I was 16 years old and working at a golf canteen the first time I was sexually harassed. I had no idea what to do when patrons leered so I ignored them. Once, a group of well-known men, including a couple of radio hosts, came in between holes. A contest was running on the radio station, its prize going to whoever correctly guessed the combined weight of the hosts. I’d been listening to this show since I was a little kid, and I braved up: “Hey, how much do you weigh?” They looked at each other and one responded, “Well, I can get on top of you and you can have a better way to guess.” They all laughed. I was ashamed and embarrassed. As innocent as I was, I still understood what he meant.
Next I waitressed at a pizza restaurant and bar. Some managers were awful, but I had one who was kind. He had little kids at home and I felt safe around him. Whenever I needed an order fixed or help with the printer, I went to him. But one night I’d been cashing out and we’d been alone in the office with the doors closed. He turned to me and said, “I just want to bury my face in your tits.” Afterward, he said “tits” a lot when we were alone. I was 18.
I got a job at a premium casual-dining chain while doing a women’s studies degree. I was learning at university about what was happening, and what everything I was experiencing meant. Whenever I went to work, though, I had to take that hat off, because if I’d embodied the anger, frustration, and strength I should have, I wouldn’t have gotten any shifts. I had to be complicit. On Saturday nights men put their hands in my apron and felt around. “What are you doing later?” “Do you have a boyfriend?” “Where can I meet you?” Men felt entitled to say all kinds of things to me as they tucked phone numbers into my pockets. Seeing it happen all the time to the women around me was a reminder that this is just how it goes. I heard management say things like, “We just got a fax from head office. They said to put your hottest girl at the door as the hostess.” Of course, quitting had been an option, but the ability to do so depended on rent payments or outside financial support. I endured. After convocation—and with aging—I started calling things out. I got fired for doing so.
Later, I took on management positions where I’d hoped to help stop the harassment and assault happening to others, and I’d managed at a local taphouse. However, it was difficult to affect anything that was happening because some of the women were in precarious situations. Their pay depended on their customers, and I had to be mindful of that. Other managers had sex with underage employees. I carry the guilt of being unable to stop this. Throughout my career, I’d been encouraged by my managers to drink alcohol on the job, and I’d used alcohol to make dealing with customers and managers easier. It took a long time to undo the damage.
I carry the weight of all of this still. That kind of burden affects the kind of person you are and who you think you can be. At one point, I stopped talking about sexual harassment because people don’t want angry stories, and I didn’t want to be the woman who was always angry. I don’t want my daughters to experience these things. I’ve taught them to be strong. I hope it’s enough.