The last few years I’ve been working on a piece I hope to pursue publishing for, on how to move forward in restaurants in the wake of #MeToo. It’s been alternately cathartic, painful, triggering, hopeful, and exhausting to write.
There’s a lot of me in there, a lot of my pain, but fundamentally my hope. Here’s a snippet — very rough, needs a lot of editing — in case you are interested/Wanna give me any feedback or help edit. Content warning for sexual assault obv. Plz don’t share anything without my permission
To me, what’s at the heart of a lot of this stuff — these disparities in understanding between men in restaurants who would never see themselves as perpetrators of sexism or sexual misconduct and the women and others who nonetheless, feel uncomfortable around them — is an issue of intent versus effect. I don’t believe you can know the full story about anything without understanding both.
Yes, some men treat women like objects — your Mario Batali’s, your Harvey Weinstein’s. But personally, I feel that far more men are operating under a misguided assumption, one that makes it impossible for them to perceive what effect they might have on us — the idea that we are all on a level playing field. That men and women come to the same kind of workplace. That the way they experience kitchens, restaurants, and the people within them is the same way everyone else does. And that’s simply not true.
In the US, one in 3 women experience sexual violence in their lifetime. 1 in 3 women experience intimate partner violence. Those statistics go up even more dramatically for people of color and members of the LGBT community. We’re not coming in the workplace as the same people. As writer Katie Anthony puts it, “What threatens me might love you, or at least leave you alone. What smiles at me might scowl at you, or even do you harm.”
A large percentage of us come to this work in bodies that hold unspeakable traumas. All of us as, women, BIPOC folk, TGNC folk, and non-dominant-power-group folk, in bodies that are disproportionately at risk to these traumas, in a world that makes sure we know it. We often don’t react to things the same way as male kitchen workers because we don’t live in the same world as male kitchen workers, even as we pass each other daily in the same spaces.
In his book on trauma and its effects on cognitive function, Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk describes how an early thaw in the Russian Neva River left Pavlov’s famed dogs immobilized as their basement cages flooded with water. In observing the dogs’ behavior after the flood, Pavlov noted that “after exposure to extreme stress, animals find a new internal equilibrium different from the previous organization of their internal housekeeping. The traumatized dogs kept acting as if they were in grave danger long after the waters of the Neva had receded. When [Pavlov] measured their physiology he found both markedly increased and depressed heart rates in response to minor stresses […] as well as full-blown startle reactions in response to slight changes in their environment, like approaching laboratory assistants.”
Many of us who work in restaurants are those dogs.
You could say that’s not your fault, and you might be right. But I don’t want it to have to be your fault. I don’t want to need the power to get you fired or put you in jail in order for you to care about my discomfort.
We are your coworkers, your employees, your bosses. Your teammates who work alongside you to produce something great together. And this is part of what it means for us to come to work.
This is part of the invisible weight we carry, and if we are good at our jobs it means in part that we are good at making room inside us for assault culture, and if you experience us as pleasant to work with it means we have carved that space out to skillfully that you don’t even see it. In her deadly little poem, Yrsa Daley-Ward calls it “A Fine Art”: “Swallowing discomfort down in spades. Holding it tight in your belly. Aging on the inside only. keeping it forever sexy”
I want you to share the weight of that discomfort with me. I want you to be uncomfortable with that being part of our skill set. I don’t want it to be something I do so well. But my not-wanting is not enough. I want you to want to share this weight. Not because I can get you fired. Because I am a person.
This is going on, whether you choose to look at it or not.
But I hope that you will.
Even during the terrible weeks of fighting with HR after fighting a chef off my body in a world-renowned establishment, throughout the endless meetings and canceled meetings and phone calls and excuses to my day job for why I was missing paid hours, all I kept repeating was: “I just want to do my job.”
The response from HR: “well, if you just focus on that, on doing your job, I think all of this should be fine.”
Ironically, that was probably the most honest exchange of the whole ordeal, if not the most direct. In case you’re confused, I’ll translate.
What I meant was: I don’t come to work with the hope of getting men fired. When I take a job, at no point is the possibility of getting to exert power and vengeance over a man a factor that enters into my consideration. And when I come to work, I’m not looking to do anything other than put in my hours for the job I signed up for, collect a paycheck, and leave.
What she meant was: this is the job you signed up for. This is part of it. It may not be in the description, but it’s definitely in the fine print — the things you are expected to put up with, much like the on call shifts that keep you from making plans but don’t guarantee you will make money, or guests who stay long after closing and keep you from going home at a reasonable hour, or not getting to have the days off you’d ideally like. This is one of the things that may not be great, but isn’t bad enough to make a complaint from someone of your expendable position weigh heavier than a title above yours. What happened wasn’t Bad Enough. The company isn’t liable enough. So if what you want is this job, you’re gonna have to pipe down and take it.
The thing is, she was right.
I don’t come to work to get you fired, and I believe you don’t come to work to upset your coworkers (at least not the vast majority of you). Yet here we are. The potential for being uncomfortable or disrespected has been an invisible part of my job description since before I began this work. The potential to face consequences for causing this discomfort is only just beginning to become a part of yours. It’s new. Men aren’t sure how to feel about it. But the shifting power dynamic is definitely making them pay attention.
Where we’re at now is a necessary starting point. I don’t think it can be the end game.
I don’t want to need power over you in order for you to listen. I’m not interested in countering your power over me with mine over you. I don’t want to need it and as long as I do, I don’t see how we can move past this point. I don’t trade your power over me for mine over you and call that freedom.
I just want us to talk. But I need you to be willing to listen.
I need to know that if I write this bridge, you will at least meet me there.
I need to know that you won’t scoff at me, belittle me, look for the ways I might be exaggerating, “play devil’s advocate,” look to take the side of the person who looks more like you, reserve your sympathy or your open mind for only the most gruesome of horror stories.
I need to know you will listen to me first.
I need to know you will believe the mammal that I am. Believe my fear. My discomfort. Believe that they come from somewhere real.
If we’re to move forward we need to move beyond this dance of relating to each other from a place of has power over whom. That’s going to take a huge leap of faith from women and minorities; the hard reality is, I don’t think we can get where we need to without it. But you need to show us it’s worth it. We need to see that you’re ready to listen. I need to know that if I put down my anger and fear, you can put down yours. That you will open your ears and your mind, to the possibility of lives you have never lived. To truths your body hasn’t been made to know.
I can write you this bridge to my pain. I need you to come to meet me here willingly.