Content warning: This story contains explicit language and mentions of sexual harassment.
In 2017, the Chicago Tribune published an article citing proof This indicates that the risks of sexual harassment for customer service workers are significantly higher than those in “glitzier” professions. “Glitzier,” as in white-collar office jobs. The nature of customer service jobs, according to the Tribune, normalizes sexual harassment to a level that the nature of white-collar office jobs does not.
My experience in a customer service job bears witness to the truth in this report. As a front desk staff member at a local gym, my job was to answer the phone, check in gym members, and endure a constant barrage of sexualized comments and inappropriate behavior.
From the old man asking invasive questions and calling me inappropriate pet names, to the middle-aged city dwellers commenting on how my body looked in my work uniform, there was no shortage of discomfort. A lewd, almost violent message from a manager was the icing on the cake.
In all my years of watching sexual harassment education videos, I have never come across detailed advice on how to handle harassment in workplaces whose job descriptions stipulate friendliness and tolerance.
The environment I worked in, which prioritized the “member experience” and friendliness, normalized occasional sexual harassment from members. As a result, sexual harassment by co-workers has become all the more acceptable.
When I was sexualized at work, both by co-workers and by clients, no one seemed to identify it as anything out of the ordinary. Customers ogled me, asked personal and inappropriate questions, physically invaded my personal space, and solicited appointments and other activities, all within earshot of other staff and customers. Nobody blinked. It was business as usual.
“Everyone wants to fuck the girl at the reception,” a gym regular told me after witnessing a case of harassment.
The perception of customer service workers as furniture upon which prying eyes and lewd speech can be freely imposed gives rise to such harassment. When people don’t see you as someone they should respect, but rather as someone whose purpose is to serve them, their tendency to give you basic respect fades. When people assume your goal is to condone their behavior, the violence against you becomes invisible.
Also, if employees believe they have to tolerate harassment to keep their jobs, or that tolerating harassment is part of the job, the harassment is not addressed.
Adequate acknowledgment of this issue requires a broader discourse. Instead of limiting our awareness of sexual harassment in the workplace to higher education and “more lavish professions”, the Tribune, we should talk more about the occasional forms of harassment that occur in places like the gym where I worked. Harassment prevention training does not adequately address sexual comments made in passing, predatory co-worker dynamics, and inappropriate behavior by customers.
We can start raising awareness by supporting each other and normalizing conversations in the workplace when dealing with customer service. Existing discourse on sexual harassment in the workplace — especially as part of university bullying prevention education programs — prestigious internship centers, better paid professional spaces and long-term career opportunities.
This focus hides less “glamorous” spaces where sexual harassment is more likely to occur and more rigorously normalized. For people who find themselves in a position similar to mine, whatever your reaction to the harassment is, that’s valid. Your experiences are valid. You shouldn’t feel guilty, scared, or bad about yourself for reacting in a particular way. Too often, people blame victims of bullying for their choice to report — or not to report — their experiences. But whatever you choose to do is the right choice.
Kalina Pierga is a Weinberg Junior. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to publicly respond to this editorial, send a letter to the editor at [email protected]. The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinions of all Daily Northwestern staff.