I work in customer service. A very particular form of customer service that somehow invites all manner of disgusting sexist and racist conversations. At the bar, I am expected to listen, to indulge, to laugh. There is a whole topic that can be explored here about exploited emotional labor and the situations that people are placed in when they cannot afford to leave a job and so must deal with any number of terrible conditions at their workplace.
But, I digress; this post is about gross conversations. At the bar yesterday, I had a customer who regularly comes here. One of my regulars had told him that I was in school to become a sex therapist. This launched all manner of annoying conversation in which, not only was he completely wrong about what a sex therapist does, he was also completely wrong in thinking that I enjoyed his winks and innuendos. He started to tell me stories about his youth and although he was smiling and laughing, these were stories of sexual assault. They were stories of switching clothing with his twin brother to make out with each other’s unknowing girlfriends. They were stories about leaping on women while they were in the middle of sex with another person. It was disgusting. I was sick to my stomach as I listened to these stories; my fingertips were digging into my hips as I stood there.
There is a whole and thriving culture that loves these stories. This nation is filled with men who think that this behavior, and the recounting of it (to a woman, no less), is okay. These people see women as objects in their stories, not as characters with emotions and backstories of their own. These women simply add to the tale to make it funny and racy and cool. Reducing women to parts is not something new. America takes women and puts them into bite-sized pieces so that men can easily digest them without having to think too hard. Even me, the bartender, the worker, the server, and listener wasn’t really important in this interaction. I was just the visual of woman-ness. I was the ears and smile of something that is supposed to gently stroke the ego of a man who was the product, and perpetuation, of a society that refuses to see women as whole and multi-dimensional.
This is but a small taste of what I encounter at my job. There is something to say about the sacrifices we make for good money and a stable income. It is impossible to separate gender from the institution of work. The workplace actively creates and stabilizes gendered interaction among its workers and customers. It is part of what makes gender as a “thing” so powerful. Work produces gender by:
Producing gendered differences in the workspace (Who is a nurse? Who is the teacher and who is the principal?)
Producing gendered symbols and images (What does a businessperson(man) look like?)
Producing gendered interactions between people (Who is called sweetie? Doll? Hunny? Darlin? I cannot even count how often I am referred to as any one of these names on any given day at work)
Pretending to be gender neutral but is actually laden with gendered assumptions (“abrasive” as common term in performance evaluations for females)
This work is taken from Kimmel’s work on institutions as being gendered. It definitely helped me work through what I have to experience as a working woman. I am hoping that, in time, I can share my feelings about interactions like the one above without having to fear the loss of my job. Women should be able to tell a man that their language is abusive and damaging. That’s it. It is mind-boggling to know that women have to sit through sexist conversations to avoid sounding mean or rude. It is not rude to want to talk with people without being reduced to an object. It is not rude to not want to feel less safe after talking with someone. It is not rude to want to change the culture into one that respects and treats women as equals.