has requested that the annual training be consolidated into a single course meeting all requirements.

Espinal says those concerns and others will be considered as the bills are reworked in preparation for a City Council vote, which Espinal expects to happen in the next couple of months. With reserved confidence, he believes the vote will turn out in favor of the bills.

“Overall there was a consensus that this is something important and something that should be spoken about and implemented; it’s just a matter of how we get to a space where it makes sense for everyone,” Espinal says. “I think it’s time that we do everything we can to ensure that New Yorkers feel safe, and that other New Yorkers are looking out for the best interest of their peers.”

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