In the summer of 1991, I was a very innocent 15 year-old with the remnants of childish plumpness on my face and the suggestion of womanly plumpness on my figure. I had just completed grade 10 at a private Christian school and was starting my first job as a hostess and cashier at a local 24-hour restaurant. Over the next few weeks I was subjected to relentless sexual harassment: comments on my figure, sexist jokes and innuendo, and outright sexual propositions. The kitchen was staffed by coarse young men, all around their mid-twenties, who were clearly gratified by teasing a sweet young girl with their vulgar running commentary.
In the wake of the #MeToo movement, women’s stories such as this one have become a familiar narrative. With one important difference: after recovering from my initial sense of awkwardness and embarrassment, I found the sexual banter empowering, exciting, and even—gasp!—funny. I started to realize that if the line cooks threw a sexual joke or comment to me, I was invited to throw one back to them. I soon realized that, although one of them would proposition me a number of times during an eight hour shift, I had the power to reject him—not just reject him but to do so with a playful insult that then made him the butt of jokes along the short order line for the rest of the shift.
What I learned that summer was that the adult world was often about sex. I learned that I didn’t need to be afraid of it. I learned that I had a lot more power over men than I originally thought—not simply because, as a cute young thing, I was awakening to my own feminine sexuality and realized how keenly the guys wanted me to like them, but because I had more power than I realized to reject their advances, to assert my sense of sexual agency not because it was a private and protected part of me, but precisely because it was so openly commented upon.
What I realized, too, is that these exchanges weren’t offensive, they were playful; that they weren’t demeaning, but led to mutual respect. It was the very indecency of the back of house culture that made working at that 24-hour restaurant a tolerable job, and it was all the vulgar insults of the workplace that gave a kind of gritty dignity to our work there. Working there one became part of family. Flouting the rules that govern social niceties, which had to be observed carefully in the restaurant dining room, was the initiation into the clan. What I’ve learned since that summer is that the culture of that greasy spoon kitchen has a rich anthropology; it’s the type of community that populates the taverns of Shakespeare’s plays, for instance, and it functions in direct opposition to officialdom. Its currency is an abundance of filthy light-heartedness, and its economy subverts the normative claims of merit and respectability, those two pillars of social authority and middle-class morality. In the kitchen, the more horrible you are, the better! The profane and free culture of the kitchen was the antidote to the polite restraint of the dining room, as it is to ethic of rigid inoffensiveness that governs our politically correct culture.
What I experienced that summer are two related but distinct aspects of feminine sexual empowerment. The first was an awareness that it is the dirty jokes and sexual jibes of anti-official cultures that allow its members to feel a closeness to each other; it is a kind of solidarity achieved through a laughing disregard for formal decency. The sexual language of the back of house erased the social divisions that would normally demand our politeness. (Some of the line cooks were high-school dropouts; a few had criminal records. I was the daughter of civil engineer, attending private school, and on a fairly streamlined track to academic studies. And yet here I was, being teased by these guys, and in turn jabbing back at them, tit for tat.) What would now be considered clear-cut sexual harassment was the very thing that forged a true respect amongst us: the guys in the kitchen believed I was tough enough to take their insults. It was in their very coarseness that they treated me with honesty and equality. Treating me as a fragile young woman too delicate to handle their dirty comments, now that would be have been insulting!
The other component of female strength that I discovered that summer was the power inherent in my sexual self-restraint, or what historically has been known as “feminine virtue.” I’m certainly not advocating for any notion of sexual purity or for some cult of female chastity. Rather, what I’m suggesting is that there is a uniquely feminine power to say either yes or, as was the case with me, no. I felt connected to women’s history in a way we don’t hear about often today: I am empowered as a woman because I am a woman. I began to understand that feminine virtue instructs men in masculine virtue. At times, I returned a sexual comment not with another insult, but with an eyeroll, and sometimes I’d assert myself not by outdoing a dirty remark, but by activating codes of gallantry and manliness. A blush and a quiet “Alright. That’s enough,” would change the tone of the kitchen banter entirely. In contrast to the dining room where a polite separation existed between staff and customers, in the kitchen intimacy was displayed not just through insults but also through gentleness, and through gentlemanliness—and all it took was a blush! Resting on my feminine “weaker” nature was the way to control the social dynamic of the “toxic masculinity” of the back of house culture.
Before I go any further, I should make one thing clear: at 15 I was virginal and innocent, but I was in no way naïve—the constant crackling of the sexual tension in the kitchen of that 24-hour restaurant was instructive to me in other important ways: though I was beginning to develop a clear sense of my feminine power, I realized I was not invulnerable to predatory masculine sexuality. A large part of my tutelage that summer was in street smarts. Occasionally a table of men would come in who were real pigs. Not part of the working tribe, they had no claim to insult me with impunity. Their comments were often disgusting, and it was a humiliating experience—for them! I had by then learned the power of female scorn, and it worked pretty effectively to shut down lewd comments. Most of the time. Rarely, but occasionally, at the end of a shift, one of these men would still be lounging in a booth, drinking coffee and smoking without much else going on. I don’t know if any one of these guys ever posed an actual threat to me or to my female co-workers. We never took the chance to find out. If a shift ended late and it was dark out and one of the girls’ car was parked at the far end of the lot, she would ask one of the cooks or male servers to walk her out. And they always behaved like gentlemen when they did so—though they very likely were “harassing” us during the shift. This wasn’t seen by any of us as unfair or a double standard or in any way remarkable. It was just good common sense. As far as I know, even though that restaurant was open 24 hours and every night there would always be a rowdy post-midnight rush after the local bars shut their doors, not once was a female staff assaulted at work or while leaving it.
Yes, I have other female friends who weren’t so fortunate, and it ought to go without saying that the men who assaulted them should be subjected to the fullest rigour of the law. There is a tremendous difference, however, between coarse co-workers and dangerous misogynists; a difference between colleagues who tell a dirty joke and those who use coercion to elicit sex. Losing the ability to appreciate nuance is not a triumph of moral progress. It is stupidity masquerading as enlightenment. If we elide the two, then it is true that women will no longer feel the confusion and embarrassment I felt during my first couple of shifts. But we will also eliminate the opportunity for women to embody a position of strength and maturity that is only possible when confronted with sexual advances. There was nothing special about me as a 15 year-old girl. My sense of myself as a strong, free woman developed as a direct result of being subjected to the propositions of my coworkers. I said no. A lot. Saying no did not cause the jokes and the indecency to stop. Far from it. That part of restaurant culture remained very much alive. It was in fact an essential part of the health of the restaurant—funny though that sounds today—because it was accompanied by joy and toughness, and because it helped me to understand the power of my feminine sexual virtue. It felt like a superpower.
Contemporary feminism insists that the ideals of feminine virtue were a trick played on women by the patriarchy in order to keep female sexuality under control. Yet what I learned that summer was the opposite: my feminine virtue, traditionally understood, allowed me to control men. Women throughout the centuries have not primarily understood themselves as victims of patriarchal oppression—all one has to do is look to Jane Austen’s plucky heroines, or Shakespeare’s witty bar-wenches, or Chaucer’s sexual dynamo the Wife of Bath. But since the 1980s, young women, and men, have increasingly been taught that this has been the case, and we retroactively reinterpret the narratives of the past in order to reconfirm our own sense of moral progress. This has resulted, however, not in women becoming stronger, but rather in a pervasive culture of victimhood. One can’t be virtuous by the old standards, since those were devised by men to keep women oppressed, and one can’t claim to embody feminine virtue in itself, because that would essentialize gender, and we now know that gender is socially constructed. The only avenue left is to claim righteous indignation at the mistreatment of women by men. This is the narrative of perpetual victimization. It is a story of despair—plus it isn’t much fun!
Of course, a reasonable objection to the kind of sexually saturated culture I’m describing here is that an individual should be treated as a professional in their job, not as any kind of representative of gender and certainly not as a sexual object. Professional androgyny is the ideal. Yet I can’t think of a more Orwellian nightmare than everyone becoming reduced to their job, to their function in the service of… what? Corporate gain? Bureaucratic convenience? To their utility? As though the highest aim of humanity is to be treated as the mere conduit of some professional task?
Since my time at that restaurant, I have experienced professional sexual discrimination, and assault. I understand what it feels like. And I understand what a dirty joke feels like. If we have lost the ability to distinguish between the two, then there we are either a society of frankly stupid people who are calling a social triumph what is actually our inability to differentiate between coercive sexual threats and a kind of proletarian sexual rambunctiousness, or we are moving toward administrated and alienating human relations with a kind of gleeful despair. We are defining as justice what is really our transfer of sovereignty to impersonal and inhumane bureaucratic systems of authority.
If we maintain that a world without sexual commentary of any kind is better than a world in which one has to negotiate sexual advances—oh, the horror!—for oneself, then we are denying our young girls the opportunity to become strong, tough, and independent women who are capable of handling adult sexuality. If a joke is too much for us, then feminism has lost and it is time to bring out the Victorian fainting couch. When we enforce codes of behaviour that punish any kind of sexual suggestion or innuendo, we encourage the encroachment of officialdom, the rules that govern the polite formalities of the dining room, into the spaces that have traditionally operated in opposition to rigid authority. Human closeness and real respect is lost. And in its place reigns the totalitarian regime of institutionalized inoffensiveness.
It may be that contemporary consciousness raising feminism does not respect women, for it sees them as incapable of nuance and of being able to handle sexual situations. The coarse short order cooks who harassed the young 15 year-old hostess weren’t feminists. But they acted on the very premise that feminists once claimed as their own: they treated my younger self as someone tough enough to handle my own sexuality.
Marilyn Simon is a Shakespeare scholar and university instructor. She is currently working on a book on Shakespeare, Eros, and Female Agency.