I worked in pubs and bars from the age of 18 to 22. During this period, I was sexually harassed countless times. There was the usual stuff: catcalling, asking me out, grabbing my bum as I collected glasses. But every now and then, there was the kind of situation that really made me fear for my safety.
It was a weekday afternoon and a relatively quiet shift at the pub where I worked. I left the bar to go to the ladies bathroom, which was tucked away down a corridor at the far end of the building. After using the toilet, I came out of the cubicle and was alarmed to see a male customer who I’d been serving, waiting for me. He was standing with his back against the door, blocking my way out. I quickly scanned the other cubicles before coming to the chilling realisation that it was just the two of us in the bathroom. “Do you know this is the women’s loo?” I asked him cautiously. He laughed and said, “I wanted to get your number.” My stomach dropped.
“Thank you, but I actually have a boyfriend” I replied, pretending to be flattered, which seemed like the safest response at the time. “Please can I get past you?” He shook his head and grinned. “Not until you give me your number” he said. I gave a nervous laugh as if he was just being silly and edged towards the door, but he stood still, making it clear that neither of us were going anywhere.
It was at this point that I really started to panic. The bathroom was a long way from the bar and I wasn’t sure if anyone would hear me if I screamed. I quickly decided that my best bet was to act cool and do what he asked so that I could leave. I gave him my number, changing the last digit; a tactic I reserved for more persistent men. After dialing the fake number into his phone, he opened the door and draped his arm around my shoulders as he followed me out. As soon as we were in plain sight, I shot across the room and told a male colleague what had just happened. The man, realising what I’d done, left the pub in a hurry.
Later that night, I went over the encounter in my head. Had I given this man the wrong impression by being friendly when he’d arrived? What would I do if he came back? Would he have left if I was working with a female colleague? From that day on, I avoided using the bathroom at work, and when I absolutely had to, I never lingered.
Unfortunately, stories like this are all too common amongst bartenders. In fact, research suggests that nine out of ten hospitality workers have experienced some form of sexual harassment at work. What’s more is that 77% of this group didn’t know whether their workplace had an anti-sexual harassment policy in place.
This is something I can relate to as I have no idea if any of the pubs or bars I worked at had policies to tackle sexual harassment, which is strange when it happened on such a regular basis. In my experience, sexual harassment was never acknowledged as a problem, rather it was silently accepted as ‘part of the job’.
It’s clear that steps need to be taken to protect staff in the hospitality industry, and with lockdown easing and venues set to reopen, this need for action is even more crucial. The fact that people haven’t been allowed out in months means that many will drink excessively, putting bartenders at higher risk of disrespectful behaviour.
Sexual harassment can make you feel unsafe and embarrassed in any situation, but whereas in most circumstances you’re able to walk away, at work, there’s no escape. It’s your job to serve the local who thinks it’s okay to comment on your boobs as you pour him a pint. These kinds of encounters are extremely difficult to navigate, and so most of the time, they’re simply ignored. It’s so important that hospitality workers know their rights when it comes to sexual harassment and who to go to for support when it happens.
While the rest of us are counting down the days until the pubs reopen, let’s hope landlords are using this time to put policies in place to protect their staff, many of whom are young women and therefore more likely to receive unwanted sexual attention. No one should feel humiliated, unsafe - or afraid to use the bathroom - while simply doing their job.
Written by Rebecca Brown
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