Friendly customer service is not an invitation for physical contact

The intersection of consumer culture and rape culture can be a frightening place for service industry employees

Retail is not a contact sport. Illustration: Kitty Cheung/The Peak

By: Nicole Magas, Opinions Editor

Between the low pay and dealing with entitled Karens, many of us with experience in the service industry have harboured the secret fantasy of being hit by a bus on the way to work, just to avoid the torment. But by far the worst part of working in the service industry is the sheer amount of inappropriate and uncalled for touching. These surprising acts of physical contact take advantage of “customer experience” policies, and essentially make a captive audience of employees in these situations.

I’ll preface the following by mentioning that I’m not big on touch. Giving and receiving hugs among friends and family is about the biggest sign of trust I have to offer. It goes without saying that I have absolutely no tolerance for intentional physical contact given by strangers. The workplace is the absolute last place where I’d expect anyone to touch me in any way.

Which is why it was always such a paralysing shock to have customers overstep that boundary. Most of these instances were innocent holdovers from a previous generation. Older women mostly, who wanted to show their appreciation with a touch to my arm and a smile. I can’t say I understood it, but although it made me uncomfortable, those I could shrug off. Others were not so innocent. Men rubbing my back. Men jumping on me, jokingly asking for a piggy-back ride. Men pulling my obviously resisting self close for a kiss.

I worked alone at my store, so I didn’t have the benefit of coworkers jumping to my rescue. I did, however, report each instance of sexual harassment to security. After giving as accurate a description of the men as I could, I was asked what I was doing before the incident. When I answered that I was laughing at their shitty jokes, I was told not to let it happen again. 

Excuse me? Don’t let it happen again?!

Near the end of last year, several Disney World cast members reported incidences of inappropriate touching while on the job. One woman was injured when a guest insisted on patting her head, causing the headpiece of her costume to slip and strain her neck. Several other women were groped while giving requested hugs to guests. Security was later notified and the guests were detained, but I ask readers to consider the cast members in-the-moment, at their job in the “most magical place on Earth.” Do you think they felt it was in their power to shove these guests away, or do you think they had to endure the harassment until they could slip off and give their reports, all the while with the shameful thought in the back of their heads that they had “let it happen?”

This attitude demonstrates the insidious overlap between consumer culture and rape culture. For service employees, jobs are precarious. Retail employees and wait staff in particular often rely on commissions and tips, meaning the more people buy, the more groceries we can put in the fridge at the end of the week. This means that friendly, attentive customer service is not only demanded by management, but often necessary for economic survival. Unfortunately, it also follows that when customers make service employees uncomfortable — either with verbal abuse or unwanted touching — they have little choice but to grin and bear it. The fact that even security at my workplace did not read my situations as ones of harassment with a clear aggressor shows how little power service employees have in determining their own workplace boundaries. 

The demands of capitalism and neoliberal ideologies require employees — especially those in precarious service jobs — to commit themselves fully to their roles in the company, with little regard for their own safety or comfort. Unfortunately, this means being friendly to aggressive customers even when warning flags and alarms are blaring. It means not causing a scene when a customer refuses to take “no” for an answer on that backrub offer. And at times it can mean trapping employees between a rock and a hard place when fear for their economic security triggers the societal judgement of “they were asking for it.”