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Jian Ghomeshi went to trial this month. And so, in a way, did Canadian women. The Ghomeshi trial is not only about a man who violated the four women pressing charges, but about whether we, as a society, trust women who tell.
It's personal for me. Today and every day of February, I am sharing my own stories of sexual harassment and violence. Today is day twenty-three, in which I share my experience of working in a 'meat market' restaurant where underaged girls were regularly exploited by the owner and managers. I am also honoured to share a guest post from deBeauxOs, a feminist blogger who writes killer blog posts at DAMMIT JANET! and shares her story of sexual harassment with us today. If you're joining us now, may I suggest that you start at the beginning, by reading my introduction here. And remember, practice self-care. The Ghomeshi scandal has one hell of an undertow.
This is incident number 17.
You may remember that when I was 18 I worked for a man who invited his friend over to watch me clean his poorly attended "Greek" restaurant, and who in turn left a veritable trail of slime on my breast. That was one of three jobs I worked that summer. All were in restaurants which, like unhappy families, are all terrible in their own way. In addition to the sleaze at the Greek restaurant, I worked in a breakfast joint where the owner bullied and harassed the intellectually disabled dishwasher, calling him sexual names and stressing him the hell out. And then there was my third job, at a restaurant chain I will call 'Special Sauce' that has since expanded across Canada and hires a lot of actresses.
It was a meat market. Managers were so fixated on hiring women they wanted to sleep with that on busy nights they carried job application forms in their back pockets so that they could immediately present one to a gorgeous girl who just wanted to have dinner with her parents or whatever. Not all of their female employees were lithe and doe-eyed, but most were or had been when they were hired. Bad ideas about sexuality ran amok in the establishment.
There was sexual harassment prevention training but women were regularly compared to steak.
And: there was money to be made.
I had friends working in the kitchen. Since I hadn't yet been chosen out of a crowd to become the lucky server of overpriced edamame, my friends pulled some strings for me. I interviewed along with a dozen other girls. One of them was a nervous-looking 16-year old with long, frizzy blonde hair. Neither of us quite fit the Special Sauce mould (I talked about memorizing the Russian alphabet as a strategy for coping with sadness in my interview; she looked 12), but we were both hired and would often work the same shift.
I liked the work well enough. It was my job to make sure that the food made it to the tables in a timely and hygienic fashion. The waitresses were not kind to me, which is to be expected when sexual titillation based on novelty guides commercial transactions. The guys in the kitchen were nice to me, and on days when I wore a low-cut shirt, requested I provide them with an inordinate number of bowls from the bottom rack. One day, I cut myself on a piece of glass and my shift manager chastised me for bleeding profusely on the roll of paper towel he handed me. On another day, I bent down to pick something up off the floor and one of the male servers hit me in the back of the head, hard. For fun.
About a month into our employment, my friend from the interview called to beg me to come on a date with her. The co-owner of the restaurant, a 32-year-old man who owned a yacht, had asked her to do the Grouse Grind with him. For those who don't live in Vancouver: while it sounds like an old fashioned dry-humping dance, the Grouse Grind is in fact a popular hiking trail on which yuppies of all ages drive themselves to the brink of collapse by running straight (straight!) up a mountain. It's not beautiful or scenic. It's just exercise and the sound of fabric wicking.
I had never met any of the owners. She told me that he had been present for her second interview (what second interview? I hadn't had a second interview) and that afterward he and my manager had taken her, alone, to a strip club. She said that they hired a dancer to perform a lap dance for her, but that it was a classy sort of joint where lap dances were performed behind curtains. The stripper had asked my friend if she felt comfortable with receiving this magnanimous gift. My friend told me that she said no, and they just talked about work for five minutes. The dancer earned $75 and my friend learned about men ejaculating in their pants (takeaway lesson: yes, strippers find it gross).
He wanted to leave early in the morning on Saturday, and I worked a night shift on Friday, as well as a lunch shift at another restaurant on Saturday. I had never done the Grouse Grind and had no interest in it. But I know what it's like to need female accompaniment. I agreed.
I can't remember how we got to the mountain or much about the trip. I remember the co-owner as a man-child of meager proportions, aspirations and self-aggrandizement notwithstanding. He didn't inappropriately touch me or my friend. But he did talk about how he liked to have parties on his yacht, and put on some "adult movies" to have fun (yes, those were his actual words, "adult movies" with air quotes). He told me that he liked hanging out with the waitresses, "But it's not legal until they're 18." And then, addressing my friend, "That's what you're waiting for, right?"
A month later, I talked to her again. She was not returning to work. Her mother had found out that one of her managers had given her alcohol and taken her home. There were more, upsetting details that I won't share here.
All day, I banged dishes together and refused to smile when men told me to. I had an evening meeting with my manager. The pastel colour of his button-down shirt contrasted with the dark wood of the table at which we sat in a closed section on the upper floor of the restaurant. He wore these shirts because everyone else had to wear black and it gave him an air of relaxed authority. But I knew he was scared. I said that I was angry that my underaged friend had lost her job because some asshole person in lower management couldn't keep his, um, "Saucy" self away from her.
He tried to ingratiate himself by complimenting me on my friendship ("she tells you everything!") and then told me that he had been confused the night they had "partied" with her. He said that he had interviewed me on the same day and that he had thought that she was the one who was 19 and I was the one who was 16. He said that he had heard that I had had a good time on the Grind with the co-owner, who really had a temper. My friend should call him if she wanted to talk about transferring to a different location.
He implicated me so that I would feel some responsibility for what had happened. It worked.
It takes disgruntled employees, crises like bankruptcy and death, lawsuits, whistle-blowers, to change a misogynist fiefdom such as Special Sauce's co-owner had built. I wanted to be one of these people, to stand up for myself and my friend. But to do so takes time, energy, money. I couldn't do it. I kept my head low and worked until the end of the summer.
I don't know what it's like to work for that organization now, 13 years later. Facebook tells me that one of the friends working in the kitchen has become a manager. I can't imagine him behaving in the ways that I have described -- even at 19 years old he had better ethics. But that's the thing about corporate culture: it doesn't care about your ethics. It self-perpetuates.
Today, I received an impressive piece of writing from my new twitter friend, deBeauxOs. It's as tightly wound as an Alice Munro short story and describes the sexual harassment she received at her workplace as a 29-year-old woman in the early 1980s. And I think it demonstrates the ways that incidents of sexual assault and harassment intermingle in our psyches, accumulating and self-perpetuating in ways not unlike corporate misogynies. I'll let you read it for yourself.
"I love you. You excite me. I want you."
Urgent words whispered at a bar where people had congregated after two days of in-house training. Shocking. Uninvited. I didn't usually spend "after hours" time with work colleagues: I kept my personal life resolutely separate from my professional one.
All my interactions with other people at work were amicable, guarded and professional. My sense of boundaries was visceral. My networks of family members, friends, colleagues and acquaintances were distinct Venn diagrams with slivers of overlap.
Didn't gossip with the gals; never flirted with the guys.
The blunt, inebriated words startled me. "I love you. You excite me. I want you."
I said nothing. My instinct was to leave. Now. GO! Everybody was on the dance floor. Though he seemed drunk, he'd chosen his moment well, waiting until I was separated from the herd. I took a deep breath. "Mr. Mansfield..."
"Nelson, call me Nelson." he interrupted me.
I took a deep breath. "Mr. Mansfield. I don't know you. You don't know me."
"I want to know you. I've been watching you. Let's go have a coffee now. I want you to know me."
Women are told that it's a compliment when men pay attention to them. That we should be flattered that we are desirable.
"Look at me. I am talking to you."
I felt fear. "I can't. I'm having breakfast early tomorrow morning with my parents. In fact I'm leaving soon with Estelle."
"Stay longer. I'll drive you home."
Then the rest of the staff returned to the table; my colleague reclaimed her chair and the purse I had been watching.
I whispered to her that I had to go. Could she walk with me to the street so I could flag a taxi to get home. She gave me a look. "Are you okay?"
I managed to quickly extricate myself with a minimum of fuss.
Mr Mansfield worked in a different area. The following week it was officially announced he would, in a month's time, be managing the client services section where I was. I had applied for a permanent position which would report directly to him. If I was successful at the interview stage and got that job, he'd be my supervisor.
One of my tasks was to review and proofread the completed documents that had been assigned for translation, before they were sent to the clients. I had just finished reading a harrowing account of sexual harassment, the verbatim recollection of Bonnie Robichaud as told to a CHRC investigator charged with documenting her complaint.
Every detail was repulsive. It was an account of violence, degradation and control.
The alleged harasser's response had been collected by the investigator's male colleague. Both documents had been sent for immediate translation, in accordance with the administrative procedures of the CHRC where Bonnie had, on the advice of her union, filed a complaint.
The activities described weren't shocking. As an adolescent I had found Henry Miller and Philip Roth novels at used bookstores and had read the raunchy bits out loud in bed with a lover.
What revulsed me was her description of degrading, coerced actions of sordid humiliation. His nonchalant view was that he was only giving her what she was asking for. It was deeply disturbing.
A week after his declaration of love Mr. Mansfield walked into my cubicle with a chair and sat down. I was working late to complete the review of a high priority translation job. All the other workers had left for the day.
He launched into a barely coherent diatribe about how cruel I was (I had been avoiding him and not returning his phone calls) and how in spite of that, he was willing to take a chance on me. He recounted how other women had hurt him or denied him love, yet he felt that he could entrust his heart to me. Why was I so cold? Was I playing hard to get?
Then he started extolling his sexual prowess: bragging how he had convinced a Catholic girlfriend to have anal sex to keep her virginity intact; how women that he had dumped would phone him at night to beg for a booty call; how his erections were reliable and lasted for hours. He kept pulling at his crotch, while he rambled on about threesomes he'd had, his ex-wife's inability to meet his powerful urges....It was interminable and frightening. I didn't want to hear any of it, but I was paralyzed, afraid if I said anything, it would interrupt his monologue and he'd become physical.
The noisy arrival of the office cleaner surprised him. He jumped up, arranged his trousers and left. I was drenched in sweat. The palm of my left hand was bloody from my nails digging in.
The next time I saw Mr. Mansfield was at the job interview. The current section manager was also there.
It was an excruciating experience. Mr. Mansfield clearly wanted to hire me; I was so nervous that I kept blanking out and not providing complete answers to the questions they asked.
I kept remembering how his grotesque, sausage-fingered hand had wandered, that evening at the bar when he had made his crude declaration. He had casually rested it on the back of my chair, then moved it, placing it behind my neck, then insistently tugging at my head to turn it towards him. "I love you. You excite me. I want you," he had said, "Look at me. I am talking to you."
I remembered how Bonnie Robichaud had described her harasser's hands touching and grabbing her, pushing her against furniture, jacking off all over her clothes.
The interview was mercifully and awkwardly ended by my manager. I stood, thanked them and stiffly walked to the washroom where I threw up for 15 minutes. While I was washing my face with cold water, my manager came in.
"That was the worst interview I've ever seen. Are you ill?" she asked. "We can't redo this. But I can extend your contract, and you could re-apply for the next round of hires." I smiled weakly at her. "I'll be fine."
One week later I sat in the human resources office and quietly delivered the little speech I'd rehearsed about wanting to work as a supply teacher at the francophone school close to where I lived. It would be a less stressful routine, getting my daughter to daycare, and being sure I'd be home on time every day.
I never saw Mr. Mansfield again. A year later my former manager called and asked me if he had ever done something "inappropriate".
"Oh," I paused. "Has someone complained?"
I never filed a complaint against NM (the name was changed, and information that might reveal the particular work place, altered).
Why did I put up with his attentions?
It was the early 80s and sexual harassment was still a joke, because a woman wearing a skirt can run faster than a man with his pants around his ankles, right?
I really needed a job. But I wasn't hired to teach an adult man to respect women and to act like a professional. Someone higher up in the hierarchy could do that.
When he put his hand behind my neck, I froze. I felt trapped in molasses, immobilized.
About 10 years later, while reading the local francophone paper, I came across a short news item about an elderly man who had died. He had been a dentist but when families who claimed their daughters had been sexually molested reported his behaviour, he had left the profession.
I remembered my parents had stopped taking us to one dentist's office and switched to another in the West End, who was assisted by a hygienist.
I never could suffer the sensation of a man's big hand pressing the back of my neck.
Check back tomorrow for another story of yet another man, a medical doctor, abusing his position of authority. Are you tired of this yet? I am!
Also: shout out to Ken Burch. I don't read the comments but I hear you're sticking up for me. Thanks!
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