There’s a small poster in the women’s restroom at the Ireland’s Four Courts pub in Clarendon that asks some serious questions: “Are you on a date that isn’t working out? Do you feel like you’re not in a safe situation? Does it all feel a bit weird?” Anyone whose gut answer is “yes” is encouraged to go straight to the bar and ask the staff if Angela is around.
No, “Angela” isn’t a burly bouncer who’ll pin the aggressive patron up against the wall, though that would be nice. It’s a signal to the staff that a situation is uncomfortable, and the person asking for her needs help extricating themselves, whether it’s having someone call a taxi or walk the customer to their car.
Ask for Angela — which you may have seen on social media as #AskForAngela — launched in pubs in Lincolnshire, England, in 2016, and has spread across the world, as far as Australia, Canada and now Clarendon.
Arlington County Police Officer Dimitrios “Jim” Mastoras introduced Ask for Angela to Arlington’s restaurant and bar district as part of the new Arlington Restaurant Initiative, a voluntary accreditation program that helps venues craft policies encouraging safer nightlife practices.
Mastoras, who serves as the restaurant liaison officer for county police, says that training can include the Bar Bystander program, which teaches bar owners and staff how to identify sexually aggressive behavior and offer assistance to potential victims. But sometimes the victims are afraid of what might happen if they try to leave, or they don’t want to make a fuss about the situation. In that case, he says, it’s easier just to inquire after “Angela” — no questions asked. Even for staff, it can take some pressure off: “They don’t have to validate the incident and ask, ‘Does this rise to the occasion where I get involved or I have to call the police?’ ” he says.
Tim Walsh, who’s been the manager at Ireland’s Four Courts since 2011, says he “learned fairly early on” how to deal with situations where patrons were feeling harassed or uncomfortable at the bar, whether it involved moving customers away from harassers who were ignoring social cues, or simply telling aggressors: “You need to leave.” But the combination of staff training and awareness about the Ask for Angela program has been beneficial in the “few instances” where customers have sought help.
“With the staff knowing we have the signs posted, it’s very easy for us to say, ‘Why don’t you come over here to the server station,’ ” away from the crowd, “and we can figure out how to get them out of a situation,” Walsh says. In cases when the police has been called, including one in which a woman reported a man following her for blocks after she’d left a different bar, Walsh says the police have been “very responsive.”
The effectiveness of the Ask For Angela campaign is still being determined. The initiative launched with fanfare in Aberdeen, Scotland, in March 2017, with more than two dozen establishments on board. But when the daily Press and Journal newspaper sent undercover reporters to “ask for Angela” at 14 bars this past December, almost half didn’t recognize the code word or do anything to help.
Lauren Taylor is the director of Safe Bars, a program that teaches bar staff “skills for intervening on someone else’s behalf” in cases of sexual harassment or aggressive behavior. Safe Bars has offered training to at least 25 bars in Washington and has led sessions in a dozen cities across the country, including Philadelphia and Denver. But Taylor is not a fan of Ask for Angela, believing in more direct ways to handle harassment. “It’s passive,” she says. “You want to encourage people to say, ‘This isn’t working for me,’ " rather than sneak away, as if they’re the one doing something wrong.
Also, she says, there shouldn’t be a need for a euphemism: “Why can’t a guest feel comfortable enough to say to a staff member, ‘Hey, this person is being aggressive, can you help me out?’” And if the person who’s causing the problem is sitting next to the person asking for Angela, “the whole world knows about this secret code,” Taylor says, pointing out that signs are hung where men and women can see them. “They know who ‘Angela’ is.”
That said, Taylor has talked to many women who are fans of the program: Seeing the signs, Taylor says, is a reminder that “someone is paying attention. They appreciate that someone cares enough to put it up.”
And that awareness, says the Four Courts’ Walsh, might be the biggest benefit. “I appreciate that the county’s making sure it’s a tool in everyone’s toolbox,” he says. “We want people to feel secure and comfortable when they’re out having a good time.”
The Arlington Restaurant Initiative publishes a list of accredited restaurants and bars on its website, while the Safe Bars website includes a map of D.C. establishments that have completed its training.