Sexual Harassment – 5
by Grace Marshall who is a student of Women Studies, a published author, and attends Vancouver Island University
I wrote an essay in my first year at university, as many students do, to practise our mastery of the illusive formal essay layout. The subject was “anger,” and I choose to write about my experience as a customer service worker, and how the system worked to facilitate male entitlement to my time, attention, and sometimes my body. I’m including this essay below, which has since been edited (in the original, I made several concession to my own experiences and views, in order to make sure my male professor liked it enough to give me a good grade. This is ironic in hindsight). Here is “The Angry Sugarplum,” followed by a few more thoughts of mine:
Socially enforced female submission to the male gaze makes me angry. Here is a story from my daily work life to demonstrate this point of view.
I work in a coffee shop and coffee shops are curious places.
Part of being a service worker is being amenable to the attention of customers. This could be discussing the weather, giving directions, or other such small talk. Some people take advantage of this captive audience, however. One such culprit is a man who comes in every day, and orders the same thing. He says the same thing every time you hand his coffee over – “Thanks, sugarplum,” a leer crossing over his gap-toothed grin. His compliments are met with my nervous laughter, and coins change hands below his assessing gaze. Men like him come in everyday. Whether they know it or not, they like that they cannot be refuted by the women in this space. The workers know that they must remain smiling and placid regardless of the strain they are under – whether that be long lines or impertinent customers. This type of emotional labour is part of the job description. During the training for this job, many important instructions and rules are laid out – how to make a cappuccino, when to clean the machines, and how you are expected to interact with customers. “Nasty customers,” it’s explained, “are unavoidable, so it’s best to remain pleasant and brush it off.” This fact is reiterated in the motivational posters in the break room, and enforced under the careful eye of management. Among the workers, sympathetic looks are often exchanged.
If recrimination were possible these interactions would not be as prevalent. The fact that I have to bite back the acid that sits on my tongue when men like this come in infuriates me to no end. It doesn’t matter to them whether the girl they’re talking to is fourteen, or married, or otherwise unavailable to their attentions, because the person behind that pleasant minimum-wage smile doesn’t exist to them. Their ignorance is galling and frustrating. They have clearly never thought about what it is like to be looked at like a piece of meat, and they will never have to suffer that indignity. I just want to be treated like a regular human being. “I’m not attracted to your coffee-stained grin and uncomfortable pick-up lines, you creepy old man,” I think to myself while pouring yet another cup of coffee. When I arrive home, my vitriolic account of the day leaves both myself and my housemates fuming. “Ugh, I hate it when they ask me to smile!” I complain at the dinner table, “Why can’t they just buy their coffee and leave me in peace?” The uncomfortable minefield of being flirted with by a middle-aged man is not one I want to traverse so frequently.
Sometimes, it is a fundamental lack of introspection and empathy that causes this behaviour in customers. If I could make these men take the time to think about the impact of their actions, and why they act this way, I would. They just don’t think. That’s one of the things that makes this situation so frustrating. That said, even with self reflection some of these people would not change how they interact with female workers. Which men are which? It’s mostly impossible to tell, and I’m unconvinced there is much of a difference.
I’m lucky. I’m also not lucky. It’s hard to define which it is, exactly—was I lucky when I got my first job (barely fourteen), and the men at the gas station leered and asked for my number? Am I lucky that the counter was wide, so they couldn’t touch me, and that my ride was always on time? What about a few years later, different place, and my male coworkers would hug me and ask for a kiss on the cheek? Surely, women have suffered worse than that. Was it luck that made is so, when a younger girl would make frantic, familiar eye contact with me, I would shoo her into the back of the shop and take over?
Things for me could have, and have for many women, gone catastrophically worse. What right do I have to complain, to feel angry? While it could be said that my experiences in the workplace were lucky, I think it is a profound misfortune to have that be my consolation prize. It should be enough, however minor, to experience assault, harassment, and unwanted advances. The people who tout the “woman who had it worse” to silence others’ testimony don’t actually care about this nebulous woman. They just want you to shut up, and the woman after you, and the one after that. I have yet to meet someone who has been granted the security of believable, valid victim-hood.
I speak to the experience of being a woman in the above essay. Men are also harassed and assaulted in the workplace, but I think it would be foolish to assert that it happens on anything resembling an equal basis. Statistics regarding sexual assault and harassment are notoriously difficult to verify, on account of studies working from limited subsections of the population, wording questions in uncharitable ways, those who purposely choose not to disclose such personal information about themselves, and those who do not consciously recognize their experiences as assault or harassment. Examining studies from this academic standpoint, it is likely that estimates of harassment will be lower than reality. From a personal standpoint, I have never met a woman who does not have similar stories to mine.
In sharing this essay here, I have chosen to leave out the conclusion from this essay. I find it rings hollow of the actual change that needs to happen. I had finished my essay by saying that change within management was key—my professor was very focused on the individual management style of my workplace, and the circumstances that lead up to my problems. This isn’t an individual problem, however. It is an exceedingly, depressingly societal one. Would it have been better if my workplace(s) had taken an aggressive stance on this issue? Yes. Would it have stopped this behaviour entirely? No. It wouldn’t have been able to stop all instances of uncomfortable, inappropriate advances made by men, and it wouldn’t have stopped them from feeling like it was okay for them to do so. It wouldn’t stop them from doing it to other women, in other spaces.
If you have ever taken a Women Studies course, you might be familiar with the concept of “rape culture,” which is what I have been describing up until now. If you are unfamiliar, you should read this article:
This is the opening chapter to a book (Asking for It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture—And What We Can Do About It, by Kate Harding) which explains this concept much better than I ever could. It is available in it’s entirety in VIU’s online library. Rape culture, I and many others would argue, is the cause of this entitlement, the reason why workers such as myself are put into such uncomfortable situations, and the reason why VIU failed to respond in a meaningful way to the concerns brought forth by a professor being harassed by a student.
(This situation is being covered pretty extensively by several news outlets. Here is one article about it, if you are unaware: https://nypost.com/2017/11/15/college-forced-female-staffers-to-endure-students-sexual-diaper-fetish-suit/)
The VIU situation is what sparked my interest in re-visiting my essay, and part of what sparked our discussions here on Episyllogism, I believe. Though I said that changes in management and workplace policy aren’t the solution, I do think they are part of it. Speaking with students, professors, and administrators who are more involved in this case, the hope moving forward is that policy change will occur to the university’s harassment and discrimination policies. Currently, it does not appear that the university, in any of their policy, admits that sexual harassment is a problem on campus (as it is on all university campuses, any female student or professor will tell you!), or that the university commits to listening to and believing victims. I find this to be troubling. If the university hasn’t even given us—the various communities on campus—their word, then how can we hold them to it? The current case going on was only brought to light because of several coincidences. As of yet, the university has yet to issue an apology for their mishandling of this case.
VIU changing its policies won’t solve this issue. It is a first step.