Even When Women Are Their Own Bosses, They Still Get Sexually Harassed At Work

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Ashley*, 34, saw herself having a long career as a massage therapist: she was committed to helping people heal. But in over a decade of mostly freelance work, she reports she was routinely harassed by her clients, many of whom assumed that her willingness to soothe their aching muscles implied an interest in providing sexual stimulation as well. “Boundaries were just not there,” she says, recalling some of her more forward clients. Over the years, Ashley says she was exposed to a wide range of harassment: Clients would make sexual comments, attempt to grope her, expose their genitals to her, and ask for erotic release. She tells me that one client even asked her for a prostate massage.

Although massage offers a powerful path toward wellness, Ashley says, “it is so often mixed up with sexual [requests], and people wanting more than what you think you’re going there for,” which can leave vulnerable massage therapists feeling violated.

Early on in her career, Ashley did on-call work, and she says she was often asked to go to hotel rooms to meet her clients. She says that when clients got inappropriate in those setups, there was literally no one to turn to. It was just Ashley, her harasser, and her massage table.

“I ultimately feel like I was pushed out of the industry.”

While she was technically self-employed, Ashley relied on management companies and studios to help her book clients. She says these companies rarely showed concern for her wellbeing. She claims that when she told one studio owner about an inappropriate client, he merely encouraged her to remind the client that the studio didn’t offer sexual services. “He put me back in the position where I had to deal with the person who had sexually harassed me and confront them,” Ashley says.

And that kind of response was par for the course: With the exception of one studio, Ashley alleges her the studios responsible for managing her clients routinely prioritized money over her wellbeing, refusing to ban clients who crossed lines or even taking on the task of reprimanding ill-behaved clients themselves.

A mother of two, she grew tired of feeling unsafe in her working environment; she’s now back in school, pursuing her bachelor’s degree and building up her graphic design portfolio. “I ultimately feel like I was pushed out of the industry,” Ashley says, telling me it’s hard for her to recall even a single instance of feeling like one of the studios she was working with cared about her safety.

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Ever since October 2017, when Jodi Kantor and Meghan Twohey of the New York Times broke the story of sexual assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein, and The New Yorker’s scathing expose followed suit, women have come forward to allege they have been harassed by powerful men in nearly every industry, from Hollywood to Washington, restaurants to radio, journalism to gymnastics. Time Magazine even gave their coveted “Person of The Year” nod to “The Silence Breakers” — including Taylor Swift, Rose McGowan, and the thousands of other women who have come forward in recent months to say, “#metoo”.

Yet there are still women who are struggling to chime in, either because they’re their own bosses, and thus their own HR departments, or because sexual harassment is often considered part of the job in their industries. Like Ashley, these women are often told to deal sexual harassment on their own, or given an unsatisfactory resolution to the problem.

But the time has come for change here, too. Even though they don’t necessarily have the same recourse as a movie star or even an intern at a startup, these women are also ready for a reckoning. Self-employed women and women in the service industry who rely on tips — massage therapists, writers, cocktail servers, hotel workers, and small business owners — all feel the power of this moment, and they are steadying and unifying their voices, preparing a powerful response.

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Many people think of workplace sexual harassment as something that takes place within the structure of an office environment: a place where there’s a chain of command and policies in place for reporting inappropriate encounters. But for many of us — whether we’re freelancers, small business owners, actors, artists, service workers, or members of the ever-expanding gig economy — the reality is vastly different. Sexual harassment isn’t the cubicle mate who asks you out or tries to show you porn. It’s the customer who makes sexual comments while you’re serving drinks or grabs your body without your consent. And, for me, it was a colleague who made a pass at me when I was only seeking career advice.

A few years ago, I was out for drinks with another creative, having one of those evening meet ups that are relatively common when you’re a freelancer. My colleague — a speaking agent with a rather impressive roster of clients — had invited me out to “talk shop” and give me a few tips on securing more speaking opportunities as a writer and activist. Although much of our conversation that evening was casual — updating one another on what we’d been up to since our last run in — I was nevertheless stunned when he started making sexual advances toward me.

My initial response was to demur, telling him I don’t like to mix my work life with my sex life. Undeterred, he pressed me further, telling me that in his industry, workplace hookups were common. I laughed it off, hoping he’d get the hint. He backed off, but only temporarily.

A week later, we were out for drinks again, this time with a person he’d promised to connect me to. Since she was considering representing me, I didn’t want there to be any surprises about my past; while explaining my work history to her, I made mention of some nude modeling I’d done ages ago.

“Where can I find the pics?” my colleague immediately interjected. When I told him they’d long disappeared from the internet, he sneered. “What, you think I can’t find them?”

Perhaps I should have yelled at him, but in that moment — caught between a manager I was trying to impress and a colleague intent on belittling me — I felt small. I felt stuck. And fighting back didn’t feel like an option.

This feeling of powerlessness is common for harassment victims who work in industries and companies that have a lot of female employees, but very few women at the top making decisions. For women in industries like food service (nearly 52 percent women) and personal care (almost 72 percent women), who rely on tips and reviews for cash and return customers, not having any recourse to report sexual harassment is particularly fraught. It’s not the same as being self-employed, but in many ways it’s much more complicated.

“Some people don’t even know that they’re being sexually harassed.”

Kasey*, 36, a Chicago-based cocktail server, has been slinging drinks in different casinos for the past 12 years. When she first started at age 23, she had no idea what the job would be like, but she quickly learned that it often involves more than handing out whiskey sodas.

She tells me she regularly experiences sexual harassment from her customers. Their offenses range from verbally assaulting her with come-ons like to groping and other unwanted sexual contact. “Earlier this year, a guy kissed my breast… I was serving another guest, and he came over and put his head in my cleavage and kissed it,” Kasey says. Rather than alert the management, she says she chose to handle the incident herself, scolding the guest and making it known that his behavior would not be tolerated. “If I didn’t have the guts to say something to him, other people would look at me as a slut,” she remarks, noting her concern that regular customers as well as management would judge her for not sticking up for herself, or worse, think that she enjoyed this sort of attention.

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Kasey recalls that during her first weeks on the job, a coworker responded to a patron’s harassment by telling her, “He’s a creep, but he tips real well.” She tells me that she felt like many of her colleagues assume that degradation and unwanted touch are just “what you have to endure to get the tip,” and in a workplace culture where bad behavior is largely tolerated, it can be difficult to push back. She says that if a trainer doesn’t instruct new hires that they’re allowed to push back when patrons overstep their bounds, most of them won’t say anything for fear of jeopardizing that evening’s tips — or, worse, their entire salary.

Kasey says that when she has reported abusive customers to managers in the past, the most common response is an offer to move her to a different section, which often just puts another server — usually a woman — at risk. “They’d rather remove you from the situation than fix the situation,” she tells me.

“I knew I needed a job, and so I endured it, and I got over it,” Kasey says of some of her more humiliating experiences of harassment. But figuring out a way to muddle through and manage on your own can take a toll on you.

“Some people don’t even know that they’re being sexually harassed,” Kasey explains, “They don’t even notice because it’s been happening for so long.”

In the eyes of Kasey and Ashley, their employers cared more about profit than protecting employees from sexual harassment. Scolding the customers in question meant potentially losing out on money, which is a risk few business owners are willing to take. But, when women are the business owners themselves and are also being sexually harassed, there is no way to push the issue aside.

Annie Weller has been self-employed as a marketing, advertising, and business coach for over 15 years. During that time, she says she has fielded her fair share of harassment from clients. "It’s gotten so bad,” Weller tells me, “Men just send me dick pics.” They also, she says, make dirty jokes, lewd sexual comments, and ply her with come-ons that make her deeply uncomfortable. “They think it’s just OK to call me at 11 o’clock at night [and invite me to a bar],” she says of some of her clients.

“Why is sexual harassment costing me money?”

In some ways, Weller is privileged: If a client makes her uncomfortable, she can just stop working with them. There’s no one who can force her to take a job she doesn’t want to do. But in other ways, being self-employed leaves her feeling isolated and alone, forcing her to handle the worst of the harassment all by herself. "I don’t have anybody that I can go to and say, 'This is what’s happening to me, how do I handle this situation? Can you interfere? How do we mediate this so that I don’t lose money?’” Weller tells me that one bad experience cost her close to six figures.

“It’s really hard to take care of yourself,” Weller says. “I’ve been an entrepreneur for over 15 years, and you have to navigate this system — it’s like playing a f-cking game. When is too much too much?”

But even with all her frustrations, Weller isn’t planning on abandoning her business any time soon. Although she once believed that working for a big company would shield her from the alleged harassment she experienced as a small business owner, a few years in a corporate position made her feel like that actually wasn’t the case. “I went into corporate America to protect myself, but really corporate America doesn’t protect you either,” she says.

Weller tells me that moving out of advertising and branding — an industry she described as “so effing racist and sexist” — has helped minimize her exposure to harassment. As has doing one-on-one assessments with potential clients before agreeing to take them on. But, she says, she still feels at risk of harassment when she’s on the job.

“The issue that I have is not clients so much anymore,” Weller tells me. It’s colleagues at networking events or potential subcontractors who pose the biggest threat. “Sometimes I just have to tell them, ‘Hey, that’s kind of inappropriate,’” she says.

When that gentle reminder doesn’t work, she tells me she is not afraid to turn to her lawyers, sending cease and desist letters to particularly persistent harassers. Generally, that strategy works for her — but, of course, it’s not cheap. “It cost me $1,500,” Weller says of a recent letter. “Why is sexual harassment costing me money?”

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For many women, the experience of harassment doesn’t just cause financial hardship, it also causes a permanent change in their outlook on work. I know this firsthand. The colleague who propositioned me over drinks wasn’t the only man who’s attempted to turn a work relationship into something more. Constantly trying to suss out whether someone is connected with you for professional purposes or just because they want to have sex with you or overpower you in some way is exhausting. It makes you paranoid. It takes away from your ability to be creative and ambitious. It eats away at your success at work.

“It adds another layer of stress,” Weller says of dealing with harassment, noting that in her advertising days, she’d often have to strategize ways to avoid being alone with certain clients — another task in addition to the creative work she was actually being paid for. It’s work on top of work, and a type of work men rarely have to take on.

It's no wonder, then, that self-employed women who experience sexual harassment are starting to speak up for themselves, and encouraging other women from all industries to help each other speak up, too. While Kasey, the casino worker from Chicago, hasn’t been able to resolve the issues of sexual harassment in casinos, she has worked with her local chapter of UNITE HERE to advocate for the rights of hotel housekeepers, 49 percent of whom report experiencing some form of sexual harassment from a guest. Earlier this year, they were victorious in passing legislation that requires all hotel housekeepers in Chicago wear “panic buttons” while on the job.

There’s another reason why what happens to self-employed, freelance, and service workers matters. According to a 2017 report commissioned by Upwork and The Freelancer’s Union, freelancers make up over 36 percent of the American workforce, and by 2027, the majority of American workers will be freelancers. A 2016 McKinsey study on independent work found similar trends. So, these aren’t just stories about some women in the past. If nothing changes, they’re likely to become the stories of many other women.

As the responses to allegations in other industries have taught us, there isn’t one-size-fits-all solution that will work for everyone, and getting to a place where every worker in every industry can begin their day confident that they’ll be able to do their jobs harassment-free is going to take a lot of innovation, ingenuity, and hard work. That said, many of the women I spoke to believe we’re on the right track. At the very least, sexual harassment is being recognized for what it is, and less likely considered to be the industry “norm.”

“I hope people recognize that sexual harassment happens everywhere, everyday,” says Ashley. “Unless we take an active role by standing up, we are allowing the problem to continue.”

*Last name omitted to protect her privacy.