06/05/2013 03:30 pm ET Updated Aug 05, 2013

Alcohol, Street Harassment and Fault: A Bartender's Dilemma

By Lindsey Lovel

Rarely does a day go by where I am not whistled at, smacked at, kissed at, grunted at, or generally holla'd at. It's more than annoying or gross; it's exhausting. As if life in New York City for a 25-year-old bartender wasn't tiring enough, I have to spend any remaining energy in my day glaring at men ogling my breasts, telling them to leave me alone or changing train cars to stay away from them. Sometimes it feels like a full-time job but it feels even harder at two in the morning after a nine-hour shift behind a bar.

I'm a bartender in Manhattan. I am also an intern at Hollaback!, an international anti-street harassment movement. These two career choices often seem diametrically opposed: during the day I work to end gender-based violence and during the night I feed alcohol to young men and send them back onto the streets of the city. Needless to say, it often occurs to me that I am helping to create the very monsters I've sworn to fight.

OK, this may come of as superhero-esque and dramatic. But the fact is, I know how drinking affects many young people's actions. When I get off of work around 1:30 a.m. on a Saturday night and walk to the bus stop for the long trek back to Brooklyn, I will be street harassed. There have been nights where I have felt so unsafe just half a block from my place of employment that I went back and waited for a manager to get off so I wouldn't have to travel alone. And those people I am afraid of are often drunk. Very drunk.

So is alcohol to blame for a harasser's actions? Can we say "if he wasn't so drunk then he would not have acted that way"? This begins to sound a lot like victim blaming: "if she wasn't so drunk, this wouldn't have happened". But the key difference in these two scenarios is that a harasser isn't a victim, he's a perpetrator. My fear, however, is that it is possible that, as a peddler of spirits, I am pumping a potentially would-be nice, young man full of liquid courage and sending him into the crowded streets of the night only to act in a way he might not otherwise act. I do feel a sense of responsibility. So what exactly is my role in this behavior? What portion of responsibility do I bare? And by that logic, how guilty should I feel?

The issue is a moral one. But there is a practical side to this as well. A bartender can be held legally responsible for the actions of a customer. If I over-serve a customer and they get a DUI, I can be held legally responsible for their actions (usually a civil charge of negligence). It is also possible for a bartender to be held legally accountable if a patron gets too drunk and falls in front of a cab or into the subway. But what if a person gets too drunk, leaves the bar, and harasses people on the street or worse? Am I held responsible to these actions as well? Legally, no. Morally, I think the answer must still be a no.

As a bartender, I cannot be responsible for the morally bankrupt decisions of other people even if those decisions were fueled by alcohol. Further, it seems to me that the very fact that I have to ask myself if I am to blame for the misogynistic actions of others only reinforces the notion of victim blaming. I am legitimately concerned that it might actually be my fault if a person leaves drunk and harasses women on the street. In a perfect world without the patriarchy breathing down our necks, we would all be responsible for our own actions. Men cannot blame alcohol for being harassers, rapists or generally bad people. And we certainly cannot blame the people that sell it to them.

When I started writing this I wasn't sure how I felt about my role as a bartender in the perpetration of street harassment. I knew that I experience street harassment most when I'm getting off work late at night and I knew my harassers were often drunk. I knew that I sold alcohol to those same people in that neighborhood. As the one serving the drinks, the prima facie conclusion here might be that I am, at least partially, responsible for this behavior if alcohol is the reason they behave this way. The truth is, it cannot be my fault if drunk men behave badly. If a person chooses to commit crimes or sexually harass others in public spaces, it is because they are making poor decisions without considering the rights and autonomy of others, not because I (or anyone) sold them drinks. And thinking that it might be my fault is the same flawed logic that allows women to blame themselves for crimes committed against them.

It is never OK or acceptable to street harass even if you've had a few and are feeling frisky. If you make poor decisions while drunk, they are still your decisions. I still dread the nightly commute home on a train full of blood-shot eyes ogling me and whiskey-soaked strangers calling me "baby". Although their bad behavior isn't my fault as a bartender, I still feel it's my responsibility to take action as an individual. That's why I volunteer at Hollaback!.

Lindsey Lovel is a former Research and Development Intern at Hollaback!. She is currently a graduate student at Baruch College and is still a bartender in Manhattan.