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Bars are extremely popular in Missoula, but there appears to be a disturbingly prevalent dark side to all the fun.

A high number of bar-going Missoulians who took a recent survey reported experiencing verbal harassment, unwanted sexual touching, sexist comments, drunken fights or were followed to their next destination, according to a new report from the Missoula City-County Relationship Violence Services.

Brenna Merrill, a prevention specialist in the department, recently conducted a survey and 321 Missoulians responded, about 81 percent of them women. She found that 84 percent had experienced verbal harassment or physical altercation at least once while at a bar in 2016.

The most common experience of aggressive behavior was sexist comments (69 percent), unwanted sexual touch (65 percent) and being followed to the next destination (37 percent). Most of the respondents, 93 percent, where between the ages of 18 and 35.

“In talking with bartenders, we heard over and over again that they want to keep their patrons safe and make sure that everyone is having a good time,” Merrill said. “We wanted to know if most bar-goers felt that sense of safety and if they regularly saw bar staff intervening. The survey responses showed that while most people enjoy going out to be with friends or listen to live music, they still experience harassment and other aggressive behaviors at a high rate.”

Merrill coordinates the “Make Your Move!” campaign to end sexual violence, which also offers a two-hour sexual violence prevention training for bars. She says bar staff who take the training will be better able to identify signs of sexual harassment and ways a person might incapacitate someone else with alcohol or drugs in order to sexually assault them.

The online survey was advertised using Facebook, including followers of the Make Your Move! page and ads that targeted people in Missoula over the month of January last year.

“What shocked me the most was men and women reported experiencing sexual comments and sexual harassment at a pretty similar rate,” said Merrill said.

Of the respondents, 67 percent of women and 58 percent of men reported having been touched in a sexual manner while in a bar, and 68 percent of women and 75 percent of men said they had sexual comments directed at them or made about them over the course of last year.

Also, 15 percent reported something slipped into their drink.

When Make Your Move! Launched five years ago, Merrill said it based the project off a model from Boston. Part of the reason for the survey was to gather more data and evidence for what is actually happening in Missoula.

“We wanted something that was more specific,” she said. “The survey also had a lot of narrative questions, and we got a lot of great feedback and stories from respondents.”

The workshop training also includes policy recommendations that bars can adopt to curb issues like over serving.

“It also might be something like in Montana it’s legal for bartenders to drink on the job, but maybe we are going to put in a policy that we’re not going to do that,” Merrill said.

She and Kelly McGuire, the other coordinator for Make Your Move!, also talk to the bar staff about ways to intervene in a potentially dangerous situation, and how to tailor a response to be less likely to escalate a situation.

Officers from the Missoula Police Department also assist in the training, providing advice to bar staff about the law and how staff can help if there is an investigation.

The Rhinoceros Bar went through the process earlier this month. Merrill said it, and like every bar that goes through the free service, received a window decal certifying them as a trained establishment.

Make Your Move! is also sending posters to the bars to put up in their restrooms letting patrons know that if anyone is bothering them or their friends, to speak with the staff who have been trained to handle the matter.

“Make Your Move! is a viable program to educate the staff in identifying and reacting to sexual harassment and sexual assault,” said Brad Martens, one of the Rhinoceros’ owners. “The class also helps develop strategies to use in your own business policy handbook. I would recommend the class to staff, management and owners of any business.”

The workshops are available free to any alcohol-serving establishment. Interested businesses should contact Merrill at 406-258-3838.

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Law and Justice Reporter

Crime reporter for the Missoulian.