By Laura DePinho
“Your ass looks nice in those jeans,” he commented, which was followed by a slap on my butt.
“Harry!” I exclaimed, half laughing. Harry* was my manager. I was 22 years old and had just completed an internship at Walt Disney World. There, the tiniest complaint or microaggression could get you into an HR nightmare, so I learned it was better to keep your mouth shut when working at a large company. After my internship, I worked as a waitress at Joe’s Crab Shack; unbeknownst to me, I was entering a world where ass-slapping and boob-grabbing were common. From the time I started training to when I turned my apron back in, every shift was an opportunity for a coworker or manager to make sexual advances. Being in the restaurant industry for six years by that point, I was used to unwelcome comments on my body, mainly by kitchen staff, but never by management. So when Harry would corner me in the kitchen and attempt to feel me up before I swatted his hands away, I chalked it up to the workplace culture, unaware that he was overstepping legal boundaries (and in fact, committing sexual assault).
I am an openly sexual being; I don’t get offended easily and I don’t get uncomfortable talking about sex. But what I came to realize was that there is a very fine line between sex talk and sexual harassment in the workplace–a line so thin that sometimes I couldn’t even tell when it was being crossed. There was also the matter of the power dynamic between Harry and me, though I didn’t think much about it at the time. But it wasn’t an environment where younger women were encouraged to speak up against older men, especially if they were their supervisors.
To make up for the unease he created amongst the staff, my coworkers would tell me, “Harry’s a great guy, he’s just lonely.” Along with my silence, the excuse was an open invitation for my coworkers to follow suit and never raise the issue with HR. The fun atmosphere Harry created amongst his staff blurred the distinction between sexual harassment and jokes between coworkers. It didn’t take long for me to accept the normalcy of the hyper-sexualization and objectification of women… mainly, me.
Interestingly enough, I only realized something was wrong with this after I had already quit. Why didn’t I leave earlier or report my managers? This is a question people often ask me.
Working in the restaurant industry as a woman is a catch-22. Clocking in for your shift each day, you can expect the following: at least one comment made on your appearance and/or body, at least one man will make you feel uncomfortable, and there is a possibility that someone will try to and/or will touch you inappropriately. You know you are subjecting yourself to all of the above, but at the same time, but you stay because you like your job and you need the money. You also need the flexible hours because you’re still in school or you have a family to take care of. You need the paycheck that a standard minimum wage job can’t offer you and the cash that you’re not always honest about claiming for taxes. And sometimes putting up with the sexual attention can score you free food.
Harry and I had an otherwise good relationship as manager/employee. We could joke around together and sometimes I actually turned to him for advice about school and my love life. I never took legitimate action trying to stop Harry; I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I didn’t want to report someone who made coming to work fun, despite the inappropriate behavior. Plus, he had a family, so I knew I’d feel guilty if I were to get him fired. But I did talk about my discomfort with other coworkers in the hopes that they could help me figure out whether I was being too sensitive or if Harry was posing a real issue. But how could I expect them to consider Harry as a serious problem when they saw me laugh after being slapped in the ass, or giggling when he complimented how my boobs looked? Here are some responses I was met with when I’d voiced my concerns in the service industry:
“Oh, don’t mind him, that’s just how he is.”
“You’re hot, use it to your advantage to get special treatment.”
“It’s just a joke, lighten up.”
Despite all of this, I still consider my time at Joe’s Crab Shack to be one of the best I ever had. The relationships I had with my coworkers were the kind that can’t be replicated and I’m thankful for every deep belly laugh I shared with them.
I realize now that my silence about my discomfort could have been the reason Harry’s behavior continued after I left or the reason it may still be going on. What I know for certain is that I’ll never be silent again because it’s too important not to be. The #MeToo movement has given voice to victims of sexual assault who wouldn’t normally classify themselves as “victims.” Especially in an industry where tolerating male attention is expected, I would never have called myself a “victim” of sexual assault. But ignoring a problem does not make it go away and being silent only allows the problem to grow and be transferred to another person.
I hope that Harry’s next victim won’t befriend him and will have the courage to report him, because after getting to know Harry on a personal level, I couldn’t muster any. My decision not to report him was shrouded in fear that I wouldn’t be taken seriously or that my coworkers would find out and collectively disown me (because Harry was everyone’s favorite manager.) Or that Harry wouldn’t be able to feed his family of five because I “couldn’t take a joke.” But why should I and other women have to decide between our comfort in the workplace and potentially terminating a man’s employment? And why should I feel bad for speaking up about something that was done to me, in front of multiple coworkers? Hopefully, that’s not a decision I’ll ever have to make again.
I now know the difference between a professional friendship and being taken advantage of and between taking a joke and tolerating one. For so long I had accepted that the kind of treatment I received was just a side effect of being a woman, but now I know it doesn’t always have to be that way.
While I was being interviewed for my current job at a restaurant in midtown Manhattan, the male owner, who co-owns the business with his wife, made it very clear to me that he did not tolerate any kind of sexual harassment in his establishment. At that moment, I breathed a sigh of relief. It was as though I’d been holding my breath for the past two years and now I was finally able to exhale. What I dealt with at Joe’s Crab Shack is not “just how the restaurant industry is” and the time for that excuse has run out. It’s possible to have fun going to work, sneak some free food, have a good relationship with your coworkers and higher ups, and not have to watch your back for an ass slap.
Whether it’s a Fortune 500 company or a mom and pop shop, this type of behavior is never okay and as a woman, as a human being, I’ll never accept anything less than a zero-tolerance policy for harassment in the workplace.
*Name has been changed.