Serving up unpleasant truths
The feminist writer and essayist Virginia Woolf said, “If you do not tell the truth about yourself, you cannot tell it about other people.”
I have recently learned an unpleasant truth about myself, a truth that contradicts my values and ideas of who I believe myself to be. I like to think of myself as a strong woman who won’t suffer fools. Recently, I encountered a situation for which I was unprepared: an inappropriate encounter with an authority figure.
Shock and outrage at both his and my behavior followed. I never confronted the situation, and I am as upset over his action as much as I am over my own inaction.
That same month marked the 20 year anniversary of Anita Hill’s courageous stand against sexual harassment when she accused Clarence Thomas of inappropriate behavior in the work place. Also, the GOP brought forth a hopeful candidate for the 2012 elections that was accused of no less than four cases of sexual harassment. His name is Herman Cain.
Made illegal in 1968, sexual harassment, especially in a professional setting, was rarely addressed and most often resulted in a woman rationalizing her own passivity.  In Hill’s case, she tried to be an equal in a man’s profession: law. Although when Hill confronted Thomas she was bombarded, berated and humiliated in front of the good-ol’-boys club of American politicians, she challenged the accepted belief that sexual harassment is just part of life. Boys will be boys, but women can make them into men and people. We no longer have to accept unwanted advances as normal; it is, after all, illegal.
I would like to believe that this were true. But disgusting displays of sexual harassment seem to be only one chapter skimmed in Cain’s quest for candidacy. His bumbles over foreign policy in Lybia and “Ubeki-beki-beki-stan-stan” now take center stage, and Cain himself, as reported by the Boston Globe, believes the matter of sexual harassment to be behind him. “The people who are on the Cain train, they don’t get off because of that crap,” the presidential hopeful eloquently stated.
Instead of investigating the truth of the allegations, Cain’s supporters blamed the liberal media for spreading lies. Apparently, a creeper can only be a creeper if he’s convicted. One woman sacrificed her own dignity, having people call into question her life experiences, to publicly expose Cain. Soon, three others were there to corroborate through their own Cain encounters. If there were four willing to speak, many more are staying silent.
This outburst coincided with my first personal encounter with sexual harassment. Along with shock and a desire for the whole experience to be the result of a misunderstanding, I felt like the timing was never right to confront it, nor did my unexpressed discomfort sit well with me. Think of Anita Hill! My incident was brief and lacked Cain’s explicit directions, yet after weeks of dwelling on it, I feel it was neither innocent nor excusable.
Often, sexual harassment is much more an issue of power than it is an issue of desire. My coworkers and I would ALL be guilty of sexual harassment, except that it’s our form of humor and social bonding. Our equality and friendship make smacking butts and crude jokes acceptable (at least, I hope so). A friend of mine receives more than her share of advances from customers while bartending. She keeps her power, she says, through wit. “If I play the victim or if I get mad, I give them power. I can shut them down with humor and still take their money.”
The exchange between customers and waitstaff is a complex web of friendliness and mild flirtation accompanied with servitude and tips. Not a shift goes by that I don’t navigate the tumultuous rapids between helping people, smiling pretty and not taking crap from customers. Often times, because I am a young lady with good people skills and happen to have a behind sculpted from skiing, my friendliness is misinterpreted.
I genuinely enjoy people, and what makes my job interesting are the people I meet and the friends I make, be they locals or visitors. Most of the inappropriate attention I receive from customers comes in the form of a slightly intoxicated tourist who feels liberated by his vacation away from the heartland, fearing no accountability for hitting on the waitress who is 20 years his junior. Maybe he spends all his professional time being courteous and takes out his flirtatious energy on the nameless waitress.
I was once asked by a table of three men, in town on a bike vacation, what was my upper age limit for dating. “34?” He asked, tactfully suggesting his own age. My work-smile cramped my features as I replied, “Well, my boyfriend’s 27.”  When he insisted that I hadn’t answered his question, moving from flirtatious to aggressive, I replied curtly, “Yes, I did.”
A gorgeous friend of mine was propositioned by an older man after taking a business card under the pretenses of needing her services. He called her repeatedly and explained in no uncertain terms that he could provide for her and her children, if she would keep a lonely old man company.
During a shift last Halloween, a man in a Nixon mask snapped my bra. At first, I thought it a bad joke made by a drunk friend, but the man was a stranger. My shock didn’t stave off my rage, it was only delayed.
After a customer profusely complimented a friend on her “jeans,” we at work defused the would-be creepy situation by making a humorous fan page in honor of those pants.
And while some do appreciate the compliment, I found it voyeuristic when the girls at work received an anonymous review not on their customer service, but on their “awesome” and shapely derrières.
If there is a time and a place for men to digress into boys, I guess that place is a bar. I don’t know a single female bartender who hasn’t had to deal with the duality of being called “sugar” while pouring a shot and a “bitch” when cutting off the same customer. I deal with it so regularly that I’ve begun to accept it as an inevitability.
Perhaps because sexual harassment has been naturalized in my own life, I feel reluctant to confront it. Not only are the repercussions cause for consideration, but I dislike feeling victimized and I am more inclined to cope internally, minimize the incident—or to write. Even now, I am anxious about discussing, however vaguely, the incident. I hate this fear, and so in an attempt to live up to the sacrifice of Anita Hill, I choose to confront my newly discovered truth that I’m not as brave as I thought.
This week, I’m thankful for a reminder not to take equality for granted, that women are still victimized and objectified. And, I will strive in my personal and professional life to be who I thought I was.
– Maggie Casey