A glance, a comment, a touch — all unwanted. Slight and simple, but fully loaded, these are just some of the behaviors that Houston women say they experienced working in the restaurant industry. Some women reported specific incidences to superiors, only to later be blamed and retaliated against. Others stayed silent because they thought the culture they were experiencing wasn’t worth mentioning, that they shouldn’t bother trying, and that the only way to keep their job was to keep quiet.

Paulina, who has asked that her last name be withheld, was 19 when a co-worker physically assaulted her in a northwest Houston restaurant where she worked as a server. Paulina said she felt uncomfortable around two back-of-house workers almost immediately. At first, “it was just the way they would look at me,” she said, but the stares escalated to verbal and physical harassment after one of the cooks grabbed her butt.

Another woman, who spoke with FPH on the condition of anonymity, was picking up her server tray off the bar in a Woodlands pub when a customer “slapped my ass so hard, it was like he hit his wrist into me,” she explained. At first she thought it was another waitress — it would not have been the first time — but she turned around to face a male customer. The woman asked the manager to tell the customer to leave, but the manager ignored her request and instead asked the offender to apologize. He seemed undeterred, she said, “I went out there and this guy like laughed at me.”

The Houstonians are two of thousands of women across the country who have reported experiencing on-the-job harassment in a restaurant or bar. The industry is a hotbed for harassment and abuse — worse than any other, according to a damning slew of data from the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission published by BuzzFeed earlier this month.

Sexual harassment in the restaurant industry is “endemic,” says the Restaurant Opportunities Center. The organization found that two-thirds of women have experienced sexual harassment from restaurant managers, co-workers and customers.

The deluge of media exposing sexually violent, aggressive and inappropriate conduct committed by celebrities like Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein and an indefinite list of restaurant impresarios, including John Besh, Ken Friedman and Mario Batali, has prompted a nationwide discussion about the creepers who prey on workers in offices and kitchens across the country. The unmasking of these sexual predators has effectively yanked down a curtain that thinly veiled an American workplace steeped in toxic masculinity.

But a flood of accusations like those directed at ex-Senator Al Franken, who resigned from Congress after allegations that he groped and made advances on at least six women, have called into question the meaning of sexual harassment, the difference between violence and impropriety, and the validity of claims from thousands who say they’ve endured violent or offensive sexual behavior at work.

And from the woman who reported Besh, to the thousands who have shared their experiences of sexual harassment online via the #MeToo campaign, those reporting sexual misconduct are being scrutinized, minimized or undermined.

Paulina reported her assault to one of the restaurant’s owners, a woman she trusted who ultimately told the then-teenager that she was responsible for the man’s behavior. “She told me it was my fault for being in the kitchen too much, for being too friendly, for talking too much,” Paulina recounted.

A culture of victim blaming is often inextricable from environments where passing comments or remarks are normalized as what the ROC described as “kitchen talk.”

“It’s those seemingly innocuous comments” that make women feel they have no choice but “to accept a certain level of invasion of personal space or disrespect,” said a former employee of California Pizza Kitchen in the Galleria. Juliet, who has asked that her last name be withheld, said one manager was consistently “making inappropriate advances and displaying inappropriate behavior.”

The manager’s behaviors included actions like “standing a little bit too close behind you or coming up behind you with no words until you turned around and suddenly you’re face-to-face with him,” said Juliet, “unwanted physical contact like placing his arm around you, putting his hand on the small of your back is a little too close for comfort.”

For fear of retaliation or losing her job, she said nothing at first. “I thought it was just the cost of doing business,” she explained. Ultimately she confided in another manager who she felt she could trust. But Julia said that manager brushed off the offending manager’s behavior as “just his way.” California Pizza Kitchen did not return Free Press Houston’s request for comment.

In addition to dealing with harassment from co-workers and managers, women who make their living from tips are often faced with the difficult reality of either enduring customer abuse or not paying the bills. Sixty-six percent of women in the industry rely on tips to make an often scant living.

The situation may worsen for women who rely on tips to pay the bills if the Department of Labor’s proposed tip-pooling regulations go into effect. The new rule would allow restaurant owners to pool all restaurant employees’ tips and then distribute the earnings as they like. The rationale is that the shift would more equitably distribute earnings between front and back-of-house staff, but critics say such a system only works if operated in the hands of honest proprietors who won’t bank the tips for themselves.

Meanwhile, advocates are urging industry leaders to call out aggression when they see it and promote a workplace culture where employees (especially women and LGBTQ+ folk) don’t feel the need to shower after a creepy day at work. Jen Agg, a Toronto-based restaurateur, chef and award-winning author, recently wrote that the onus for change is not on women, who may face retaliation for whistleblowing, but on the penis-wielders in power.

“Unless men in the restaurant industry, and in all industries, join the ranks, systemic change will never happen,” cautioned Agg in a recent piece for The New Yorker.

When looks and words make employees uncomfortable, they reflect the same imbalance of power that enables rapists and allows sexual assault to continue. Agg calls them “papercuts.” Others call them microaggressions. No matter the label, these behaviors deteriorate the quality of an industry that should value the satisfaction of its employees as much as it does that of its customers.