When my friends and I began to enter the workforce, the only thing realer than our bright and shiny independence was the brutal reality of being women on a sales floor.
Something about how we waited on tables or stocked shelves evidently invited lewd comments, unwanted attention and even physical assault. For every time we had a creepy male customer waiting just outside the shop door for us to get off work, another one of us had to bite back curses and insults when her customer groped her when she walked by. It was either her dignity or her job.
And as in all cases of sexism, our stories aren't unique. In a recent study conducted by ABC News and The Washington Post, at least 25 percent of women polled said they faced sexual harassment at work, 70 percent of whom saying they never reported it. And, according to the National Women's Law Center, low-wage female workers particularly face high levels of sexual harassment.
We asked members of our Facebook community to share their personal stories of harassment while they worked in retail and food service. Nearly all of those who responded said that they felt targeted by those who were harassing them because of their gender. The majority said they couldn't respond or report the harassment because they might lose their jobs.
"It's frustrating, because I'm here to make money to support myself. I'm not asking to be approached, especially in an environment where the customer is upheld above all else and I can't just leave," one woman said.
The women who responded said that whether their harassers were either co-workers or customers, they were almost always male. Here are 21 stories our readers shared with us about their experiences with sexual harassment on the job:
"I was absolutely disgusted that a man would say that to me as a child."
When I was 14 I worked at Tim Hortons in Canada. While I was working I had an older man, looked to be in his 60s or 70s, tells me that he couldn't sleep at night without me beside him in his bed and asked if I would come home with him. I was absolutely disgusted that a man would say that to me as a child. -- Emma, 26
"He showed up at every one of my shifts, and he stayed until I left. One day when I was working a closing shift, he wouldn't leave."
I began working at a coffee shop. One boy started tipping me with dollars folded into heart shapes. He showed up at every one of my shifts, and he stayed until I left. One day when I was working a closing shift, he wouldn't leave. We locked the doors and dimmed the lights to signal we were closed, but he stayed, waiting on me. I made my coworker kick him out, so he waited on the bench right outside. I had to sneak out the back door so he wouldn't follow me. -- Ashley, 24
"Now I try to not be scheduled for closing shifts because that means being by myself from 7 p.m. to midnight."
I work at Subway. One time, a man told my coworker that she should wear her name tag on her shirt so that he could stare at her chest. Another time, a drunk customer almost took his pants off in the middle of the store after she refused his advances. Now I try to not be scheduled for closing shifts because that means being by myself from 7 p.m. to midnight. -- Anonymous, 19
"...He began putting his hands on me... I had to show him I was carrying a pocketknife so that he would leave me be..."
I was use to how the guys acted... but being cornered in the small produce cooler by a rather large co-worker, was not something I was looking forward to. [He] would not let me pass and believe me there was no way around him, he began putting his hands on me and pulling me towards him as if to kiss, then showed me his penis. I had to show him I was carrying a pocketknife so that he would leave me be. To be female in food service, you have to have a thick skin...you have to endure the sexism and the insulting jokes. You have to work twice as hard as any man does just to show that you are not being a female.” --SJ, 49
"...I was so terrified that I had to grab a manager to accompany me, in case the man tried to follow me."
I was working at PetSmart a few years back. A male customer, probably in his mid 20s, was leering at me. Any time I was alone, he'd walk past me and say, "Meet me outside." Eventually I had to go to the back to get something and I was so terrified that I had to grab a manager to accompany me, in case the man tried to follow me. Eventually he left the store but his leering and insistence was terrifying. -- Kaylee, 21
"...A cook trapped me in the cooler and groped me; a customer followed me to the parking and almost wouldn't let me leave..."
At a breakfast diner chain my manager put his arm around me and tried to kiss me one morning when I handed him a coffee. When I reported it, Human Resources required him to watch a sensitivity video and gave me a ten-cent raise. [At that diner] a cook trapped me in the cooler and groped me; a customer followed me to the parking and almost wouldn't let me leave; and another cook pushed me into my car after my shift and unbuckled his pants. Food service is hell. -- Anonymous, 26
"I asked the manager to make him leave, but he said he couldn't."
Once when I was cashiering [at Target], this group of young guys asked when I got off, and I said I didn't know, so one of them stood behind my register for two hours. The manager at the time kept coming up and asking how he was doing, if he needed help, and he would gesture to me and say he had found everything he needed. I asked the manager to make him leave, but he said he couldn't. -- Barbara, 23
"...It makes working uncomfortable because you don't know who you're going to run into when you clock in."
I've had customers follow me around the store and specifically look for me just to talk to me. Then continue to tell me how pretty I am, to the point where it's uncomfortable. I have said thank you, and let them know it's unwanted attention. But it makes working uncomfortable because you don't know who you're going to run into when you clock in. -- Anonymous, 23
"...At the end of one order I asked if the customer needed anything else and he replied 'a blowjob would be nice.'"
You would not believe the number of times I was propositioned over the intercom [at a drive-thru]. Specifically, at the end of one order I asked if the customer needed anything else and he replied 'a blowjob would be nice'. I only ever had one (male) manager overhear and get angry on my behalf as opposed to laughing. I also had more than one female coworker come to me and ask me to go out to the lobby to wipe tables, change out the tea, etc. because male customers were leering at them, asking when they got off work, even catcalling them. I wasn't allowed to say anything to them; I don't think any manager ever made them leave. I know in my time there, there were no less than three male managers fired over sexual harassment. Another was just demoted to assistant manager, moved to another store, and immediately promoted again. -- Alexis, 26
"When [we] reported our shift manager for sexual harassment we were told we'd be laid off the following week."
I worked at Starbucks for almost three years in college. When one of my coworkers and I reported our shift manager for sexual harassment we were told we'd be laid off the following week. -- Anonymous, 26
"...There was absolutely no mistaking that I was underage."
One night, I was working behind the counter selling entry tickets [at an arcade] when this big family came in. The grandpa, who was probably in his late 70s/early 80s, was giving me creepy looks, and when it was his turn to come up to the counter to get his wristband to enter the arcade, he grabbed my hand, stroked his finger up and down my ring finger, whispered “No ring…” and gave me this smile that made my stomach churn. [This was] when I was 16, [and] I looked like I was maybe 12 or 13. Which means that there was absolutely no mistaking that I was underage. -- Hannah, 20
"It was awful and uncomfortable."
While working at Crate and Barrel customer service answering phones I had a man ask for gift box wherein he can place a cuff he purchased for his wife. But the way described it he was more describing his penis. It was awful and uncomfortable. I never hung up on any customer besides him. -- Sandra, 33
"He was touching me inappropriately with his hands and looming over me, silently."
I had a part-time job at a bar. I was groped during a shift more recently. I was tidying after a crowded party, and slightly bent over whilst putting bottles in a bin and I felt someone's presence behind me. He was touching me inappropriately with his hands and looming over me, silently. This rattled me to my core. -- Anonymous, 20
"...The customer is always right, even when they make you uncomfortable."
This one time, a man came in with his son. When I came to help them find what they were looking for, the father then smiled at me in a suggestive way and asked if I could help them with underwear. The father (in front of his teenaged son, who looked uncomfortable the whole time) began asking me about myself. In between he would comment on my hair, on my smile, how pretty I was. I was a retail worker and the customer is always right, even when they make you uncomfortable. Finally he turned to his son and he said "that's it, there's that blush. A beautiful woman blushing is what men love" in this disturbing, sexual voice. -- Katrina, 20
"I was so angry because I didn't feel like I could stand up for myself for fear of my job..."
My experiences with sexual harassment at my retail job ranges from verbal to physical, [but] most of what I deal with is verbal and it comes from men of all ages. I've come to almost expect it from teens to middle-aged men, but the most surprising was from a much older man, around late 70s. As I walked to the register to ring up him and his wife, he looked me up and down and said "Ohhh, sexy" with a leering smile... I was so angry because I didn't feel like I could stand up for myself for fear of my job, or having worse reactions from the customer which could escalate the situation. -- Anonymous, 22
A male customer stalked me for several weeks late last year, culminating in an incident where he followed me around the shop shortly before close, casually showing me what appeared to be a gun tucked into his waistband. Some of my male coworkers told me I was exaggerating or that the guy “wasn’t so bad". Another, my manager at the time and one of the best men I’ve ever known, bought me a knife and taught me how to use it when I told him what had happened. -- Anna, 24
This happened when I was about 23 and working in a popular retail store that sells tea and tea accessories. I was alone in the store for a moment and a man comes in. He starts talking to me and I go into my usual sales pitch. Then he randomly gets really close to me and tells me that: "my tits are really great." He had gotten so close, almost touching me. After he left I was still shocked and shaking. I still remember that as one of the most humiliating things that has ever happened to me, and it makes me cringe every time I think about it. -- Yvonne, 27
During the holidays I'd wear a santa hat to work and a male coworker once asked if I would give him my hat and sit on his lap. And of course there were the guys who would ask me to massage their shoulders or feet while trying out the massage chairs/calf massagers. Once when I refused to massage a man's feet he asked "Isn't that what they pay you for? Why else would they have women working in here?" After working in retail for six years I vowed I never would again. Women working in retail are walking targets that can't defend themselves for fear of losing their lousy low paying jobs. -- Frieda, 29
I’m currently working at Starbucks, and as a 23 year old female, I come across all types of guys -men- older men. The good days are the days when they ask you if your single and why “a pretty girl like you is should be alone”. The not so good days are the ones where they feel free to touch you, a hand on your arm, an unwanted hug, a pat on my lower back, a pat on my backside. I can’t say that I’ve been sexually harassed on the highest level, still I feel like I should voice how inevitable it feels. -- Amanda, 23
I've had to deal with male customers who stop and comment on the fact that I rest on my knees while sticking our warehouse. My favorite is "you need to get up off those knees, girl." All while they stand and leer while licking their lips. I'm at work. I don't want to flirt with you. I want to do my job and go home. Unmolested and unbothered. I recently had a male coworker slap my behind with a fly swatter. One guy I work with offered to hold my hand because "I was blushing and clearly liked getting my butt spanked." I wasn't blushing. My ears and cheeks were red because I was mortified and angry. -- K, 24
I worked at a well-known hardware store and a guy came up and started hitting on me — just the usual comments about my appearance and asking for my number. When I said I wasn’t interested he got really pushy and demanded to know why. When he was ready to go he asked in front of some other staff members if I could help him carry his stuff out to his car. I didn’t feel like I could say no without looking like a bad employee, so I helped him out and he insisted on giving me his number and said cheerfully that he was a regular customer and he’d see me again. Ugh! -- Claire, 21