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Sexual Harassment in the Lives of Working Students

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April 15, 2014

by Moira Bowman, Deputy Director, Forward Together

I saved up money to go to college by working in restaurants–and continued working at restaurants my first year of school. Some days I sat fancy people at fancy tables and served them fancy food and cocktails. Other days, I slung what felt like hundreds of plates of deep fried fish cozied up to big steak fries and counted the hours till I could shower off the coat of grease from my face and arms.

I haven’t thought back on those experiences for many years–but recently my organization, Forward Together, began working on a research project in collaboration with Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC) to look at experiences of sexual harassment and assault in the restaurant industry.  And I’ve been taken off guard at the sheer number of memories that have come together in my mind from my early college years and the sexual harassment that spanned from campus to workplace.

Just a few memories:

  • The customer who told me that I looked terrible in a polo shirt-my uniform-because my breasts were too big;
  • The line-cook that would not stop asking me out;
  • The server who night after night said I should cover up more because I was sexually harassing him by being too sexy (his blame the victim strategy being too obvious for words);
  • The college professor that hired me to serve his guests at a faculty function and then kissed me when he dropped me back off on my dorm (he happened to be the subject of a rape allegations on campus).

Sexual harassment and unwanted sexual attention is part of the continuum of gender based violence that undermines the kind of world I want to live in–where all people have self-determination over their bodies, gender and sexuality–where they live, work and go to school.

There are of course legal definitions of sexual harassment–and all sorts of metrics to decide when sexual harassment is happening.  But it’s hard for this whole conversation to happen honestly when people have to think about keeping their job to put food on the table or to pay their college tuition. In the fast food sector of the restaurant industry, 60% of the workforce is 24 and under and 1/3 of these workers are raising a child.

You only have to look around a college campus to realize how many of these workers are also students.  For many young people, whether they are experiencing harassment on campus or at work is just a matter of the time of day.  Addressing sexual harassment and violence on a college campus has to address the dynamics of campus life–addressing these issues in the workplace has to take in to account the fear of losing the shifts that allow students to attend classes or the worry of losing a job and the ability to pay tuition and child care.

Forward Together and ROC’s research will explore how the continuum of sexual violence plays out in the restaurant industry today and what changes are needed to provide workers meaningful options.  This will include the need to increase the minimum wage for restaurant workers so that their self-determination over their bodies, gender and sexualities isn’t held hostage to nickels and dimes.

My experiences teaching self-defense and working within the reproductive justice movement have given me the framework to replace any shame or self-blame that I took on during my college days. Those feelings have been replaced with the knowledge that no one should have to deal with unwanted sexual advances and harassment. This research project is a critical step in ensuring that the restaurant industry plays its part in ending sexual harassment and violence in the lives of more working students.

We want to make sure that students are part of this research.  If you work in the restaurant industry and are willing to participate in the survey, please email klonden@choiceusa.org to get involved.

 

This post is a part of a series in honor of Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Read the rest here

 

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