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  • Rachel Shevardnadze (law student)

Blurred Lines: Sexual Misconduct in the Post-#MeToo Era

2017, the year of #MeToo is behind us, which means we’re no longer shocked at the prospect of a government official grabbing a woman by her genitalia, Harvey Weinstein’s career is decidedly over and countless male comedians have written half-hearted apologies for masturbating in front of female fans in last-ditch attempts to salvage their affiliations with the few bigwigs who had yet to officially cut ties with them.

Two years later, after legions of people in the public eye have taken a stand against abusers in an industry fueled by sexual exploitation, it would seem to most of society that we’re reaching a turning point regarding women’s rights, particularly in the workplace.

The truth is, the war is far from over. We are only now beginning to see the trickle-down effect of how the lifestyles of the rich and famous impact the fiduciary or sexualised relationships in our own daily lives and jobs. Speaking from experience, employers that grossly benefit from the assumption that women will tolerate sexual misconduct are still a dime a dozen, their behaviour largely unchanged by such an immense social phenomenon.

Many people, more than we’d like to admit, believe that from sex workers to retail sales associates to servers, women are signing themselves up to be subject to degrading remarks or outright sexual assault by working in a given field. Others even go as far as to justify these behaviours by pointing out that some women choose to appear in a manner deemed ‘sexual’ by society, as if it’s an open invitation to be on the receiving end of criminal acts that generally go unpunished. It is especially so in the restaurant industry.

The Criminal Code defines sexual assault as the intentional application of force to another person, whether directly or indirectly. Attempting to or threatening to apply force to another person, where they either have, or lead that other person to believe they have, the ability to affect their purpose is another form of sexual assault.

From experience, I am familiar with both forms of sexual assault, but have either failed to appreciate them as criminal acts in the moment, or have felt that pursuing legal action wouldn’t be worth the time or energy likely required to lay a conviction. From experience I can also say that I am not alone and have had countless women in the workforce share their stories with me.

From outright groping to brushing against someone when there was space to get by without physical contact, unconsensual touching is the cornerstone of sexual assault in the restaurant industry. How does this tie into the Code? Intentionality. Often, these acts are accompanied with a shrug as if to suggest the assailant couldn’t ‘help himself’, or a laugh when they realize the discomfort they’ve caused. They are more than merely incidental acts of physical contact. There is often a level of taunting, and in situations where the assailant refuses to feign innocence, the risk of trauma is even greater for the victim. This open secret in the restaurant industry forces people into a tough spot: access to a livable wage at the expense of human dignity.

As a server, you can make anywhere from no tips to several hundred dollars in an evening. As such, we’re conditioned not to flinch at the feeling of foreign bodies pressing up against ours, as hot dishes and sharp knives parade by. Our bodies ostensibly become public domain. This is an institution where men flaunt their sexual misconduct at young girls the same way they would an Ivy League degree, and sometimes other women, hardened by their long careers in the industry, are complicit in such wrongdoing.

Clearly, what establishments expect of service staff and how staff see their role are two different stories. I’m of the belief that a worker’s responsibilities are to show up on time, leave their personal life at the door and ensure that they’re facilitating an enjoyable experience for the client. What employers in the industry expect is someone who will take kindly to being cornered by drunk customers on their way back from the bathroom, nod and smile when cooks flick their skirt as they walk by.

But at what point does our failure to report these acts constitute consent or acceptance? In my view, never. Explanations of discomfort are often dismissed, or result in threats to our job security, even after reporting the most egregious of misconduct to our superiors. Far fewer criminal assault cases see the light of day than the actual frequency at which the crimes occur. This is due to a combination of our notion of sexual assault being affected by what is portrayed in the media, the societal stigma that continues to exist post-#MeToo and the trauma of explaining the events to authorities who may not be sympathetic to what occurred.

The disturbing thing is that the desensitization we experience as employees of a multi-billion dollar industry that profits off of our mistreatment speaks volumes about the lengths we’ll go to avoid having to make things “awkward”, to share our stories of abuse with other women and to merely stand up and say no. After all, that’s what the industry is, isn’t it? Just one long no that men think is a wink and an unspoken yes.

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