I was 19 the first time I was groped at work. I was a hostess at a restaurant in Boston when a customer slid his hand down my back and patted my butt on his way out, plopping two dollars on the host stand as he did it.
After he left, I brushed my own hand down my back, attempting to wipe off the invisible violation of my body. I looked at the two dollars in front of me, debating whether or not to throw them in the trash out of principle. Instead, I shoved them in my purse under the host stand; I was working two jobs to pay my way through undergrad — I couldn’t afford to do much out of principle.
An hour later, during the dinner rush, my manager walked over, placed his hand on the small of my back in the same place, and asked me to help bus tables. A chill went down my spine as I shimmied away from his hand and grabbed a rag to bus the newly vacant table. As I leaned over the table to collect silverware, I tried to ignore the feeling of his eyes on the hem of the dress he had told me to wear because it was more “professional” than pants.
Over the next few months, I would get used to unsolicited touching and advances from customers and coworkers alike. This no-boundaries culture permeated every part of my job as a server. It happened in the back of the house with bussers and dishwashers, on the floor with my fellow servers, and with the man responsible for my paycheck: my manager. My manager, Tim (not his real name), was the type of guy who had alarmingly different personalities that seemed dependent on just how much cocaine he had in his system. Brunch Shift Tim was relatively warm but still overly touchy, while Saturday Night Shift Tim switched back and forth from verbally abusive and standoffish to flirtatious and physically invasive.
As for the customers, I quickly learned that the best tips usually came from the creepiest dudes: Laughing off harassment and unwanted advances typically meant at least 20% added when it came time for the bill. In fact, one of my most loyal “regulars” was a man who came in alone, ordered two whiskey gingers, hit on me relentlessly for a few hours, and then tipped anywhere from 30 to 50% when it came time for the bill. I was so conditioned to be grateful for the generous tip that I didn’t stop to think about what exactly he was paying me for.
About four months into the job, one of my female coworkers approached me before we punched out at the end of the night.
“Don’t cash out with Tim on the computer downstairs. He’s drunk and being creepy,” she said matter-of-factly, like she was relaying something as simple as us being 86’d on the lamb chop entree.
The warning, however vague, was enough to ensure that I never went to the basement alone with Tim. I didn’t need to know the details to know exactly what she was telling me. As women, we develop the ability to warn each other of these things in small, subtle ways. It’s the look you give to your friend that says “You OK?” when a man they don’t know starts talking to them. It’s the “Text me when you get there” message you send after they get in an Uber with a man who could physically overpower them. It’s the way we wait for each other to walk to our cars at the end of the night. These small signals are the ways in which we protect each other in a society that has decided we’re not worth protecting.
After about six months, I left my restaurant job and finally landed my first (poorly) paid marketing gig. And when I look back on my time serving, I get mad at myself for laughing off my coworkers' and customers' predatory behavior. I think to myself: What a bad feminist you were. But this is a reality so many women in that industry must face: The customer-first mentality that allows and endorses a certain level of abuse and the reliance on tips as a primary income. So maybe I wasn’t a bad feminist — maybe I was just too broke to risk losing a job.
This harassment in the restaurant industry is even more prevalent toward trans servers (who are 2.5 times more likely to report harassing comments about their sexual orientation or gender identity) and women of color (especially because they're more likely to work lower-wage jobs where the power imbalances are far greater). And as for the people meant to protect us? Well, many of them are just like Tim — not well-versed or equipped to protect their employees, and at times guilty of perpetuating a culture of harassment themselves.
Saru Jayarum, president of ROC United and director of the Food Labor Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley, has researched sexual harassment in the serving industry extensively. Jayarum says that to rebuild this industry to protect employees, we must start by paying them at least minimum wage, which would at least be a first step toward the financial independence that could potentially enable them to draw boundaries.
I went to a restaurant the other day and I watched a man track his female server across the restaurant with eyes that were hungry for more than the meal that was about to arrive. She seemed to be completely unaware of his gaze, or conditioned to expect such a look from men. I felt a twinge in my stomach as I watched her walk across the floor from one table to the next.
I knew the feeling of taking off cheap nonslip shoes at the end of the day, counting your cash, and trying not to think too critically of things you brushed off to get those tips. I knew the feeling of smiling for other people on days you couldn’t even smile for yourself. I knew the feeling of eyes on the back of your legs, and the way your stomach dropped when there was no one to walk you to your car at the end of the night.
I knew nothing about this woman, but in a way, I knew exactly where she had been.