Can You Be a Waitress and a Feminist?
APRIL 17, 2015
LAS VEGAS — THIS week I will be sexually harassed on the job, and like many women in the Las Vegas service industry, I will count my tips at the end of my shift and decide that it is worth it.
This is not the most progressive statement for a self-described feminist like myself to make. Neither are a majority of my responses to the suggestive comments I receive.
During a recent shift, an older man sitting with his niece asked, “If I take you home, will you be as good to me?” I laughed. The next night, a man offered $1,000 for my phone number. I told him, “First I’ll need to see the cash.”
Despite my banter, these comments made me feel ill and demeaned in a way that I combat in other aspects of my life. In my part-time day job as a university instructor, I incorporate topics like the wage gap and gender inequality into my classes, with full awareness that I choose to work in the restaurant industry, the single largest source of sexual harassment claims filed by women in the United States.
Some might argue that I signed up for the treatment — I work in a lounge as a cocktail waitress (or as a man once referred to me, a “cocktail mattress”). I wrestle with this all the time: that I sold my feminist soul for quick, easy cash.
And yet, when I find a remark disgusting, or have my hands, shoulders and hips held for uncomfortably long periods of time by men I don’t know, I have to suppress my natural reaction. I try to ignore it, or feign amusement, all for the sake of the guest’s experience, my job security and the chance of a good tip. It’s easy to have ideals, but reconciling them with the need to pay rent is a more difficult task in a town with few professional opportunities.
Then there’s Vegas itself. In a city with a thriving sex trade, the assumption that sexuality is constantly available for purchase infects the broader tourist experience. Most interactions on the Boulevard — from exchanges between card dealers and players to tourists drunkenly yelling at one another from across casino lobbies — feel like performances in some unending “Sin City” sitcom.
Underlying it all is the clichéd belief that how you behave in Vegas “stays in Vegas” — that it’s not a true reflection of your character, and bears no real consequences. This combination not only encourages people to indulge in aggressive behavior, but also distorts sexual harassment into something far less severe, even innocent.
So it’s no surprise that in this hyper-sexualized spectacle, I have become, along with my colleagues, desensitized. Even though I cringe when a male manager opens a team meeting with the complaint that instead of hot girls, the alcohol reps sent women who look “broke down,” exchanging a glance with another female server is easier than calling him out.
Amazingly, for all that, we have it easier in Nevada than servers in many other states. Here, we are paid the standard minimum wage, or even a union wage. Forty-two states have a lower, “tipped-minimum” wage, which can be as little as $2.13 an hour. Research from the Restaurant Opportunities Center shows that these servers are twice as likely to experience sexual harassment. It’s a dangerous cycle: They must tolerate the inappropriate behavior just to scrape by, which only invites it more.
This proved true in my experience some years back as a waitress in a Chicago suburb. When I was earning $4 an hour, I hesitated to identify a loyal regular for what he really was, a stalker. The man waited for me after shifts and insisted on walking me to my car. In another restaurant, the owner suggested I might be promoted to a marketing position, which warranted a visit to his office, where he tried to kiss me. I quit on the spot.
These situations were scary, stark transitions from being “just a part of the job” into real threats to my safety. They also proved that the guest-server relationship not only provides opportunities for harmful gender dynamics, but classist ones as well. Some argue that by eliminating tips and providing a living wage, restaurants could lessen the power exchange that too often occurs between customers and workers. But I do this job for the potential extra money that tipping can bring. And I know from daily experience here in Nevada that the harassment won’t simply go away.
On most nights when I leave work, the only thing I take with me is the extra cash in my pocket brought about by guests’ generosity. But then again, I clearly carry baggage, too.
My female colleagues share similar experiences. Some cope with laughter, some anger. Some leave restaurants, only to find themselves back a few months later. Some take the opposite approach, and say that engaging with sexist behavior in order to financially benefit is an empowering, rather than patronizing, experience. Maybe this is the Vegas version of “leaning in.”
Whether or not we should feel shame for taking advantage of the system is our own conclusion to make. Yet we continue on, tough, thick-skinned ladies who tolerate aggressive, sexist behavior, but rarely indulge it. And when I leave my shift, I cross a casino floor past women in their late 40s still wearing miniskirts and nylons, toting trays of drinks, hearing for the thousandth time a man say something obscene.
Brittany Bronson is a contributing opinion writer, an English instructor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and a restaurant server.