The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Take off your mask’: Boorish customers have found a way to make sexual harassment even more of a hazard

(iStock)

The upside to wearing a mask at work was that at least it would curtail the harassment. As a server, Sandy Tran was used to unwanted comments on her appearance, but the coronavirus precautions enforced by her Dallas restaurant now required full-time face coverage — a literal barrier between Tran and creepy customers.

Then she heard the first iteration of what would become a refrain:

“Take off your mask,” the diner instructed her while she took his order one afternoon. “I want to see your beautiful smile.”

“If I do it, it makes me seem like I have no respect for myself,” Tran thought, weighing her options. “But if I don’t, he’s going to leave me a bad tip.” Before the pandemic, Tran could make $200 a night. Now she often went hours into her shift without seating a single customer, and her base pay was $2.13 an hour. She needed the money. So from a six-foot distance, she pulled down her mask. She felt “like a circus animal,” standing there while the customer pressed her to tell him her ethnicity, saying she was a “beautiful mix.”

“Take off your mask,” a man ordered Drew Allison after she served him at the bar where she works in Knoxville, Tenn. “I want to see your face; maybe you have moles under there.” The statement was so bizarre that Allison obeyed without thinking, briefly pulling her mask below her chin. Only later did she realize the implication: If the man found her attractive enough, he planned to tip her more. From then on, when a male customer requested she take off her mask — and it kept happening — it almost felt like he was asking her to take off her shirt.

One Fair Wage, a campaign dedicated to ending sub-minimum wages nationwide, released a study last week detailing how workers in the service industry were faring in the pandemic. Across the board, One Fair Wage found diminished wages and increased health-related fears, which it had expected. It hadn’t expected a rise in sexual misconduct. But 40 percent of respondents said that harassment — always an issue in an industry in which low-wage workers rely on tips (and are taught that the customer is always right) — had gotten worse during the pandemic. The mask, meant to protect essential hourly workers, had instead become a doorway to harassment.

“ ‘Take off your mask’ really means expose yourself to the risk of death,” said One Fair Wage Executive Director Saru Jayaraman, “so that I may judge you.”

Tips are ‘way down’ in restaurants. Sexual harassment is up, a new study shows.

I spent a day talking to servers and bartenders about the times that customers had asked them to remove their masks: The way the request was delivered as a flirt but landed as a threat. The fact that male customers might not realize how much power their demands had over the livelihoods of their female waitstaff — or worse, that they might be fully aware. The way the masks seemed to dehumanize servers in the eyes of their customers — now that workers’ frowns and grimaces were made invisible, customers could pretend they didn’t exist, blowing past any sense of shame that might previously have held them in check. The way that when they refused, they were yelled at, called derogatory names and left with unpaid bills.

“I don’t know how to say to them, ‘I don’t think you understand that your request is worse than you think it is,’ ” said Liz Brooks, who works with Allison in Knoxville.

“The men seem to think it’s charming,” said Haeli Maas, a bartender in Lawrence, Kan. “But the way they say it — take off your mask — the connotation becomes something dirty. I’m 22. These men are in their 50s, and they’re saying to me, ‘You’re really pretty. I wish you didn’t have to wear that mask.’ ”

Before the pandemic, these men might have been ogling her anyway; she knows that. But “Take off your mask” had made the transaction explicit. These men weren’t even trying to hide their staring. They were making it clear that they felt entitled to her face, and they saw providing it as part of her job.

This pandemic has changed behaviors, routines and social mores. It’s tempting to read “Take off your mask” as a new form of harassment — something that will, like most of 2020, hopefully drift away once we have a vaccine, once we can stop wearing masks, once restaurants are back at capacity.

But what “Take off your mask” really does is make explicit a power imbalance that’s always been there. It is one group of people announcing, in the starkest possible terms, that their viewing pleasure is more important than another group’s personal safety.

“In a way, it’s refreshing to finally have that level of honesty, finally,” Brooks said. “We’ve dropped the pretense that this is not a looks-based profession. I have regulars who have said to me, ‘I really only came in here because you looked pretty.’ And now we can have a conversation about how my literal paycheck now depends on how well I can contour my face or do my hair.”

She tries to refuse customers’ orders to take off her mask. But she feels like something has been exposed anyhow: the darker secrets of her industry, the expectations that before went unspoken. “It’s all out in the open now.”

Monica Hesse is a columnist writing about gender and its impact on society. For more visit wapo.st/hesse.

Loading...