Victim Blaming

I just read something that irritated me. The basic thrust of the article, “There’s a Reason Why Your Waiter Hates You,” by Jedediah Purdy, is speculative:

More jobs involve what social theorists call “affective labor,” meaning emotional work—setting up micro-relationships that make customers feel good. It’s true of retail and sales. It’s true of customer service. It’s true of the caregiving professions, such as nursing and home health care. These sectors are growing because they’re hard to mechanize or offshore, unlike doing paperwork and making things, which we mostly leave to algorithms, machines, and faraway people.

He continues:

We’re human, so of course we sometimes want and need to connect, and we can’t always be sincere. The problem comes in when unequal economic power extorts emotional work. There is something indecent in asking people to fake a feeling to make a living.

We are, he says, becoming a nation of phonies, which is especially odd because, according to Purdy, people in the U.S. value authenticity.

In fact, the intrusion is so subtle and so pervasive that it is possible to lose track of whether you’re faking it or not. A job becomes a training, now just in how to be, but in who to be. If it’s indecent to ask employees to fake a feeling, it’s worse to ask them to cultivate a false self.

I’ve worked a lot of those low-level service jobs, and I’m inclined to agree with much of what he says. I do have a few disagreements:

  1.  I worked most of those jobs over twenty years ago, so I’m not sure that this is the new phenomenon he says it is.
  2. He contrasts this “emotional work” with rudeness. There’s quite a range of behavior in between fake friendliness and rudeness, and much service work takes place in a polite, but distant, manner.
  3. The requirement that people lower on a power hierarchy cater to the emotional needs of people higher on the hierarchy, (Put more plainly, you need to dance around the whims of your boss.) occurs very frequently in non-service jobs.
  4. This seems to underestimate how authentic friendliness is in situations among peers.

Overall, though, I agree that the requirement to be someone you are not in a job situation can definitely rise to the level of feeling oppressive. At the same time, I have to say, that I believe this oppressiveness is most objectionable to college graduates who have grown up in a middle class environment who suddenly find themselves working service jobs and occupying a position in the social hierarchy to which they are extremely unaccustomed. Faking friendliness may feel inauthentic to everyone sometimes, but for the progeny of the middle class it can also feel like a slap in the face. They were raised to question authority, not to be obsequious.

However, these are smaller quibbles. I do really feel the need to highlight what’s wrong with the example he uses to introduce the subject: sexual harassment of waitresses.

Ninety percent of women waiters get harassed sexually, according to a recent study. Why is the number so high? Partly because waitstaff depends on tips to raise their wages above the federal minimum wage of $2.13 an hour for “tipped employees.” That means a waiter needs to establish a relationship with each customer: Serving food and drinks isn’t just a job, but a micro-flirtation on very unequal terms. The wage structure of waiting tables is a sexual-harassment machine. (my emphasis)

I take a great exception to this statement. I was sexually harassed as a waitress. I did not flirt with anyone, micro or otherwise. For someone claims to see the negative effects of power differences created by capitalism, Jedidiah Purdy writes about sexual harassment from a surprisingly privileged perspective.

In my last post, I wrote about my experiences dating a radical lesbian feminist separatist. Although, I eventually found their views to be too narrow for me to feel comfortable within that movement, and that eventually lead me to question the ideas on which it was based, I was hanging out with that group in the first place because I was a fairly radical feminist myself. This time included a lot of upheaval in my personal life. I tried dating men again. Got pregnant. Had an abortion. Dropped out of college. All of this happened with the span of perhaps a year. I found myself living with my parents, with my mother thinking the best way of getting me back into college was to be as mean and cold to me as possible. For a time I had my head shaved off on one side and shoulder length on the other. This was considered highly unattractive at that time. I wore loose-fitting jeans with Converse high top sneakers, or loose, baggy, shapeless skirts that came almost to my ankles. Most of my shirts came from second-hand stores. The weirder the better. They amused me for some reason at the time, but when I look back at old photos I can’t remember why. Eventually, I got a crew cut. If the stereotype of the moody alt-chick had existed at the time, I’m sure I would have been put in that box, which probably would have only made me mad and driven me to even more bizarre outfits in a futile attempt to express my “authentic” self.

This was far from the proudest time of my life, in fact it was miserable in every way and everything I did to try to be happy seemed only to make my life worse, but it’s safe to say that, by the time I got a job as a waitress, I was not the sort of person inclined to flirt for a paycheck, nor would most people have looked at me and thought that I was.

So there I was, nineteen years old, reading want ads in the newspaper, with nothing on my resume except baby sitting. In college, I posed for art classes to earn money, but I think I never put that down. Hmmm… wonder why that is? I was qualified to do pretty much nothing. I saw an ad for waitresses at a pancake house a few minutes away. So I went.

I started a couple of days later with five other young women. That the place had such a high turnover rate should have been a warning sign to me, however I was too inexperienced to recognize that fact. The boss said that we could expect men to come onto us. Then he looked at me. “Well, not you,” and he laughed. What he intended as an insult, came to me as a relief. Then he looked at a young woman a couple of inches taller than average with long hair lightened to blond and a push-up bra. “I expect you’re going to have a lot of problems,” he said in a tone that was a problem in and of itself. She didn’t appear to appreciate his concern.

There were some class tensions swirling around me as well because they assumed, with some reason, that I had grown up in a higher class background than they had. A cook intentionally burned me. There were a great many verbal jabs, mostly from the men. The women overall were kind. I lasted only one night.

A couple of men came in at one point. They were the only all male table that night since it was a restaurant that catered to families. They tried to make small talk, but I wasn’t interested. When I brought them the check, they had laid out what looked to be an inappropriately large tip on the table. One of them looked at me and gave me a cocky smile, “What time do you get off?” I put the checked down on the table and walked away. When I returned to wipe off the table shortly after they were gone, so was the “tip” and they had left none at all. If you don’t know, waiters and waitress in the U.S. earn only a very small “base pay.” Most of their income comes from tips. Tipping is not considered optional. It is required. Waiters are taxed with the presumption they are receiving tips and most of that “base pay” is withheld as taxes.

When the night was over, I walked to my car. I found myself feeling weirdly nervous. I was very aware of the fact that I was walking alone in an empty parking lot to my car, which was parked in a far corner as was required of employees, where the light didn’t quite reach. It was my nervousness walking to my car that made me decide it was not worth it. It’s one thing to say that a person should just let comments roll off their back, but they have an effect. You can say, as my psychiatrist and my mother always do, that these people have no credence and what they say should not effect my sense of self. But it does. In duration of one shift, my entire sense of self had changed. It was the weird vulnerability I felt walking to my car, and I didn’t want to feel that scared again and I never went back.

Anecdata, you may say. Just because I didn’t flirt for a tip and was treated poorly anyway doesn’t mean that Purdy is wrong, perhaps other waitresses do open themselves up to sexual harassment by flirting for money. The way his article is phrased, it is unclear, when he quotes the figure that ninety percent of women waiters report sexual harassment and asks “Why is the number so high?” and answers that question by saying that “micro-flirtation” is part of the job, whether that is the conclusion of the study being quoted or his own speculation. The link he provides leads to a New York Times article, “When Living on Tips Means Putting Up With Harassment,” an article with a very different focus. In fact, the article makes no mention of flirting, micro or otherwise.

Ashley Ogogor, a 29-year-old waitress who has lived in the city for a few years and who has become a spokeswoman for the movement, told me that especially in hotel restaurants, where she had once worked and where heavy drinking was commonplace, she had learned to ignore lewd or inappropriate comments because she was so dependent on gratuities. One summer night she had clocked out of a particular restaurant, changed into her regular clothes and was waiting for a meal to take home. While she was doing so she made a phone call to her boyfriend. A customer approached her, grabbed her phone and then started hugging and whispering to her.

The report on which much of the Times article, The Glass Floor: Sexual harassment in the Restaurant Industry, draws is very much focused on the effect of the sub-minimum wage received by restaurant workers and their dependence on tipping. There are a couple mentions of flirting in that report, but they are in the context of managers telling servers to flirt with customers (16% of women) and customers wanting the servers to flirt. Both actions are considered examples of sexual harassment in the report. This does not mean that waitresses never flirt with the hopes of getting larger tips, but it does seem that Purdy’s assertion is unsourced.

This is not a small matter since many times when women complain about sexual harassment or sexual violence it is claimed that they wanted or encouraged such behavior. Also, what the report calls “pressure for dates”, I personally perceived as an offer of money in return for sexual favors, in other words, the suggestion that I prostitute myself.

Purdy is wrong when he says “Americans tend not to talk about the economy as a system of power.” That is exactly what the report is focusing on in its emphasis on the role that tipping and the sub-minimum wage play in sexual harassment. They note that harassment is less severe in states where there is only one minimum wage. The report connects working for tips to economic insecurity and the consequent tendency to put up with sexual harassment in order to not suffer economic consequences. Although women working in the industry reported more harassment from co-workers, they said they felt less bothered by that. As one worker put it:

The one thing that really bothers me, though, is not necessarily co-workers; [in] that interaction I have more freedom to be like, ‘okay, stop it’. But when a guest does it, then I feel a lot more powerless. That’s when I’m like, man, that’s where my money’s coming from…

As the Times phrased it, “the economic structure that turns customers into shadow employers, leaving servers — so often women — vulnerable to the predations anyone picking up the bill might feel entitled to exercise.”

The link in that last quote from the Times takes one to the site of The Gothamist, to the article “A NYC Bartender’s Powerful Open Letter To The Hedge Funder Who Allegedly Grabbed Her Ass.” In New York State, groping someone without his or her consent is a crime. We see the direct relation between tipping and sexual harassment in this story.

Laura Ramadei, an actor who tends bar at Lucky Strike on Grand Street, says that when she asked customer Brian Lederman what he’d like, he immediately groped her. And after she made it clear she wasn’t enamored by his charms, he left her with a shabby tip.

In Ramadei’s own account she adds:

We were in a family-friendly restaurant, around 6:30pm, and I was wearing a loose-fitting, long sleeve shirt, jeans, and no makeup…so I’m not sure where the confusion arose as to what kind of service you were being provided.

Brian Lederman would seem to be bragging about being a serial offender when he says, “I’ve grabbed plenty of girls’ asses in my life.” I hope the next time he grabs someone’s ass, that person calls a cop, or perhaps files a hostile work environment suit. This is criminal behavior. Men who do this in the subway get arrested.

After reading the report The Glass Floor, I understood why I was scared walking to my car that night.

The documented prevalence of sexual harassment is not attributable to a simple desire for sex; rather, it reflects an abuse of power and a structural issue where women’s and trans bodies are viewed as expendable commodities that exist merely for someone else’s pleasure. By devaluing individual human worth and dignity, and by reinforcing a financial power dynamic that renders workers vulnerable, sexual harassment, and the environment that supports it, opens the door to the sexual violence that some workers reported experiencing.

Another low-level job I had that involved being nice to people when I didn’t feel like being nice was when I worked as a receptionist in the Wall Street area, at a company that served the banking industry. One of the firm’s clients made me uncomfortable with propositions. In a notable contrast to the restaurant only a few months earlier, I told my boss and he said he would talk to him about it. It never came up again, so I assume he did. Although I understand much of what Purdy is talking about regarding the need to be falsely ingratiating in many service jobs and I do agree it can be a negative thing, there is a qualitative difference between that and the sort of sexual harassment endured by restaurant workers because the culture of tipping and it helps no one to confuse the two.

As a final note, I was not entirely comfortable with The Glass Floor’s treatment of male victims of sexual harassment, which was a little too cursory. Certainly gender roles do affect sexual harassment, so it is hard to discuss it in a purely gender neutral way, and since women are the primary victims it is not unexpected that more space would be given to their experiences. It was heartening that they did consider the experiences of transgender individuals, but a bit more discussion of experiences of male victims of sexual harassment would have made for a stronger report.

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