Between the ages of about 18 and 26, I remember working in various reception jobs, making practically no money, constantly broke, and people telling me I should go work in a bar. I also remember specifically avoiding the industry many of my friends went into (who made significantly more money than I) because I was well aware of the treatment I would be subjected to if I did…
The New York Times published a piece over the weekend looking at sexual harassment in the restaurant and bar industry, something that has been covered in the media recently thanks, in part (and in my opinion), to F.E.D. U.P. (Feminist Eatery Database — Undercover Project), a project out of Edmonton, AB, highlighting sexism in the service industry.
The author, a waitress herself, wrote about the near-constant objectification, sexism, inappropriate physical contact, stalking, lewd comments, propositioning, and more, she is exposed to at work. I did get hit on and objectified and talked down to and subjected to gross, sexist comments at work too, though to a lesser degree than that which is experienced by women in the service industry.
In any space wherein men are in a position of power, they will use that position to subject women to their advances, objectification, and harassment. This, of course, applies to most spaces… But you’ll notice that, especially, if women are trapped behind a counter, serving food or drinks, made to be nice to customers at all costs, lest they lose their jobs or lose tips, men will take advantage. This problem seems exacerbated by the fact that, in the U.S., most servers aren’t even paid minimum wage (the average pay for a server in the U.S. is about four dollars an hour, and in some states they make even less than that) and, therefore, literally work for tips.
All these realities aside, what was odd about the piece is that it was framed by the headline, “Can you be a waitress and a feminist?” While that question didn’t strike me as the key point of the story, it remained present throughout. The author, , writes:
Some might argue that I signed up for the treatment — I work in a lounge as a cocktail waitress (or as a man once referred to me, a “cocktail mattress”). I wrestle with this all the time: that I sold my feminist soul for quick, easy cash.
I would hope no one would argue women who are subjected to sexual harassment (or worse) “signed up for the treatment”… I mean, if that were true where would it be ok for us to “choose” to be? Would we also avoid bars, public transit, and public spaces in general?
Despite it not being central, the question Bronson concludes with is significant. She asks “Whether or not we should feel shame for taking advantage of the system,” also pointing out that some believe “that engaging with sexist behavior in order to financially benefit is an empowering, rather than patronizing, experience.”
The fact that women believe the primary question, in terms of addressing sexual harassment, is whether or not they, as individuals, are hypocrites because they’ve had to subject themselves to sexist treatment in order to make a living, is significant of today’s neoliberal discourse that permeates feminism. Bronson feels guilty about her “choice” but also either chose or was encouraged to by an editor to frame this article in terms of her choice. Rather than focusing on men’s behaviour, this article questioned whether or not she and other women are complicit in their own sexist treatment and, beyond that, what that means in terms of their own individual identification as feminists.
I, too, struggle with the choices I make or am forced to make, as a feminist, in a patriarchal society. And I think it’s very important to think critically about and question our choices and why we make them. But not once have I wondered whether or not men’s sexist behaviour reduces my commitment to the movement.
Why are we not asking what we can do, collectively, to fight back? Why, in the end, does this come down to personal choice and identity?
The issue of sexism and harassment in the workplace is so far beyond individual choice. These are issues of class, race, gender and capitalism. When women should be talking about the labour movement and the feminist movement, the focus is rerouted back to personal identities, individual empowerment, and “good” vs. “bad” choices. Again and again. I think the Canadian group, F.E.D. U.P. has made a good decision to fight back collectively, sharing their stories and putting pressure on restaurants that encourage sexualization or engage in sexist practices to address the issue. Time to reframe the conversation, America.