Bartenders Who Call You "Babe": The Politics of the Free Drink

By Lindsay Grippo

On a lazy Wednesday night, my roommate and I went to a restaurant in Midtown to get some ramen. 

A testament to the quality of the food, there weren't many tables open when we arrived. The two of us sat at the bar, ordered two beers, and prepared for what would turn out to be one of the most delicious edible experiences of each of our young adult lives.

The two male bartenders were attentive and nice enough. The ambiance of the place was cool; the food was divine. My roommate and I slurped our hearts out and chatted about nothing and everything  – as we’re wont to do – and the night was going exactly as we envisioned just a few hours back while scouring Yelp for the perfect destination. 

As our meal was winding down, one of the bartenders filled my water glass and answered my obligatory yet genuine, “Thank you” with a, "You're welcome, babe." 

"Did he just call me babe?" I asked my roommate over the loud music.

Soon after, I asked for the check; "Sure, baby,” was the response. 

"Well, he definitely said it there," my roommate scoffed. We laughed and looked at the bill, on which our drinks weren't accounted for and the price was much lower than expected. 

I felt an immediate pressure to adjust my behavior. Maybe give him a higher tip? No, that was silly. Was he expecting me to leave my number? He wasn't that cute, no chance I was going to. I found myself forcing an extra hard smile, then feeling dumb for altering my demeanor, however slightly, for a random guy I wasn't even into. 

The bartender wasn't overly creepy or aggressive (some would've found his remarks flattering), things could've been far worse (he only called me babe twice and our bill went down at least $20, for god’s sake), and yet I was discomforted by the minor verbal advances that felt unwarranted, out of the blue, and just plain unnecessary.

The price of my imported beer was a modest weekday splurge I was planning and willing to take that night; the price of our free drinks was not. I might’ve saved some money, but I easily would have preferred to save myself the small mental trouble of being hit on during a casual dinner with my friend instead.

Though my recent experience was negligible, short-lived, and ultimately harmless, it bothered me because it seemed to tie into a larger trend that is more often than not none of those things. 

Being an object of pursuit isn’t something women have control over. The ethos that "women are lucky because they can get free alcohol" is flawed in that it doesn't account for the copious amount of unsolicited attention they get from men who attempt to use the administering of alcohol as a pathway into sexual territory. 

Some women might feel comfortable using signifiers of femininity that have been socially coded to mean “interested in sex” to their advantage to get drinks. Sometimes, it really is as easy as having your boobs out a bit more than normal or forcing a giggle to get the attention of some big spender, and I know plenty of women who have the ability to feign interest in order to get a free drink or two, then strategically disappear after.

Similarly, some women can easily maneuver a situation that involves rejecting a man’s advances, but a great many more find them uncomfortable, difficult, and scary, and for good reason; some men can be dangerous and unpredictable when rejected, regardless of how compassionately it’s done or well-intentioned the decline.

On another night with some friends, I found myself stuck talking to a decently friendly — if pretty drunk — guy who, after a while of boring chatting, I felt pressured into giving my phone number. We had been talking for a long time (my friends had all paired off with other people, leaving me the difficult choice between my phone, Mr. Small Talk, and the busy bartender), he had offered to buy me several drinks (the first few of which I turned down, the rest I needed to continue the conversation), and I figured, if need be, I could just let everything fizzle with some tasteful ghosting afterward and he’d get the hint.

After I left the bar, I received several texts. The next weekend, it was four calls. What was something I felt like I had to unavoidably entertain in that moment followed me far out of the bar and into weird territory – territory I had expected and was prepared for but proved weird nonetheless. 

Accepting a drink from an eager man – whether you want to or feel like you have to/should – can turn into an all-night escape mission if he begins to look for retribution for what was initially presented as some token of generosity. The exchange is rarely completed with his purchase of Corona, and you’re in debt the moment you take your first sip.

The guy from the bar read and acted on all the signals of my sexual interest, except for the most important one – any verbal expression of it. The connotation between sex and certain social cues, like buying someone a drink or asking for their phone number, are so ingrained in us that it is easily forgotten they do not translate to consent.

But while men most often lose nothing but their dignity when it comes to misreading certain social cues, women are at a much higher risk. Wherever they go, women must always be aware of the weight these connotations hold in order to avoid uncomfortable, or even dangerous, situations – and to understand how to get out of them. 

A gifted beer is not pleasant to receive when it's laced with underlying expectations of flirtation, or more. Most free drinks come at a cost, and the price is far too hefty for any woman to put up with as much as we do.

I’ll return to that ramen place; my night wasn't ruined by any means, and my palate was far too exquisitely stimulated to resist going back again. But I won’t approach the evening with the same simple, noodle-inspired bliss I otherwise would’ve had that bartender not entered me into a transaction I had no intention of entering. Now I have some debt to evade – a bit of flirtation I refuse to pay back – and it might make my next trip to the bank a bit awkward.