Abbey Parrish has worked in the food service industry off and on since she was 16. She has an array of stories about on-the-job harassment: There was the time, while she was working at a restaurant when she was in college, when a delivery driver told her in detail about how he wanted to “eat out of” her belly button; or, before that, while working at a Barnes & Noble Starbucks, a regular customer one day called her his “Tinkerbell” and “little princess”—listing “all these weird sexual fetishes of this little thing that he wanted to take advantage of,” she says.
Another time at the aforementioned restaurant, a customer came in to order a drink. “I turned around and he started talking about my ass, and it was super disgusting and degrading,” she says.
Her male co-worker and manager were both standing nearby. “He looked at both and was like, ‘Yeah man, right?’ And gave them the moment to even just disagree… [but] both of them were like, Yeah, and one hundred percent agreed.”
“It’s the worst feeling,” she says, “where it’s just like everyone is against me and I have to keep my guard up all the time.”
For the most part, though, Parrish says she was happy in these jobs despite the harassment—and she’s quick to point out various complexities of these power dynamics within those environments: One summer, while hostessing at a restaurant in New York’s Lower East Side, she overheard some bar patrons next door describing in detail some vile things they wanted to do to her body, which deeply upset her, so she told her manager. He, incidentally, “had a huge crush” on her, she says; he protected her, got angry, and went next door and flipped a few tables. “Everyone was really nice to me at that bar” after that, she says.
Sometime later, though, she and her manager hooked up after a night out. “I was into him so it wasn’t bad, but he took advantage of his position,” she says, adding that he was much older. “Older men who are in positions of power don’t get that even if it’s consensual it’s exploitative, ‘cuz even though I was into him I couldn’t say no. I would be really uncomfortable and really in a not good position if I turned him down.”
Few women can simply quit their jobs over sexual harassment—this is a huge problem in the service and hospitality industries, which are often staffed by women and people of color, poor people and people who exist at any of those intersections.
Another problem Parrish has observed in that environment is that even asking a manager for a raise or a small promotion often seemed fruitless—despite her and her various coworkers putting up with customers and other coworkers’ dehumanizing actions.
“For the amount of time and energy these managers and employers take putting pressure on us and sexualizing us and focusing on our physical attributes, none of it is spent on pushing us intellectually, or even paying attention to our intellect—just sexualizing it,” she says. “If you know a few facts they’ll be like, ‘Oh she’s smart, she’s hot,’ that’ll be it.”
There was a constant undertone of men not taking her or her ambition seriously because they were too focused on her appearance and how she presents herself. It was akin to how she felt in college—when she started making huge paintings about “awkward sexual encounters” the more it seemed like male peers hit on her. “I’m just trying to be with the big boys here with big paintings,” she says.
“I want you to recognize me as an intellectual.”
Some of the harassment she has experienced—whether in the service industry, gallery settings, or project management positions—has informed her thinking on what a fair work environment should look like for herself and others. When she co-ran Platform Gallery with Lydia Pettit (who’s also my friend), their collaborations with artists were built upon standards of “caring about people and seeing the value in everyone.”
Parrish thinks that putting more women in charge could help some work environments change for the better—but the solution is not that simple when the problems of power and punishment are so complicated.
“The problem for a lot of these women is we don’t have a safe space to talk about this without it coming back and biting us in the butt,” she says.
She dreams of a work environment with better infrastructure—where victims of harassment can feel safe coming forward, and be met with openness. “I think a lot of people are on the defense, especially within job scenarios,” she says, “which is why it’s such a toxic environment for talking and being open about it.”
“We’re all just people,” she says. “People want to be treated with general respect. That’s what we’re fighting for.”