"She’s not drinking tonight? Oh, she must be pregnant."
At his last bartending job, Mark Goodwin, founder of The Pin Project, heard that a lot.
“It was a super big happy hour bar,” Goodwin said. “A lot of people used to come in with their coworkers, and there’d be [pregnant] women who would come up very quietly and say, ‘I don’t want my coworkers to know yet, do you think you could make me a water with a splash of this-or-that so it looks like I’m drinking?’” But, he explained, there would also be women who just wanted to take a night off of booze, and they'd order similar faux cocktails to head off any of their coworkers’ ideas that they might be pregnant, since they knew the often-baseless assumption would inevitably arise.
It’s scenarios like these that Goodwin and his collaborators hope The Pin Project, a collective of bartenders and service industry professionals advocating for the mindful consumption of alcohol, will help eradicate.
“The pregnancy scenario is a big one, and it always comes up at every round table discussion we’ve had,” Goodwin said. “It’s such an obvious example of the need for the pin and a world where ‘Why aren’t you drinking tonight?’ is not even a question that needs to be asked.”
A society where nobody thinks twice about someone choosing not to drink for any amount of time is the goal of the project, Goodwin explained. However, it’s also the complete opposite of the goal. “It’s a paradoxical thing,” he said, “since on the one hand, we want talking openly about not drinking to your friends to be a normalized thing. At the same time, we’d love for someone that doesn’t want to drink for any reason not to have to communicate that at all.”
Goodwin originally began drawing the line and circle symbol on his arm to declare verbally and nonverbally to his coworkers his intentions of not drinking throughout a busy bartending shift—no matter how many customers offered to buy him a shot. But what started as a way for Goodwin to curb his on-the-job drinking blossomed into a symbol of the sober curious movement with the help of a few close friends. Eventually, Goodwin traded Sharpie for steel, and began distributing physical pins to his bartender friends in the Bay Area. On the pin’s packaging, which is now available for purchase on the project’s website, a simple inscription reads: “The Pin is a tool; a simple, identifiable symbol that when worn expresses the intention to not drink.”
Now 18 months alcohol-free, Goodwin is the first to clarify that he isn’t "sober" in the traditional sense. “I’m not sober, I just don’t drink,” he said. “I definitely smoke pot. I didn’t for a while, when I stopped drinking, but I slowly reintegrated it back into my life.” Goodwin said he makes that distinction to empower those who are 100-percent sober; those who are more committed to the non-mind-altering lifestyle. That’s because Goodwin doesn’t think sobriety is that black and white.
“Sobriety is a huge spectrum,” he said. “I think we’re becoming more of a spectrum-based society in general, whether it be sexuality, gender, whatever. I think for sobriety to move in that direction is important as well, so long as it’s done in a safe and inclusive way.”
Nick Melle, Goodwin’s longtime friend and collaborator on the project, agrees. And although Melle still enjoys a beer after his bartending shifts, he recognizes the need for a spectrum-based view of sobriety. “I’ve totally had low points when it’s come to my relationship with alcohol and have had to take steps away,” he said. “But sobriety doesn’t have to just be ‘Hey, I’m forever never drinking again and hold me to that or crucify me.’ There needs to be a space for people to be able to say, ‘I don’t want to drink right now,’ or ‘When I’m working, I won’t be drinking.’”
The Pin Project aims to renormalize the choice not to drink, and through the project’s nonprofit organization, the Pin Foundation, it strives to make that a choice which doesn’t even need to be declared. But the problem is more pervasive than people feeling uncomfortable about explaining their choices not to drink, Melle explained. At its essence, the real problem is the toxic culture that surrounds careers in the alcohol industry.
Melle illustrated what he found to be a strange work-life relationship that often accompanies a career in booze. “What other industries are there, that aren’t like, Mad Men, where you see people drinking with the regularity that people in this industry do for work?” he said. “It’s such a bizarre thing. When I started bartending, I remember my relationship with leisure time being flipped in a lot of ways. It was like, OK, when I go to work, I’m facilitating everyone else having this party, but for me, it’s work.”
These days, Melle wears the pin every time he’s behind the stick. “I don’t drink when I’m behind the bar, but I’ll have a beer once I get off the clock and sit down,” he explained.
And though the project started with bartenders and alcohol brand representatives, Melle and Goodwin emphasized that the pin is for anyone constantly confronted with pressure to drink alcohol—in their careers or otherwise. “It’s for everyone, but especially for people that are around booze all the time,” Goodwin said. “That’s writers, reps, bartenders, owners, everyone.” The pair said that many people who wear the pin are current and former bartenders, bar managers, and bar owners. “These are the people that did ten years in the trenches and survived—these are the people that made it,” Goodwin said. “You hear so many stories about people who say, ‘I lost too many friends, I lost this chef, I lost my bartending buddy.’ People are dying, and we want to help put an end to the toxic culture surrounding alcohol that can play a huge factor in that.”
Though despite its good intentions, the project isn’t without its critics. “Lots of people take offense to the pin,” Goodwin explained. “Some people who are now sober say things like ‘I was drinking a pint of vodka a day, and you guys just had some bad shifts at work.’ The idea that someone can’t call themselves an alcoholic because they weren’t drinking enough is super prevalent.”
But at the end of the day, Goodwin said, the pin is just another bar tool, to be used in any way that helps someone make a decision they might not have made without that reminder—whether it’s for a shift, a night, a week, or forever.
“You can use a swizzle stick a million different ways,” Goodwin explained. “It’s the same thing for the pin; whatever works for you. Whatever works for your version of sobriety.”
This article originally appeared on VICE US.