Rebekah Frank got into the food-service industry because of the freedom it allowed her: to travel, to go to school, to figure out what she might want to do later. She hopped among a number of different jobs in New York City—at a pub, a steak house, a celebrity chef’s restaurant. About three years ago, she got a job bartending in Brooklyn.
Soon after the job started, her manager told her to be careful about how much water she drank on the job, because male customers were going to grope her on the way to the bathroom. And they did, frequently grabbing her butt or hugging her while making offensive comments. “At least once every single shift, someone would whisper something absolutely foul into my ear,” Frank said. One guy told her that he had wet dreams about her every night. Another liked to tell her what he would do with her once he took her home. He was so persistent that she tried to get the six security guards on hand every night to kick him out, to no avail. “He was always there and always harassing me and always staring at me,” she said. “I would lie and tell him I was married, because it seemed like the only way to get him to not bother me.” The harassment went on for months; the man was only ejected from the bar after he got into a physical altercation with another male customer.
One night, a regular customer, whom Frank had considered to be a friend, offered to drive her home after work. “But he dropped me off at the house and stuck his tongue down my throat,” she said. She pushed him off. In the following weeks, he would hang out after the bar closed and whisper “the most crass, disgusting stuff” in her ear: how much he wanted to fuck her, how he couldn’t stop thinking about her. He sent her texts about how her Instagram photos made him hard.
The abuse took its toll on her. “It’s so disarming, no matter how many times it happens,” Frank said. She began breaking out in hives all over her body. Her thick hair started thinning out. Once, as she was walking to work, “all of the things that had happened caught up with me,” she recalled, and she had a full-blown panic attack; she became unable to breathe and lost sensation in her legs and hands. “And there’s nothing you can do about it,” she said. It wasn’t as if there was a human-resources department or someone designated to report problems to. These kinds of incidents are “so normalized; we experience them so much, and so much more when you work in this kind of industry,” Frank continued. “None of this is about sex, necessarily—it’s all about power. They’re not necessarily getting off on it; they’re showing us how small and insignificant we are and how our bodies aren’t ours. Even our ear canals aren’t ours.”