It’s time for some feminist action, brought to you courtesy of the migraine that today gifted me.
All the background you need to know: I work retail. I think, objectively, most people perceive me as a young attractive straight female, regardless of how I see myself or attempt to present myself. I work in a retail environment that heavily emphasizes customer service. I mean, these days, if you’re working independent retail in particular you really need to step up your customer service, because it’s about the only advantage you have over corporate. I encounter a lot of people in the course of my day, many of whom treat me just fine. Now that that’s out of the way…
On a pretty regular basis, I interact with people who do not treat me well. These run the gamut from people who talk on their cell phones while I am helping them, because apparently I am a machine, to people who are rude and weird. These people get me in a twitch, and I move on. What I am unable to get over, however, is dudes who feel like they can make a pass at me while I’m working. This goes beyond mere irritation, and here’s why:
From my understanding, it is only possible to think it’s appropriate to hit on someone when they’re working because you’re operating in a system of privilege where you don’t have to consider your actions. To whit: the people who hit on me are a male, and straight males, which means they unilaterally benefit from the heteropatriachy. Add to that the fact that they are socially and economically privileged enough to be hitting up a bookstore and probably white because of the demographic in the place I live. In most, if not every, aspect of their lives, they are the beneficiary of multiple systems of privilege, which means their way of being is constantly affirmed, they rarely feel unsafe or disempowered, and I imagine there’s a sense of entitlement that comes along with these things. This is probably why they feel that it’s ok to sidle up to me when I’m doing my job and assert their interest in me.
Now, granted, I’m benefitting from the intersection of many systems of privilege as well: I’ve got enough money to get by and the upper-middle-class background to fake my way along, I’m attractive, for all intents and purposes I am assumed to be straight, I’m white, I am intelligent, et cetera. I try to be as conscientious as possible about the ways in which I benefit from being on the affirmed end of these systems of privilege; I find it important to own up to them. In this situation, however, I am disempowered in two very important ways: I am female, and I am working.
I’m finding that customer service work intersects with gender in interesting ways, and that as a female in customer service there are expectations of the ways in which I will be accommodating: smile politely when older men flirt with me a little bit or tell vaguely sexist jokes, put up with customers thinking I don’t know what I’m talking about because I’m a young female, not call a customer out on your heteronormative sexist bullshit when they decide I’m a convenient object for ranting about ladies not dressing like ladies, or complement me on my appearance.
It’s a long list, and while I know my male coworkers have to deal with a lot of bullshit at work too, I find myself resentful that they rarely — if ever — find themselves interpellated as romantic or sexual objects. It is infuriating to feel unsafe when I’m doing my job because a creepy dude may or may not be staring at me, and furthermore feel that I’m not entitled to call him out on it until it gets really unsafe because I need to provide stellar customer service. It drives me crazy that some dude can waltz into the store and assume that, because I’m doing “nothing” (oh, wait, I’m putting merchandise away, but that’s okay, I can make small talk with you) it’s okay to make a pass at me.
Because here’s the deal: when I’m working, I’m not free to respond to you as I like. If you feel like you’re entitled to invade my personal space and touch my shoulder, I have to tactfully evade it instead of telling you to get the hell away from me. If you get flirty, or ask for my number, or tell me I’m pretty, guess what? We’re not on equal ground right now, because you’re the customer, and my polite response does not mean that I’m “shy.” It means that I’m working. And not being able to respond in a way that affirms my personhood and refuses who you want me to be for you? That’s the shit that sends me home with a migraine, because I’m waffling between defending myself and making sure that our store makes enough money, and I end up clenching my jaw and avoiding you — in my place of work! — until you leave. And I am lucky enough to work somewhere that places the safety of its employees first.
I am only starting to become aware of the kinds of privilege and disempowerment that are at work in customer service situations, and how blatantly ignorant most people are to them. I would love input on this, because it drives me up a fucking wall and I can’t be the only one. In fact, I know I’m not the only one. Because it’s not just me, and it’s not just one dude. It’s a system.