Nonprofit addresses sexual harassment in the food and beverage industry

Mercy Sosa Our VOICE
ESCALATION: Our VOICE prevention educator Mercy Sosa explains how sexual harassment can escalate to sexual violence at an "86 It" training held April 8. Asheville Food and Beverage United hosted the session to provide service industry workers with tools to address sexual harassment. Photo by Jessica Wakeman

‘That’s just what it’s like working in a bar,’ some say.

Others might push it aside for financial reasons — ‘Don’t you want more tips?’

But local advocates say addressing sexual harassment and sexual violence is key to preventing it from continuing. Especially in the hospitality industry, where it is prevalent.

A 2018 Harvard Business Review study of 76 female college students working in food and beverage service jobs found that more than two-thirds reported experiencing sexual harassment each month of the three-month study. The most frequent behaviors described included being told suggestive sexual stories, offensive remarks and crude, sexual comments.

On a Monday afternoon in April, a small group gathered at Avenue M, a restaurant on Merrimon Avenue, to learn strategies to prevent and address sexual harassment in the service industry. The “86 It” training, held by Our VOICE, an Asheville-based nonprofit serving survivors of sexual violence and human trafficking, was organized by Asheville Food and Beverage United, a trade group for service workers.

“Harassment can include … unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature,” according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. However, “harassment does not have to be of a sexual nature and can include offensive remarks about a person’s sex.” Perpetrators and victims can be of any gender.

Our VOICE prevention educator Mercy Sosa elucidates the many forms harassment can take in the service industry: female staff encouraged to wear makeup and form-fitting clothing; LGBTQ staff pressed to conform to gender norms in grooming and dress; sexist or homophobic jokes; letting unwanted behavior from guests continue due to the mentality that “the customer is always right.”

“We all know [sexual harassment] is something that’s kind of culturally accepted,” says Miranda Escalante, manager and bar lead for Avenue M and a member of AFBU, in an interview with Xpress. “So I think it is important for workers to have the tools and feel safe to say ‘Hey, this is not OK.’”

She continues, “There are owners with reputations in our city, unfortunately, and there are places in our city that have these reputations for not being completely safe for their workers.”

Protecting each other

“86 It” is one of several community trainings offered by Our VOICE. Others include preventing drug-facilitated sexual assault, bystander intervention and preventing sexual harassment in the workplace.

Themes of the trainings overlap, and April’s “86 It” session addressed drug-facilitated sexual assault and how to intervene or interrupt potential harassment or violence. The former can look like drugging, or “roofie-ing,” a person’s beverage, pushing a person to drink more or targeting someone who is already intoxicated, Sosa explains. She notes that assault can still occur if someone has consumed substances consensually.

Our VOICE adult prevention educator Allie Stec addresses the “4 Ds” of bystander intervention: address the behavior directly, distract the parties, delegate or ask for help from someone else and document the behavior. Interrupting behavior can be as simple as telling a worker, “Hey, they need you in the back” to separate the individual from a harasser, Stec says.

TIME TO INTERVENE: Our VOICE prevention educator Allie Stec explains several bystander intervention tactics to interrupt sexual harassment occurring in the food and beverage industry. It can be as simple as one worker saying to another, “Hey, they need you in the back” to separate the worker from a harasser, Stec said. Photo by Jessica Wakeman

Asheville City Council member Kim Roney, a former food and beverage worker who attended the “86 It” training in April, encourages people in positions of power to speak up when they see or hear inappropriate behavior.

Cultural setting is an important aspect of addressing sexual harassment in the service industry, Sosa tells the group. Our VOICE suggests a “strong, well-known policy that covers more than the law” and established procedures for how to respond to harassment complaints. Sosa also advises frequent discussions about the policy, as well as trainings like “86 It.”

Unwanted attention

Sexual harassment in the form of unwanted attention can come from customers or co-workers, explains Sosa. Either way, unwanted attention needs to be addressed before the perpetrator escalates the behavior to sexual violence.

Morgan Persky of Woodfin experienced a lot of unwanted attention and touching when she worked in hospitality at a restaurant for a year. She tells Xpress the harassment began after a few months on the job.

The kitchen manager “would kind of corner” the female employees and ask them for hugs, which were “tight” and “lingered,” Persky says. His “hands would be around an arm or back,” and the women agreed that his hugs felt “creepy.” They would try to pivot their bodies to “go in for a side hug,” Persky explains.

Yet this kitchen manager’s lingering hugs were only half the harassment Persky endured. He and some cooks would make comments about her body, both to her directly and talking among themselves. And she says when the kitchen manager hugged her, he would ask, “Why don’t we hang out? You never want to hang out with me!” Persky says she never acquiesced. “I’m sure I made some kind of excuse, like ‘I’m tired,’” she explains. “I didn’t want to be outright rude, because I was afraid of any consequences. I didn’t know if there would be any.”

The owner of that restaurant was regularly on-site. Persky told him how she was being harassed, and he replied, “You need to have thicker skin,” she says. Persky adds that she knew a co-worker came to the owner about sexual harassment by the kitchen manager, too. At that, Persky says, the owner “panicked.”

“He was like, ‘Don’t say sexual harassment! I don’t want to hear that!’” Persky recalls. “‘You can’t go around saying that.’” The owner’s reaction felt as if “he basically told me to shut up and deal with it,” she explains. Angry, disappointed and feeling “trapped,” she quit the job three weeks later.

“I knew it was never going to get better,” she says.

Getting physical

There’s a crucial difference between flirting and sexual harassment, Sosa tells the group convened at Avenue M. Generally speaking, flirting is consensual, and it feels good. Sexual harassment feels uncomfortable or bad, and it happens without the victim’s consent.

Heather Gressett worked in the service industry from ages 13-30, beginning in Chicago. She says sexual harassment wasn’t discussed in her workplace or in school. As a result, she didn’t recognize sexual violence when it was happening to her. “It was just so normalized that even I didn’t know it was wrong,” Gressett explains, adding that so many years in the industry and so many violent experiences may have “desensitized [me] to a lot of stuff.”

In retrospect, Gressett sees more clearly how co-workers violated her, including when she was a minor. “I was sexually assaulted by so many men,” she tells Xpress. At 16 years old, a co-worker in his 30s, who was married with kids, pushed her against a wall and kissed her, she says. And at another restaurant, a co-worker followed her into a walk-in refrigerator, turned the lights off and groped her.

Gressett says she also engaged in sexual harassment in restaurants by grabbing guys’ butts. “We would all just do it to each other — it was like a thing.” Gressett says she cringes when she thinks about her actions now, referring to them as “a trauma response” or coping mechanism. “It was almost a way to normalize my own assaults,” she explains. “If I’m doing this to other people, it’s not so big of a deal, right?”

Seven years ago, Gressett moved to Western North Carolina and worked at several restaurants and breweries here. While she says she saw some problematic behavior — such as brewery owners who would not call a transgendered worker by their correct name — sexual harassment wasn’t as extreme in the service industry here as it was in Chicago. “Maybe there’s a shift in me where I was, like, I’m not going to accept this anymore,” she muses.

Gressett also sees younger people in the service industry demanding to be treated with respect and advocating for their rights. As Escalante from AFBU puts it, young folks are no longer tacitly accepting sexual harassment as part of the job that must be endured. And people like Gressett, who experienced sexual violence in the service industry themselves, are motivated to be more responsible bosses than the ones they had.

Gressett now runs her own business, Lily Mae’s Desserts. She’s currently the only employee, but she’s dedicated to fostering dignity and respect.

“When I do have a staff, I want to set an example for how my work culture is,” she says. “It starts with me, right?”


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About Jessica Wakeman
Jessica Wakeman is an Asheville-based reporter for Mountain Xpress. She has been published in Rolling Stone, Glamour, New York magazine's The Cut, Bustle and many other publications. She was raised in Connecticut and holds a Bachelor's degree in journalism from New York University. Follow me @jessicawakeman

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One thought on “Nonprofit addresses sexual harassment in the food and beverage industry

  1. Robert

    As a male I think there is a hypocrisy of F&B workers capitalizing off customers through servers showing more flesh. Beverage cart girls at country clubs know what the uniform attire is like and they’re college students mostly. The same can be said for women who work at Hooter’s. Attractive women use their looks and physical perks to get higher income, and it does create a magnet for sexual harassment from hetero and homosexual customers. The feminists don’t touch on this being a problem though and blames the employer rather than the level of greed by the employee.

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