Fun and Inviting! Tales of sexual harassment in the service industry

This month, we are exploring The Intersection between gender and economic oppression in the service industry. This essay is authored by Kaeli Egler, a STAR Volunteer, Agent of Change, and Fall 2015 intern in our Social Change program. Kaeli also wrote this month’s Pro(Social) Tips: Treating service industry workers like people.

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As a 4th grader, I remember my mother coming home from work crying. I knew she didn’t like her job because her co-workers were mean to her and that she stayed because my father was a full-time student, finishing his last year of college. We were living off her service industry salary and tips. For me, that meant frozen pizza for dinner—but also free desserts that she often snuck home to me. For my parents, it meant constant grappling with finances and my mother’s well-being. Even at the young age of 10, I understood she was crying to my father because her boss pushed her in the freezer. Or, other days she would talk about a coworker who repeatedly cornered her and flashed his genitals.

Her story has a relatively happy ending. After a few months, she found a new job that, while still service-based, was in a safer environment where she made friends and good money. She wasn’t crying every night anymore. Her experiences have stayed with my family after 12 years, though—my parents say they never wanted me to work in a restaurant, and I can’t really blame them.

The reality is, though, that it is hard for a young woman with no degree and a chaotic schedule to support herself on anything but a job in the service industry—they are in large supply, after all.  So here I am, finishing my last days in the service industry after 7 years of struggle, finally taking an in-depth look at the silenced voices that we see and use every day. While interning at STAR this past semester, I became interested in researching sexual harassment in the service industry. I looked into the issue on a national level and also conducted interviews with local service industry workers to get their perspectives.

What I found is that, unfortunately, most women don’t escape the underbelly of the service industry so quickly. Employee turnover is high, in large part due to the prevalence of sexual violence. However, most women can only afford to switch to a different business in the same industry, hoping for a fresh start, or to put up with things the way they are, rather than leaving the industry altogether. As Olivia* explains,

“There was no winning. On the days I wore a skirt because the manager said I needed to ‘put it out more’ the kitchen guys would ask me all these weird questions about how many guys I’ve slept with and like if I’ve done anal because I looked like an ‘anal-kinda-girl.’ I was like, ‘WHAT?!’ They got grabby after a while until one day I cried and they stopped talking to me all together…. I wanted to cry a lot out of frustration. I only lasted five months until I found a new job and quit.”

The reality is that most restaurants and bars are no safer than the other when looking at them through the lens of sexual harassment. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the service industry is the largest source of sexual harassment claims, followed by the entertainment business. According to a recent report, 90% of female restaurant workers have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, and more than 50% of women experience sexual harassment routinely—a rate five times higher than the general female work force.

So what is sexual harassment? The term sexual harassment originates from Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which makes it “an unlawful employment practice for an employer…to discriminate against any individual with respect to compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.”

Because sexual harassment is disproportionately committed against women, women in the service industry are subjected to particularly and discriminatorily hostile or abusive work environments. As Cecelia states,

“Inappropriate comments are the tip of the iceberg of things being thrown at you on shift constantly, so it starts to feel normal. It gets so tiring defending yourself all the time, so it becomes just another part of the job. Looking back it was like I sold my soul and I was too embarrassed to tell anyone.”

Olivia adds:

“I think all women have been sexually harassed, objectified, or assaulted at some point in their work, even if they don’t realize it at first. I look back at what customers said to me, and I’m like, whoa, that was really inappropriate and not okay. I can’t imagine speaking to another person like that.”

When a workplace is infused with “discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult,” that is “sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the victim’s employment and create an abusive working environment,” Title VII is violated and there is a case for sexual harassment.

To clarify, one unwanted sexual comment isn’t sufficient to comprise sexual harassment under the law. Conduct that does not create an environment that a reasonable person** would find hostile or abusive is beyond Title VII’s scope. But Title VII does offer protection to workers before the hostile environment has seriously affected an employees’ psychological well-being, including by detracting from employees’ job performance, discouraging employees from remaining on the job, or keeping them from advancing in their careers. Such hostile work environments are not good for employees and employers alike.

Beyond the legal definition of sexual harassment, sexual harassment can practically be understood as a range of sexual or sexualized behaviors that are experienced as intimidating or uncomfortable, including but not limited to:

  • Unwelcome sexual attention, questions, teasing, or remarks
  • Violations of personal space
  • Showing of lewd photographs
  • Pressuring for dates

Olivia brought up one particular example of unwelcome sexual attention that she witnessed, and which was corroborated by the employee mentioned here:

“The owner called my manager by women’s names all the time as a negative comment on his sexuality. When he was mad at him, he wouldn’t critique him or explain what he did wrong- he would just start hurling insults his way about him being homosexual, saying all these really derogatory comments for everyone to hear about what he must have done last night with his boyfriends to be so lazy today.”

This employee endured such harassment over the span of a year before he quit. In this example, we see that sexual harassment is not necessarily sexually motivated, but rather is motivated by a desire to assert power and control over another with abusive, demeaning, and/or violating actions. And, even when sexual harassment is committed against men, it is often done in a way that punishes men for deviating from masculine gender norms.


The Sexual Violence Continuum

The forms of sexual harassment previously mentioned often go hand-in-hand with other forms of sexual violence, including sexual battery (i.e. unwanted touching or grabbing) and obscenity (i.e. indecent exposure). And like all other forms of sexual violence, sexual harassment is a violation of sexual boundaries; it is nonconsensual, unwelcome sexual behavior.

Also, as with any form of sexual violence, it can cause trauma. The traumatic, toxic stress manufactured by sexual harassment can result in:

  • Mental and physical health impacts (e.g. depression, anxiety, lowered self-worth, insomnia, high blood pressure, and gastrointestinal disorders);
  • Behavioral health impacts (e.g. substance abuse);
  • Economic costs (e.g. costs of changing jobs, schools or residence, or associated health care costs);
  • Social costs (e.g. increased stress in interpersonal relationships)

Jean, a service industry worker for years, describes the mental and physical health impacts she experienced from harassment:

“I was concerned every night with what was going to happen. I had anxiety about not being able to get people to stop yelling at or heckling me. That enough wouldn’t be enough for them and I wouldn’t be able to stop it. I called in sick a few times just from feeling so nauseous and overwhelmed [about it].”

Sexual harassment has real health consequences for the people who experience it; it can also function as a trigger for those who have previously experienced sexual abuse. As Tina explains,

“[Sexual harassment] brings up all these bad memories that I can’t afford to deal with in the middle of a rush at work. So when I see my coworkers getting harassed, I’ll intervene for them if they don’t feel comfortable intervening because it makes me so uncomfortable, I need it to end—even if that means I’m making their drinks or serving their table on top of my own.”



The very highest rates of sexual harassment are experienced by women, in tipped occupations, in states where the sub-minimum wage is $2.13 per hour (i.e. Louisiana waitresses and bartenders!). The vast majority of women and men (79% and 77%, respectively) reporting sexual harassment on the job pointed to coworkers or clients without supervisory authority over them as the prominent culprits. Jean notes:

“Pretty regularly I’d have people call me out of my name or hit on me unwelcomely—someone will say ‘You’ve got a nice ass.’ and I will tell them ‘That’s inappropriate.’ and he will just respond by saying ‘So, I don’t care.’—which is frustrating. I try to shut it down by getting really defensive or angry to show I’m not playing around. I think that’s common and I think most management doesn’t accept that harassment excessively. The line gets fuzzier though when you start working with nightlife.”

Multiple interviewees noted that restaurant and bar industry management are more likely to look the other way at sexual harassment from customers to create a “fun” and “inviting” atmosphere for a specific type of patron. Management is also more likely to harass employees in this environment to encourage them to act or dress a certain way to appeal to customers. In Cecilia’s experience, “I’ve see lot of management styles that assume the crazier their customers can be, the better business gets. They sell it to lower level employees as the better tips they get. My biggest tip, better than any tip a customer can leave on the tab, would be to get away from it as fast as you can.”



Workplace Sexual Objectification

Interviewees also talked about being objectified and sexualized through sex-specific standards for behavior and appearance when interacting with customers. Olivia says:

“Girls have more demands on their attire. Guys wear a button down and slacks and they’re good…Girls are expected to have a tight outfit, make-up on, hair done, the works. We have to create and be a fantasy. If we don’t dress like that, [management will] give back-handed comments throughout the night, ask another bartender to say something, or just stop scheduling you—all really indirect.”

Laila stated that one local sports bar “won’t carry uniforms past a size 8 as a way of managing girls’ appearances. If you can’t fit the uniform, you can’t waitress. When it starts getting a little too tight in all the wrong places—they’ll start getting weird about what you eat on shift.” Cecelia adds:

“I’ve bartended for 10 years and they wouldn’t let me bartend. They almost didn’t give me a job. The only reason I was ever a door girl is because I’m too ‘big’ for them, but I knew the industry…they told me I could do bar if I lost weight, but I knew that wasn’t going to happen…So I was placed at the door and they’d let the skinny, never-bartended-a day-in-her-life girl work at the counter. I’ve managed a bar, but I couldn’t bartend because of my weight.”

It’s not just men in management positions who reinforce these expectations, either. Women in these positions play the game, too, as Tina explains:

“When misogyny and discrimination came from where I wouldn’t expect, the people that are supposed to have my back, is when it hurt the most…One of the female managers would demand better and more make-up and really done up hair. “Pull your shirt lower,” she would yell at me every night, just because she was comfortable with doing that. She felt like it was okay because she was a woman, but it’s really like throwing gas on the fire.”

For many bars and restaurants, their business model is one of catering to a certain type of man who enjoys the women being presented primarily as sexual objects at their service. This hyper-masculinized industry that caters to this kind of customer has seen 30% growth in recent years in the forms of sports bars and restaurants, despite the fact that women are fully human beings, not objects that exist for someone else’s sexual pleasure. Amanda says,

“This in front of you is who I am, I’m not anything like those outfits that I’m required to wear on a Friday night…I dress like that because the owner sat me down one night and told me that people pay a lot of money to come in here and buy our services…so I need to look like I’m worth a lot of money. I didn’t know how to argue [with what he said].”


Barriers to Reporting

With laws in place and no shortage of an affected population (the Bureau of Labor Statistics states that the service sector serves as the main source of employment with numbers projected to reach 131.1 million in 2018), why is this problem still so underreported?


Employees that do seek action against sexual harassment often run into barriers to reporting that can leave them defeated, underpaid, or unemployed due to issues ranging from incomprehensible paper work to lack of support from management in filing charges against a patron. There is no short supply of employee narratives about deciding to part ways with a position because they have no other option.

This leaves the individual employee in question looking difficult to manage and unreliable in the long-term, yet these problems are in large part due to an overwhelming failure of the service industry to regulate reporting strategies, implement behavioral standards, and normalize livable hourly wages.

By and large, many businesses still haven’t made it a priority to protect their workers from sexual harassment; it’s often considered a normal occupational hazard. There is no standard of how to report, who to report to, and what should be reported. Management may leave the issue of sexual harassment to be handled by a chapter in an outdated employee training manual—never to be discussed or contemplated again.

In this context, allegations often aren’t made because workers fear retaliation, are uncertain their claims will be taken seriously, or are unaware of their rights.

Another interviewee, Cecelia, explained:

“I had a superior tell me to sex up my attitude and dress for a big party next shift, then when I come in and he’s hitting on me, asking if I’ll swipe right if I see him on Tinder. Next thing I know, he grabs my ass mid-shift. I yell at him and he’s just like, ‘Eh,’ stumbling away, drunk. He kept asking what it would take for him to get to have sex with me. By the end of the night, I was let go for a bad attitude. Really, what happened was the owner just didn’t know how to handle the situation and I was the newer employee.”


The Economics of Harassment

From the interviews, financial dependence on tipped work emerged as the primary reason for choosing to be employed and staying in a sexually objectifying environment, given the often higher pay. However, the real financial rewards from tips are also a breeding ground for disempowerment, as it creates an imbalance of power and limits the ability of a service provider to object to unwanted comments or contact from customers in fear of putting their source of living in jeopardy. This is especially true in contexts where owners or managers don’t have systems in place to proactively hold customers accountable for sexually harassing employees, and to protect and empower their workers against sexual harassment.

The subminimum wage, the fact that the majority of people living off tips are women, and the reality that take-home pay is inextricably linked to enduring any and all behavior from customers, co-workers, and bosses are all factors that make sexual harassment so prevalent an experience among women engaging in tipped work.

This is solidified when management allows customers to treat servers inappropriately by being unresponsive or even indulgent of sexually harassing behavior. This dynamic is demonstrated by a research study comparison of the experiences of tipped women workers with those of non-tipped women workers. In tipped occupations, it becomes difficult for workers to effectively draw lines between providing good service and tolerating inappropriate behavior from customers. As Jean notes,

“Tips are definitely involved with the pervasiveness [of sexual harassment]. We let ourselves be objectified and harassed for tips, and we self-objectify, which is really like mental prostitution. It’s hard, I want to encourage everyone to fight back…I really want to believe if you do your job, people will tip you based on how you did your job—not how well you put your chest in their face.”

Beyond the dependence on tips, a culture of sexism and sexual objectification of women has implications for who can advance to higher positions. In Jean’s experience,

“People that should have never become managers will become my boss because of what they have between their legs. The owners of the bar won’t consider having a male bartender either because they just want tits and ass behind the bar on display. They see it as men run the bar, women serve the bar.”

Over 50% of tipped women workers agreed that depending on tips had led them to tolerate inappropriate behaviors that made them nervous or uncomfortable. Follow-up research found that over a third of the women (34%) who were formerly tipped workers, within the last year, quit their jobs as a result of encountering unwanted sexual behavior in the restaurant workplace.


Where do we go from here?

Listening to the people I interviewed about their experiences of sexual harassment in the service industry made it clear that cultures of sexual harassment are not “fun” and “inviting” at all, except for people who like to violate others’ sexual boundaries—you know, sex offenders. “Violating,” “disempowering,” “dehumanizing,” and “traumatizing” are more appropriate descriptors of these environments. This industry’s widespread tolerance of sexual harassment and other forms of sexual violence must be changed.

Seeking to abide by the law is a start, but truly taking into account the real-life impacts of sexual harassment is key. Then, addressing the environmental and institutional practices that allow such behaviors to continue is what it will take to change things for the better. Simply holding the expectation that customers refrain from sexually harassing staff would be a good start.

The best ways we can individually act to reduce the prevalence of sexual violence, including sexual harassment, are to:

  • Assert people’s right to have their sexual boundaries respected;
  • Affirm people’s dignity and worth, including people who work in the service industry; and
  • Refrain from committing sexual harassment or other abuses of power.

The simplest ways we can act institutionally to reduce the prevalence of sexual violence is to open one’s eyes to staff experiences of sexual harassment and enact policy and practice that make tolerance of sexually harassing behaviors a relic of the past.

Other considerations include:

  • Eliminating the subminimum wage for tipped workers to increase financial security and take away many of the pressures that perpetuate high rates of sexual harassment in the restaurant industry;
  • Strengthening anti-sexual harassment enforcement efforts;
  • Requiring restaurant employers to institute written policies and verbal trainings on sexual harassment; and
  • Establishing worker-led and worksite-based enforcement of sexual harassment policy through an advocate.

Stakeholders in the service industry must care to make such small and large changes, but it is possible to protect workers from sexual harassment and make workplaces safer and more equitable for all. Doing so would lead to better experiences for staff, management, owners, and yes, even customers—at least, you know, those customers who are cool with respecting people and their sexual boundaries. Everyone wins!—except sex offenders and their rapey friends. Cool? Cool.


*All names have been changed.

**Because sexual violence is disproportionately committed against women, women often have a different standard from men of what a “reasonable person” would consider threatening behavior. This standard, though different from most men’s, is reasonable and valid.


Have something to say? We’d like to hear from you. Email with your thoughts, or to learn about taking action for the prevention of sexual violence.

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