Waitressing: The Edge of Sex Work

When we talk of the sex industry, we tend to think of it as a defined thing:  brothels and lap dancing clubs; escorts and strippers.  In the last decade the sex workers rights movement has expanded to become a major trend within feminism, premised on the basis that selling sexual services is work like any other and that the most appropriate way to deal with the known abuses within the industry is under a narrative of worker rights, with unionisation and employment protections for participants. The waitressing industry, which has no necessary ties with the sex industry, but which interfaces with it  provides an interesting case study.

The sex industry isn’t neatly bounded.  We tend to pretend it is , and most discussions centre on its most obvious incarnations, but just as all other industries bleed into one another, so too does the sex industry.  Both the size and the acceptability of the industry have grown in the West over the last few decades and with it its overlap into other areas.  On the one side, you see those who would not usually be considered part of the sex industry finding sex industry narratives being pulled into their job description; at the other you see people interfacing with the industry as part of other employment.

The demand for women to be sexually attractive (to men) and sexually available (for men) is part of the sex industry narrative.  Its certainly not a new thing at all, but with the rise in the explicit demand for wo(men) in the sex industry to be considered under a workers rights framework, it is worth exploring cases where other employment meets employment in the sex industry, and here they melt into one another.

Waitressing is a relatively low skill job frequently done by young women to pay their way while waiting for something better to come along.  It was a job which sustained me for years while a student.  The highlight of my waitressing career was blagging my way into a silver service job at Ascot with absolutely no fucking idea of what to do and managing to spill gravy down the Chief Executive of John Lewis’s trousers in the process, but most of the work that I did was far more mundane, with sore feet and aching arms for my troubles.

None of the jobs that I did (other than the Ascot one, in which I lasted less than half an hour before getting fired) could have been considered in the slightest bit glamorous, comprising greasy spoons and motorway service stations. but in all of them it was mainly young women who were my co-workers, and a contingent of young women in an obvious service role become sexualised.  Sexual harassment was an ongoing part of the job.  The very fact that the role is gendered – waitress compared to waiter, gives an immediate clue that sexuality is part of the service.

There is the very obvious sexualisation of waitressing, in the form of topless waitressing, which is most usually found in establishments which are clearly sex industry orientated, but more interesting is where there is no explicit sex industry narrative, that the establishment is marketed primarily as an eaterie, and the waitressing is garnish

One of the most (in)famous instances of the sexualisation of waitressing is the Hooters chain of restaurants, where staff are required sign a disclaimer on accepting the job stating that, “I do not find my job duties, uniform requirements or work environment to be offensive, intimidating, hostile or unwelcome“.  Although the uniforms are not obviously “sexy” in the traditional sense, the tight tops and shorts are designed to show off female assets and the pre-shift “image check” involves the women being assessed front and back by managers to make sure that they are “presentable”.

The name and logo itself hints at this sexualisation, with “Hooters” being a double entendre on the owl motif and on a slang term for breasts, which the logo is emblazened across;the double “o”, has a crude resemblance to cartoon breasts, and at the same time, this double “o” also comprises the eyes of the owl in an exaggerated form, giving permission to stare.  The message is clear.  The breasts are there as an integral part of the restaurant’s brand, central to its image, and there to be stared at.

Some establishments are not quite so crude in their sexualisation of their waitresses.  A recent case with the Borgata casino, where part of the contract of employment was that the employees were to gain no more than 7% of their weight at the time that they were hired had seen 25 women disciplined under these regulations.  When 22 cocktail waitresses filed a lawsuit for discrimination, the judge ruled that as they were described as “babes”, and had accepted that label, they had de facto agreed to become sex objects and that the employment regulations were fair.

The Borgata Babe program has a sufficient level of trapping and adornments to render its participants akin to ‘sex objects’ to the Borgata’s patrons, nevertheless, for the individual labeled a babe to become a sex object requires that person’s participation.

 Ruling of Superior Court Judge Nelson Johnson

These examples are both from the United States which has a strong culture of “tipping” in service work, where it is expected that in addition to the charge paid, money will be given to the service worker as an sign of appreciation, and when you get the dynamic where men pay and women serve, a sexualised power dynamic emerges, for as someone suggests to Mr Pink who refuses to tip because the girl wasnt anything special – “Whats special?  If they take you round the back and suck your dick?”

Jay Porter, who runs a fixed service charge restaurant, makes some interesting observations on this dynamic – that the majority of people who object most vocally to the fixed charge are middle aged men.  That sexuality becomes an unstated part of the service and that tipping reinforces a dynamic whereby women (as waitresses) are paid to provide sexual entertainment for men (as customers).

Where sexualised service meets payment, you start to get a sex industry dynamic, and it is clear that the sex industry bleeds into the waitressing industry, whereby women are expected to accept their sexualisation either explicitly through contractual obligations, such as with Hooters, implicitly through accepting of labels which imply sexualisation, like Borgata, or tacitly where women seek, consciously or otherwise, to maximise their income by playing to the sexualised expectations of their customers.

In extending the narrative of worker rights to the sex industry, we also implicitly bring the sex industry into the narrative of worker rights.  A key element of worker rights is the right not to be discriminated on the basis of sex, sexuality or gender and to be free of sexual harassment, but where there is an expectation that waitresses will use their sexuality to attract customers, that boundary as an overarching aim is breached, each boundary then renegotiated on a case by case basis of how much sexualisation is expected, how much an employee is prepared to accept the objectification and what acts – such as accepting the characterisation of “babe”, or being prepared to work under a tipping system is evidence that they have indeed de facto accepted this.

In a world where women are continually sexually objectified and demands are put on them to be available for men’s sexual service, using a worker rights narrative to demand rights for women who choose to engage with the sex industry is to risk drawing women who wish not to commercialise their sexuality being drawn into that dynamic, as the basic protections of non-discrimination and freedom from harassment are eroded in favour of individual negotiations of gendered power in a world where they are structurally disempowered.

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