“I've had people insist they get my number, touch me inappropriately and follow me home and pester me at 11 p.m.”

Bar Harassment
Credit: Getty Images

The last week of May, a sheet of paper posted on the bar at the Beer Cellar in Exeter, U.K. went viral. The sign read, “Why The Female Cashier Is Being Nice to You,” and offered two possible explanations. The first read, “She is uncontrollably sexually attracted to you,” and the second, “Because that’s literally her fucking job you cretin.”

A manager at the Beer Cellar put up the sign after a particularly rough weekend. “Others in the customer service and hospitality industries have told us how they could use a sign like that, as well,” he says.

The 23-year-old London artist who made the sign, Chuck Mullin, was inspired by her six years working in retail. Like many women in the service industry—or really any industry—she’s had to politely deflect unwanted advances while maintaining professionalism. This gets exhausting.

“Some people mistake common decency for flirtation,” she says. “I've had people insist they get my number, touch me inappropriately and follow me home and pester me at 11 p.m. Unless you have a really good manager, there's nothing you can say to somebody harassing you at work—you can't politely let them down because they mistake it for rudeness and get aggressive.”

Mullin designed the sign to express her frustration with those scenarios, as if to say: “Hey, although I would be nice to you anyway because I’m a decent person, me smiling at you does not mean I am gagging for your cock,” she explains.

Over the past few years, a handful of signs have garnered widespread attention for encouraging a culture in which women can feel safe—or, at least, safer—in bars and public spaces. Obviously, the burden should be on harassers to stop harassing, but until we get there, bars are setting up extra lines of defense.

In 2016, a U.K. poster campaign reached out to people who felt trapped on bad online dates. The sign, posted in bar bathrooms, encourages people to ask the bar staff “for Angela” to signal that they need help getting out of a situation, without drawing too much attention to themselves.

Saskia Garner, policy officer for personal safety at the Suzy Lamplugh Trust, told Qz that the aim of the campaign was to offer people another tool if they’re at bars that have received the “Angela training.”

“We’d always want people to have options,” she said. “What we like about this is that it is another option for people.”

Variations of these signs are cropping up at bars around the world. In January, someone spotted a sign at a South Africa Hooters and posted a photo of it on Facebook. (The post has since received over 494,000 shares.)

“Is your Tinder or plenty of fish date not who they said they were on their profile?” the sign reads. “Do you feel unsafe, or even just a little bit weird? We’re here to help. Just go to the bar and order an angel shot.”

If you order the shot neat, the bartender will escort you to your car. With ice, she’ll call a ride. With lime, she’ll contact the police.

“We’ll handle things discreetly and without a lot of fuss,” the sign reads. “We’ve been there, and we want you to know that you’re in good hands.”

Of course, bars’ responses to sexual harassment or even uncomfortable dates must be multi-faceted, as both will occur regardless of clever signs, and many people still won’t feel comfortable enough to alert their bartender, in code or in plain language. There’s the classic strategy of kicking people out and banning them, which is how the Beer Cellar, for example, handles harassers who are bothering their clients or employees.

When bartenders and bouncers are trained to handle these situations, potential disasters can be more swiftly averted. A few years ago, Nikki Meyer remembers being at a gay bar in St. Paul when a middle-aged man began watching her and moving closer to her, even as she switched tables to escape his leers. He even followed her to a small adjoining room where people were dancing, continuing to stare at her.

“This guy didn't ever approach or speak to me, but I was alone in the city late at night and felt uneasy about leaving the place and walking to the train while he was following me around,” she says. “It ruined my whole experience at the bar because I was so focused on losing him.”

Many women know the feeling. Eventually, Meyer went to the bar and asked the bartenders if they knew him, saying that she thought he was following her but she couldn’t be sure. Harassment, especially in dark, loud, public places where people are smooshed together, can be subtle, but no less unnerving.