Sexual Harassment In The Service Industry Is So Common That It Can Start Feeling Normal

Women who work in the service industry are unfortunately not strangers to sexual harassment. In an atmosphere that often has a male-skewed power dynamic and where alcohol is easily accessible, harassment can often cross the line into situations that verge on assault. I came to realize this particularly after a recent incident with a coworker made me rethink how we accept these incidents as commonplace.

Earlier this summer I was out in the East Village with a coworker after our shift ended. The manager had given us two bottles of wine that were about to spoil during the shift. He winked, “Just don’t be obvious.”

He drank a bottle and a half, so he was already drunk when we settled into a booth at a nearby bar and he immediately started touching my knees, edging closer in the already small space. He tried to kiss me and I gently pushed him away. I said I didn’t want to make out with him when he was drunker than me and he backed off amiably. I changed the subject and we started making fun of our coworkers. But less than five minutes later, he grabbed my hand and pulled it towards his crotch. As I pulled away I looked down.

There was his penis. Out of his pants. In the open air.

Speechless for a moment, I stared at him with a look that I hoped conveyed disgust. He laughed.

“Put it away!” I said through gritted teeth. “Stop! What’s wrong with you!”

“Oh, c’mon…” he said, looking at me expectantly, as though this gaze would make me lean over and give him a blowjob in public. He finally zipped his pants back up and I started drinking faster, ready to escape the bar and the errant penis of my coworker as soon as I finished my beer.

I did not finish it fast enough. Ten minutes later I looked down and there it was again, flopped out in flagrante delicto. We went through the same rigamarole. I’d tell him to stop, he’d laugh, alternating between trying to convince me to “touch it,” “suck it,” and “go with him to the park.”

By the third time, I got my stuff together while he protested, telling me not to leave.

“You know this is how rapists act, right?” I said in frustration as he blocked me from exiting the booth. He was shocked by this accusation, despite the fact that he was currently using force to stop me from moving.

The next day, I got together with my uncle, his girlfriend, and my sister for drinks. I told the story like it was a joke, a gross joke that would inspire grimaces, but something nonetheless. They didn’t think it was funny. Rather, they were horrified and asked if I was planning on telling a supervisor about the incident.

I hadn’t even thought of reporting my coworker’s behavior to the manager or owner of the restaurant. Overtly sexual behavior is so normalized within the restaurant industry that much of the time, the victims don’t even feel comfortable calling lewd acts “harassment” — it’s just how you expect to be treated from time to time.

One of my friends in the restaurant industry told me, “At one of my jobs, there was a guy who would always ‘help’ us in the walk-in cooler and end up grabbing us in ways that were completely inappropriate.”

Victoria Beckley, a waitress in San Francisco, told me about the last restaurant she worked at on the East Coast, saying, “I began to feel trapped by the weird power/gender dynamic of my coworkers making constant rape jokes and not being reprimanded. Then I found out that one of my coworkers was assaulted by a guy in the kitchen. She told the head chef’s wife, but the guy wasn’t fired, which got me thinking of how that the same power/gender dynamic that makes me feel frustrated and uncomfortable could enable a coworker to assault me without any repercussions.”

Though I work in an industry that is notorious for sexual harassment and male dominated power dynamics, the problem of normalizing unwanted sexual behavior extends far beyond restaurants. One of infinite examples: the aftermath of rapist Brock Turner’s trial and sentencing.

When I read the commentary around the Brock Turner case, at first, I was shocked by how people could be so apologetic about his actions. But when I thought about my own experiences with sexual harassment, it started to make sense. We pardon men’s behavior when they are sexually aggressive on a small scale, it is not surprising that people continue to do this when specific cases are brought to a larger audience via media attention. No wonder men are in shock when their sex crimes are punished because they’ve likely done the same things many times before and faced no repercussions.

The spectrum of unwanted sexual aggression, from harassment to rape, is receiving more public attention than ever before, but that hasn’t stopped men from assault. The incident with my coworker made me realize that my boss didn’t see my coworker exposing himself in public as harassment in the first place. Men get away with these smaller scale infractions throughout their lives, from unwanted touches to verbal coercion. When an action finally crosses a line, they men can’t see the difference between it and their normal behavior.

If I could do this night over, I would have caused a scene.

I would have told every person within earshot what was happening and walked out of the bar long before I finished my beer. Letting men get away with this type of behavior is the culture that breeds Brock Turners, rape apologists, and the widespread tendency to downplay the significance of sex crimes. Changing the way we speak about assault and understanding how our rhetoric and reactions contribute to ongoing acceptance of harassment is at least one way we can all work towards creating a safer world for women.