Catherine Bryant has had to put up with every kind of harassment in restaurants. (Lydia DePillis/The Washington Post)

After nine years working as a waitress, mostly at a chain of restaurants in suburban Memphis, Catherine Bryant knows how to deal with lascivious customers, the leers and whistles and lewd looks. She’d evade them and seek to serve better-behaved customers.

But working at establishments that can attract rowdy customers with big drinks and flashy happy hours, Bryant always had something else on her mind: tips. In Tennessee, as in 20 other states, restaurant workers can receive as little as $2.13 an hour, far below the minimum wage, with the rest expected to be made up through gratuities.

For workers like Bryant, the choice sometimes boiled down to overlooking inappropriate behavior, or protesting at the risk of lost wages.

“I know I should have my dignity, this is a professional job, I shouldn’t really have to whore myself out,” says Bryant, who now lives in Washington. ”But if he’s buying 12-year-old whiskey, it could be a very precarious situation. If I say ‘Hey, treat me with respect,’ and he says, ‘What a bitch, I’m just not going to tip her,’ … you lose all of your money.”

That situation is at the center of a provocative new argument being pushed by labor activists seeking to highlight how, in states that allow it, the existence of the tipped minimum wage imperils waiters and other restaurant employees who serve customers.

In a new report, the Restaurant Opportunities Center — an activist group that has received funding from unions, foundations and the Labor Department — surveyed 688 workers in person and online and found that tipped workers experienced harassment at higher rates than non-tipped workers. They also found that all workers in states with a lower tipped minimum wage were more often harassed than those that have the same minimum wage for everyone.

The survey results are far from authoritative, but the group uses them to argue for a reconsideration of the tipped minimum wage in an industry that reportedly generates more than a third of sexual harassment suits to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

“Depending on customers’ tips for wages discourages workers who might otherwise stand up for their rights and report unwanted sexual behaviors,” the report reads. “By devaluing individual human worth and dignity, and by reinforcing a financial power dynamic that renders workers vulnerable, sexual harassment, and the environment that supports it, opens the door to the sexual violence that some workers reported experiencing.”

The new report comes as labor groups have been pushing for years to end the tipped minimum wage, which they have attacked as unreliable and unfair. The food service industry is fighting back, with campaigns in many states to protect it.

The National Restaurant Association brushed off the report, saying that it was biased and unrigorous.

“The assertion from ROC that the tipped wage somehow increases sexual harassment by customers is another effort to confuse the reality of the tipped wage in the industry,” said spokeswoman Katie Laning Niebaum.

The restaurant association argues that servers make very healthy wages overall, “regularly earning” between $16 an hour for entry-level waiters and $22 for the more experienced.  (The Bureau of Labor Statistics disagrees, saying waiters and waitresses made a median wage of $8.92 per hour in 2012*.)

The potential connection between tips and harassment has some academic support. A 2008 article in the Journal of Aggression and Violent noted research on how salespeople respond less assertively to sexual misbehavior from customers when commissions are at stake. Last year, an interview-based masters thesis in sociology on the experience of female servers in sports bars found that “their structure of compensation influenced servers’ ability to end unwelcomed interactions with customers.”

“The theory behind it is solid,” says Miranda Kitterlin, an assistant professor of hospitality and tourism management at Florida International University, who has written about the prevalence of sexual harassment in the restaurant industry. “Tipped employees specifically, they are in essence acting, or they’re on stage. They have to modify their responses.”

That’s the theory — but there isn’t much in the way of quantitative research behind it.

Michael Lynn, a professor of consumer behavior and marketing at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration who specializes in tipping patterns, questioned the new report’s conclusions, saying that other factors might explain the apparent correlations. (Lynn personally favors eliminating the tipped minimum wage.)

“This is going to sound horrible, but it may not be that they’re tipped is what’s going on — it may be that they’re more attractive,” Lynn said, of the finding that tipped employees are harassed more by colleagues and management as well as guests. Employers do tend to select good-looking people for front-of-the-house positions, which could account for the discrepancy, he explained.

Lynn has similar doubts about the notion that employees in states with tipped wages report harassment more than those in states with a flat minimum for everyone. Perhaps customers in those states are just more educated and less likely to treat waitstaff with disrespect, he suggests.

Here’s what Bryant, the Memphis waitress who recently moved to Washington, knows: Things have gotten better since she moved last winter and started working in fancier restaurants. She just started at a popular new place on Washington’s booming 14th Street NW.

Fine dining isn’t perfect, she says, but there are at least higher standards for professionalism, and more of a focus on the food itself rather than the person serving it. Word of misconduct gets around quickly in the high-end world, and losing a trained server matters.

“It’s not a small business, but it’s not a Red Lobster either. They don’t want to tarnish their reputation,” Bryant says. “Now, if something were to happen, I would definitely feel safe.”

* Corrected from a previous version, which had said the $8.92 figure was an average. It is a median.