When I was 19 I worked as a hostess in a well-known Beverly Hills restaurant.
It was generally a good job; our clientele was difficult and the chef didn’t really care for me, but, other than that, I enjoyed my time there.
If you’ve ever worked in a restaurant, you know that there is a hierarchy among the front of house staff – at the top are the servers, followed by the bussers, and last are the hosts. It took a while for me to get comfortable, but I eventually became friendly with several of the servers.
I’m what is known as a classic introvert; therefore, I get nervous around people and have a difficult time making friends. But, once the servers warmed up to me, they made me feel very welcome. They were kind, friendly and I enjoyed my job.
One slow night, I was at my station at the front of the restaurant.
The servers would come and chat with me every so often because business was slow. There was one server in particular who I became closer with. He was in his late forties, so around thirty years my senior, but that’s not uncommon for me. I tend to get along better with people who are older than me, and I’ve always felt more comfortable around men than women.
At one point during the night, this particular server was carrying a tray of drinks to some customers. As he passed by me, I pretended to try and take a sip out of one of the straws in a glass of water. He pulled the tray away before realizing that I was kidding. He chuckled and walked away.
A little while later, he came up to me and asked me to come follow him. Thinking that he was going to show me something or ask me to bring some cornbread to a table, I followed him. He took me to the back where he sat me down at a small table used by employees during breaks and pulled out a glass of water with a straw sticking out.
Still standing, with his hips a little too close to my face, he held it up to me and said, “drink.”
I was an incredibly innocent and naive 19 year old. Unsuspecting of anything lascivious, I happily tried to drink out of the straw.
He roughly pulled it away and said “shhh…” He stared penetratingly into my eyes and then brought the glass towards me again.
I was starting to sense that something wasn’t right, but my innocent brain kept telling me that there was no ill intent. I once again tried to drink. He sharply pulled the glass away from my lips.
“No, baby, no. Shhh.”
He stepped forward, moving his pelvis closer to my face. My sense of danger increased and I wanted to leave, but he was a big guy and I knew he could easily overpower me.
He brought the glass close to my lips.
Unwillingly, I pretended to try to drink. He pulled the glass away.
He put his finger to my lips.
“No. Not yet.”
He pushed the glass to my face.
I pretended to drink. He put his finger back on my lips, moving even closer to me.
“Shh. No, baby, no. You can’t. Not yet.”
At that moment, I nervously stood up.
“I have to go back and work.”
He casually replied, “yeah, ok”, and I scurried back to my post.
Over the next few weeks, he kept up this ritual every night, subtly threatening his physical power over me when the nights got slow, to persuade me (or, rather, coerce me) into going to the back with him to play his oddly phallic game. He would offer to walk me to my car every night, so I had to start coming up with excuses to either leave earlier or later than him so that I wouldn’t have to walk with him at night, alone.
During the same few weeks that this was going on, one of my other coworkers started coming up to my host stand and begging me to sleep with him.
“Please…. Please. Just let me take you. Please. I’m begging you.”
One day, one of my friends who was a server came up to me and took me aside privately.
She told me that she’d noticed some sexual harassment was going on and urged me to go to my female manager. I told her I didn’t want to because I thought that making a big deal of the harassment would make things worse for me. But, she told me that if I didn’t say anything, then she would. So, we compromised and she and I both went to talk to my manager together.
We talked to my manager, who was clutching my file, in the walk-in freezer.
I’ll never forget standing there, teeth chattering more from nerves than from the cold, telling her about the unrelenting harassment from both men. Her brow furrowed and she opened my file to take notes. That’s when she realized that there was already a complaint from one of my other coworkers about the men who were sexually harassing me. She left the freezer and sent a message about it to HR.
A few days later, I had a meeting with the woman who headed HR. I told her everything. She took down notes and told me that these men would be fired and I wouldn’t have to deal with it anymore.
So, I waited.
But, nothing happened. I was continuously being scheduled to work with both of them. For three weeks, I worked every night with these two men, wondering what happened, if HR would ever reach back out to me.
That’s when my male manager started mistreating me.
He would do his best not to talk to me, going up to whomever I was standing next to and giving them messages in Spanish to relay to me. He became rude, aggressive, and furious, yelling at me for things that either weren’t a big deal or weren’t my fault. I went from feeling unsafe in my workplace to downright terrified.
One day, I was standing at my station when the woman from HR came hurrying in, late for a meeting. She almost rushed past me, then stopped and turned around.
“Hi! So, I’m sorry it took this long to get back to you, but I talked to the company lawyers about your situation, then I talked to the guy who was harassing you. He told us that you were flirting with him, so no worries.”
“What?”, I said. “I wasn’t flirting with him.”
“No, no, it’s ok, he said no worries. He said that you guys can continue working with each other, no problem.”
And she rushed off.
“I wasn’t flirting with him.”
I quit not long after that.
Management said that they weren’t able to schedule me around him and that he refused to transfer to the other location. When I quit, I spoke candidly to my female manager that I was choosing to leave because of the harassment I’d endured and the fact that nobody was willing to help. This is what she said to me:
“I understand why you’re leaving. But you also have to understand that you’re a woman and this stuff is going to happen to you wherever you go. It’s best if you just get used to it.”
I left, humiliated and torn down, instead of empowered and confident in my choices.
All I could think about was how things would have been better if I hadn’t told anyone. I blamed myself, not only for the harassment to which my coworkers subjected me, but also for the sloppy way that HR handled things. I was sure that my manager’s hideous attitude towards me was my fault and the unfairness of the situation that I was the one who ended up having to leave my job was how things were supposed to be. And I was embarrassed, since I took what my female manager had said to heart and felt that I should have just maintained the status quo because I needed to get used to how I’d be treated for the rest of my life – as a sexual object instead of a person.
Now, years later, I understand that there is an unhealthy mindset that women are taught to always take the blame for others’ actions – including harassment. My coworker should have controlled himself, but he knew he’d be able to get away with it because he was a man. That I’d have to be the one to suffer the consequences, not just professionally, but emotionally and mentally as well.
I no longer blame myself for what had happened.
I don’t feel shame, guilt, or embarrassment. But, I think it’s a great example of the kinds of expectations society places on women and men. Men are expected to harass women and women are supposed to just take it. These mentalities are sadly still alive and well, despite the women’s movement, and that’s because harassment is so systematically ingrained in our society.
I recently looked up my coworker on Facebook who had played the straw game with me and I saw that he’s now the owner of a successful restaurant.
And so it goes.
I am well aware that my story is not the first nor the most severe harassment situation that has happened. But, it’s an excellent example of how this particular gender issue is so often handled. With this knowledge and awareness, we must keep trudging forward to help women overcome these antiquated challenges.
My name is Andrea and I live in Los Angeles, California. By day, I am an actor and by night I am working towards a degree in nutritional science.