Bar staff are still being sexually harassed, even with social distancing

As a man grabbed her shoulder, Danni turned quickly in response to see what he wanted.

What the bar worker from London hadn’t expected was for one of her regular customers to lunge at her, forcing a kiss on her lips. 

‘As I whipped round to see who it was, he placed his hands on either side of my face and forcibly kissed me,’ she remembers. ’I felt completely humiliated, but I was also in so much shock that I had completely frozen and wasn’t in much of a position to respond.’

Although it’s never considered acceptable, being groped and sexually assaulted isn’t something new for those who work in hospitality. But since lockdown has eased and ever-changing social distancing rules put into place, shockingly, it’s still an all too common occurrence. 

In fact, despite hurtling towards a life of curfews and a potential second lockdown, the July 4 re-opening of the pubs has seen many women return to spaces where sexual harassment plagues them in their everyday work environment. 

In research published earlier this year, one in three women revealed they had been the victim of sexual harassment in the workplace, something specifically prominent within the hospitality industry, where ‘nine out of 10 hospitality workers have experienced sexual harassment at work’. 

However, in our new post-quarantine world, the risk posed by this sort of behaviour is now potentially more harmful than ever.

With the World Health Organisation (WHO) warning that coronavirus can thrive in close proximity, bar and restaurant staff facing harassment through unwanted touching could be at a higher risk. 

And while Boris Johnson announced that the public had a ‘natural desire to bring back normal life’, for many working professionals in hospitality this includes encountering and putting up with repeated harassment, which in theory could have fatal repercussions. 

19-year-old Danni (not her real name) reveals that as a bartender she’s experienced some form of harassment on almost every shift – pre and post-lockdown.  

‘It could be catcalling, customers of all ages flirting and trying to ask me out, despite me saying no, and even being touched by customers,’ she explains, adding that it has become an even bigger issue, despite the stringent social distancing rules.

‘This was a daily occurrence before quarantine, but now customers have become a lot more rowdy and boisterous, thinking they can get away with more because we need to keep our jobs – such as the regular who decided it would be totally fine to kiss me without my consent.

‘From my experence, as the pubs had closed for so long and many people drinking less over lockdown, it feels like alcohol tolerance has gone down over the last few months – so customers are starting to get drunk a lot quicker. Because of this their inhibitions and judgement have become more clouded and they act out a lot sooner, making staff put up with the harassment for longer.’

Danni adds,’The main feeling you get after being sexually harassed is one of dirtiness, and despite it not being your fault, it’s difficult not to feel ashamed of it.

‘Being touched by customers always makes me feel very uncomfortable and anxious, but now the more people harass me, the more likely it is that I could contract Covid-19, which is really scary.’

It may have been expected that due to increased social distancing protocols, including a 1-2 metre distancing rule, table service and masks, that harassment would decrease. But it hasn’t.

Instead, many women have already taken to social media to share their stories of being harassed while wearing masks. Kai Stone from the Good Night Out Campaign, an organisation that works with nightlife companies to understand and repsond to sexual harassment, says that ‘it is important to remember that harassers have no problem transgressing social rules, Covid related or not.

‘We have also already seen the new track and trace system being used by bar workers to harass women who have visited pubs by contacting them once they’ve left,’ she adds. 

However, sexual harassment is not just limited to touching and the invasion of personal space, it is also defined by microaggressions and hostile sexual comments which create an atmosphere of intimidation and discomfort.  

What is sexual harassment?

The Equality Act of 2010 defines sexual harassment as a person ‘A’ engaging ‘in unwanted conduct of a sexual nature’ towards another person ‘B’, specifically if this conduct has the purpose or effect of ‘violating B’s dignity’ or ‘creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for B.’

The Everyday Sexism project and Trade Union Congress’s report ‘Still Just A Bit Of Banter?’ defines sexual harassment behaviour as:

·         Indecent of suggestive remarks

·         Questions, jokes or suggestions about a colleague’s sex life

·         The display of pornography in the workplace

·         The circulation of pornography

·         Unwelcome and inappropriate touching, hugging or kissing

·         Requests or demands for sexual favours

It’s something 21-year-old Laura* from Bedford, who works in a restaurant, experienced with a colleague as soon as she returned to work after quarantine.

‘There was an incident where I was working and I dropped something between my legs and one of my colleagues, who I don’t know that much, made lots of inappropriate comments,’ she recalls. ‘He joked “Oh I’m not gonna go in-between your legs! Don’t wanna get in trouble” and “close your legs”.

‘I was embarrassed because other people heard, and I felt really put on the spot because I didn’t know how to react. Was I meant to laugh?’ she adds. ‘I thought the pandemic would make people a bit more considerate towards others, but this isn’t the case.’

Laura admits that comments like these have had a massive impact on how she views her body.

‘As someone who has always been curvy and had big boobs I’ve always felt my body being sexualised,’ she explains. ‘Especially when working behind the bar, it’s almost as if I’m expected to play the role of a sexy barmaid. I hate it and it’s made me sometimes hate my body’. 

Research has found that the impact on the mental health of women due to sexual harassment can be highly detrimental. According to a Victim Support submission to a government enquiry into workplace sexual harassment: ‘it can have lead to physical and emotional impacts, such as anxiety, difficulty sleeping, anger, depression, loss of appetite, headaches and nausea.’  

When it comes to reporting incidences of sexual harassment, Covid-19 has only exacerbated what has always been a difficult and complex process. With an approximated 320,000 job losses within the hospitality industry, businesses are trying to manage the financial hardships of the pandemic and young people are attempting to retain their income. ‘Because pubs have been shut for a long time, staff will put up with harassment and abuse due to the fact that we need to bring in as much money as possible to keep our hours up,’ admits Danni. 

Kai Stone says that fear also plays a massive part. 

‘People worry about not being believed or being blamed,’ she says. ’Maybe they’re scared of the harassment escalating, or don’t want to appear vulnerable or like they “can’t handle the heat”.’ 

However, Kai adds, the pandemic has thrown up a new hurdle when reporting. ‘There is also now an added issue of anonymity as masks may be used to hide the identity of the harasser, further dissuading women from reporting it to their bosses,’ she explains. 

It is clear that in our post-quarantine society there must be a renewed focus on employers to take sexual harassment seriously. 

According to Jana Morrin, co-founder and CEO of Speakfully, a platform that helps individuals document and report harassment, the best way to combat this kind of behaviour is to have ongoing conversations with employees about these tough topics.

‘Not just on the first day of hire, going through the employee handbook or annual training,’ she says.

Jana urges bosses to show employees that sexually harassment is a topic that needs regular discussion, regardless of whether we’re in the midst of a pandemic.

‘This way you’re creating a safe space for them to come forward sooner with any issues they are facing,’ she explains. ‘Plus it also demonstrates to those who might be behaving this way, that it won’t be ignored or tolerated.’

And with the added risk of a deadly virus literally on our hands, it’s more important than ever to tackle workplace sexual harassment. 

‘Of course, a person doesn’t necessarily need to break the social distancing rules in order to harass someone,’ says Jana.

‘But if they did, they could potentially spread an incredibly dangerous virus on top of everything else – and that’s a scary truth.’

Victim Support

Victim Support offers support to survivors of rape and sexual abuse. You can contact them on 0333 300 6389.

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