• Witnesses of sexual harassment and assault often don't know how to respond.
  • Cities are launching bystander programs to help them intervene.
  • Arlington, Va., and Washington, D.C., are specifically training bar and restaurant staff.

Many people have a plan for when dates go badly. Some have a friend call with a fabricated emergency. Others fake being sick or having work come up. If the date ventures into dangerous territory, customers at bars and restaurants in Arlington, Va., have another option: ask for Angela.

If a woman asks to speak to “Angela,” staff are trained to recognize the code and will then call her a cab and help her leave the facility. The city launched the Ask for Angela program last fall as a way to help patrons safely leave situations where they feel threatened. Currently, 22 local bars and restaurants are participating.

While dating violence affects people of all genders and ages, women between 18 and 24 years old are victims of it at a disproportionate rate. Likewise, LGBT people encounter it more often than heterosexual people.

Ask for Angela is part of a broader push to make bystanders part of the response to sexual harassment and violence. A widely studied psychological concept known as the “bystander effect” asserts that people are less likely to offer assistance to a victim when others are present.

The Arlington Restaurant Initiative, which seeks to ensure the safety of residents in public, is adapted from programs launched in cities throughout the United Kingdom. The county’s police and health departments offer trainings that empower employees to take action. Washington, D.C.’s Safe Bars group also helps train staff to prevent sexual harassment.

“The responsibility is not just on the patron who feels uncomfortable,” says Autumn Jones, program director for Arlington’s Victim/Witness Program. “We are also training the bar staff, the bartenders, the managers, the bouncers. If they see things, it gives them an opportunity to intervene in an appropriate way.”

Once one person decides to intervene, Candice Lopez, a manager for Arlington’s domestic violence initiative Project PEACE, says other witnesses will then be more likely to take action.

“What I love about these programs is that they target a community of people,” Lopez says. “We are trying to empower them as a community acting together and not acting in a silo.”

Arlington's initiative reflects a growing push toward bystander trainings, which teach witnesses of sexual harassment and violence how to respond. Last year, bystander trainings were incorporated into sexual harassment prevention for Philadelphia city employees. College campuses around the country have also pushed such programs.