for Turna Ray Franz, who told me to
In December 2017, as powerful, famous man after powerful, famous men was accused of a range of behaviors from verbal sexual harassment to flat-out rape, I was talking about #MeToo with a friend of mine who writes a well-tread political blog. This friend is white and straight and male and ex-military and comes from a conservative background but has, I suspect, left-leaning tendencies. He likes to say that inequality is “bad for business” as a way of rationalizing his newfound interest in social justice but, again, I suspect it’s more than that; this friend left a prestigious military job to return home to his wife and two children with serious special needs. Almost overnight, his life went from one of power and control to one of challenge and service; if indeed “the personal is political,” that’s enough to dramatically change anyone’s political position.
This friend was ranting to me about sexual harassment during one of our marathon text conversations, and I found myself rolling my eyes so hard, I could practically see my gray matter. It wasn’t that I wasn’t glad he was believing women, or seeing how gravely serious these allegations are. I should, given my own politics, have felt relieved to hear his thoughts. Instead, though, I felt a creeping irritation.
It took me a while to articulate this. My friend and I grew up in the same hometown, a small beach community, with a lifeguard and water sports culture rampant with harassment and assault. He was a lifeguard. Later, he went to the Naval Academy, and then onto a prestigious (rarified, actually) military career. While I have no doubt that he never harassed anyone, how many incidents of harassment had he witnessed over the course of decades?
I found myself thinking of Anthony Bourdain.
I love Anthony Bourdain’s work, and used to obsessively watch his shows while I was home nursing my son Hank. He is mouthy and brassy and smart and hot. My best friend and I used to joke about how we would seduce him—I would insist on taking him to Tony’s Baltimore Grill and guzzle Budweisers with him over a basket of fried shrimp until finally, he would say, “Let’s get out of here,” and we would make out passionately in the alleyway, unable to wait until we got back to his hotel room. She would find him at the bar of a chic Charleston eatery and antagonize him about his views on vegetarianism until the sexual tension was just too much, and they would head back to his hotel room.
Bourdain has been on a Twitter tear about Harvey Weinstein, sexual assault, #MeToo. He is dating Asia Argento, the Italian actress who accused Weinstein of rape, so I am sure this feels incredibly personal for him.
It’s feels pretty fucking personal for a lot of us.
Part of why I love Anthony Bourdain has to do with my own experience working in restaurants. When I was 17, I took a job as a barista at a local Italian place, where I worked for two years. Then, from 19 to 22, I worked summers and the one winter after I graduated college at a local, high-end American style eatery. Bourdain’s rapid-fire prose about restaurant work feeds into my own personal mythologies about what it was like to come-of-age in restaurants, albeit in the front of the house. I loved the dim lights, the jazz quartets, the glittering clink of wine glasses and flatware on bone china. I loved the rhythm of banging out orders and checking off reservations as they dwindled and the night neared another inevitable, intimate ending. I loved the banter– some of the funniest nights of my life have been at restaurants, and my friends and I still tell those stories, still laugh as hard as we did the first time.
I loved the flirting.
Because flirting comes with the territory, and I love a good flirt.
I didn’t love—I don’t think any of the women who worked there loved—the harassment. I didn’t love the time I was walking the open air path from the kitchen to the side station and I said, “Be careful, someone must have spilled something there,” and one of the three blue-shirted, smoking dudes who all—all—tried to sleep with me at some point during those years, said, “What, did you get your period and drip?” and they howled with laughter. I thought, Motherfuckers, I hope your moronic asses trip on that oil and you break your legs.
I didn’t love the countless times I was called a cunt, or a dumb bitch, or a fucking snob, or the countless shitty variations of those, or hearing them in Spanish, which the Spanish-speaking guys didn’t think I could understand.
I didn’t love the times I got wolf-whistled or groped or was told I would fuck you, baby or the time the 66-year old customer who came in almost every night with his wife called the host station, and when I picked up and said This is Emily, he said Emily it’s Harris no DON’T SAY MY NAME, DON’T and proceeded to insist he take me out for a “steak dinner” while I said, No. No, I don’t think so. No. No, until he hung up, angrily, and I felt like a cheap whore.
I didn’t love how the slick maitre’d used to put his hand on my ass while I greeted people at the door. No one could see us behind the tall podium. Until one day I finally said Enough with that shit. I don’t like it. I’m a feminist.
I can hear my 22-year old voice quivering, softer than it ever was before in the workplace, devoid of all the confidence it always had.
I’m a feminist.
I thought it was some kind of armor, that it would shield me: Athena in a pencil skirt and pumps.
He turned on me and lunged, and hissed in my face. Don’t give me that shit, you’re just a piece of ass.
He used to steal all the tips, too. An older woman and I worked the phones during the day and killed ourselves to make sure we could fit everyone in on the reservation chart. It was like an impossible Rubik’s cube, and every week, we solved it, and then he fucked it up royally, seating whoever handed him cash wherever he wanted. We would scream with laughter, imitating his stupid swagger, mocking his overpriced Italian shoes. Oh, he just burns me up! she would say. She had left an abusive husband to raise six kids on her own on a waitress’ salary. Every one of them was successful.
She was my hero. She was my surrogate grandmother. Years later, I sat at her funeral, a newly single mother, and wept.
Every week, she and I and a host of other unseen women did the domestic labor that kept the front of house running.
Every week, he pocketed the tips.
People thought he was the owner. The real owner was a fierce, smart woman who taught me a good deal about business and dignity and grace under fire.
But even she seemed beholden to him, in some way I never fully understood.
One time—one time—in the four years we worked almost every Friday and Saturday night together, he gave me $20 and said, Good job, kid.
I was 22-years old.
I thanked him.
So, it’s hard for me to get excited that Anthony Bourdain, someone with immense power and prestige who worked in restaurants for decades, seems to want to suddenly smash the patriarchy via his self-righteous Tweets. Anthony Bourdain is the patriarchy, however well-intended he may be. And Anthony Bourdain may never have said an improper word to a co-worker—I don’t know, I wasn’t there—but if we are to believe that he never witnessed the kind of absolutely daily harassment and abuse I know first-hand goes on in restaurants, well.
The problem with his outrage is twofold. First, if you are a man—particularly one with power—and you didn’t participate in workplace sexual harassment, but you watched it happen and did nothing, you’re part of the problem. You don’t get to be outraged. If you say that you’ve been “sitting on stories,” (which is what Bourdain said about Mario Batali, his longtime friend and collaborator, who in December 2017 was accused of serious sexual harassment over a period of years and who said the comments and behaviors “sound like [him],”) then you essentially admit your complicity in an epidemic. Sexual harassment and assault are at their core about power, about the abuse of a massively imbalanced power dynamic that is also gender-skewed. If you had—have—the power to stop it, but did nothing, then your retroactive Twitter rage rings pretty hollow.
Especially to survivors. Or at least to this one, to whom it reads like Bordain just wants, once more, to be the loudest man in the room. Because, despite the inclusivity of its title, #MeToo is not giving out participation trophies. It’s trying to stop participation in a destructive and humiliating system that shames women into silence. I know you love attention, Tony. I know you love to show off your abilities at every turn. I’ve watched you pepper your English with French while you chowed down on beef pate in a Provencal park with some renowned French chef or another. I know it was crucial that the world watch you playact being a war reporter in Libya. And I’m aware that no one correctly pronounces pho quite like you do.
It’s just ironic, though, because you’ve been sitting on those Batali stories for years. Silently.
Those women you knew your powerful buddy groped and humiliated all those years just didn’t rate, I guess.
They weren’t going to gain you the kind of attention you wanted.
Except for that time you addressed a roomful of us at that book signing in Sonoma, and said of Batali and Gwyneth Paltrow’s trip to Spain, Why would you wanna go to Spain with a bitch who doesn’t eat ham?
Or until now.
All of which is to say, Anthony Bourdain, please—just shut up for a hot minute.
Shut up, and let us have the kind of conversation that brings about real change. That creates a space where, upon making these accusations, women—or anyone—has a clear path toward ensuring their workplace is safe, that the behaviors they were exposed to change, or cease altogether. Where due process works for everyone, and not just, as has historically been the case, for white men. Where the burden of proof is not solely on the victim. Anthony Bourdain—try and participate in that conversation. Or—radical thought—to listen. Because the reality is that outrage will not bring structural change to the workplace.
Which is what I told my political blogger friend, during that marathon text conversation. I packed my kids lunch with one hand and texted him with the other.
My job before my job. More unseen, domestic labor.
While Anthony Bourdain Tweets with one hand and Pomades his silver curls with the other, another woman just got gripped behind the tall podium at the entrance to a restaurant where later this week, he’ll be sucking the bone marrow out of some poor baby cow’s rib.
And who will she—nameless, faceless, lacking the kind of prestige of so many of the women whose stories we’ve read about, recently— report it to? And is there anyone to report it to? And what will happen when she does?
The one time sexual harassment at my current workplace was so egregious I reported it, I was asked, as the interview closed, And what would you do differently in the future? To avoid this kind of situation?
I just stared. I remember thinking, Not… be alone in my office, working? You know, my office? With my name on the door?
Not be behind the tall podium. Not wear a skirt. Not have an ass. Not have tits. Not speak. Not tell them to stop. Tell them to stop? Not be a feminist. Not say thank you.
My ex is Tweeting about Roy Moore and the South and racism and pedophilia.
My ex is my son’s father. We have no contact, and it has been that way since 2012. He is a genuine psychopath who could have killed our son by drugging him with Benadryl when he was an infant. I went to put him in his crib and discovered little pink droplets on his onesie.
Fuck if I know.
I smelled it. It smelled pink and saccharine. He was exclusively breastfed at the time, less than three months old. I literally knew everything that went into his body, everything that came out of it.
Did you give him Benadryl?
You’re fucking crazy, you’re a fucking crazy bitch.
He stalked out of the room, crashing about. I heard him in the back bathroom, the one that was en suite to our bedroom.
I’m fucking leaving! he said, coming back out, grabbing his coat and his cigarettes and slamming the front door. I called my aunt. It’s an emergency. I need you. With Hank on my shoulder, I tore into the back bathroom and lifted the toilet tank, knowing exactly what I would find.
Later, in the hospital—Hank with his onesie jammies unzipped, the heart monitors attached to him. His face like a wise old man. The nurse that said, I used to go through this shit, too, when she heard me on the phone with Will.
And what did you do? Did it get better?
Yeah, it got better, honey. I’m a single mom, now. It’s way better.
My ex is Tweeting about Roy Moore and pedophlia and racism and the South.
He had a host of racist jokes. They were so fucking stupid, I can’t even remember the punchlines. One ended with him saying Mo’ tea, suh? and leaning forward as if he was offering me tea from a pot. The whole thing was a pastiche, like he was reading from Gone With The Wind. It was a white parody of a white parody of a Black man in white gloves with a sterling silver teapot. Piping hot tea poured into the china cup of my outstretched hands: Uncle Remus meets Paula Dean meets my own personal nightmare and disgrace.
He was from Texas.
He also—well, here the word fails me. Slept with minors? Had sexual relations with minors?
Raped them. He raped minors. He kept records of this in his text messages and his Facebook DM’s. He was engaged in this activity at one point when I was alone for weeks in our apartment in Texas with our son, who was less than a year old. The heat had broken. It was so cold, it snowed in southeast Texas. I huddled with Hank under a blanket, wondering how my life had ended up in this godforsaken shithole. It was Christmas. I imagined my family laughing in front of the tree, pouring one another glasses of white wine, making cookies. I imagined the dog. I imagined my dad crying as he watched Love, Actually. Love was, actually, all around them, and here I was, pressing my baby son to my body to keep him warm.
And there was Will, with a 16-year old, although I didn’t know it at the time. I saw it all later. In print. The nudes he groomed her to send him. The meeting times, meeting places. He was 30. She was 16. He met her in Alcoholics Anonymous.
Then, he got her good and drunk.
He used to wear a red bandana around his head like David fucking Foster Wallace.
He sent her poems he had written for me.
Or, I thought he had written them for me.
Until I sleuthed around a little further back, and discovered he had sent them to another minor, a young woman in New Hampshire he met online. Who he had also groomed to send him nudes. Which she did.
The world can collapse around you with barely a sound.
My ex is self-righteously Tweeting about Roy Moore and pedophilia and racism and the South.
I know this because I check his Twitter account from time to time, to make sure he is far away.
I said to a friend, The only way I will stop doing this is if he decides to colonize the moon.
And even then, I’ll look up at the sky and think, Still too close.
When I discovered my ex had been hired to teach at a public high school, I went internally berserk. I imagined my own students, just a few years before they faced me, facing him. I imagined him getting their number, just in case you need an ear, you know.
I called his ex-wife, my dear friend, who is a social worker. I said, I think I have to call the school. She said, I have your back.
So I told the school what I knew. HR, specifically. I sent them emails with him admitting to sleeping with minors (his words). I sent the screenshots. I sent the documents my lawyer had prepared, the ones that gave me sole custody of our son.
It’s two years later.
He’s still teaching there.
We need a new system. We need it now. It terrifies me that I don’t know what this will look like—do any of us? Sexual harassment and assault are like the old joke about the two fish, swimming: Water’s nice today, huh? Says the one to the next.
What the hell is water? He says back.
Sexual assault and harassment are the air that we breathe.
I’m not arguing against due process. I’m arguing for it. I want a workplace—a world— where power is equally distributed, is reimagined as other than exclusively masculine, so that when a woman reports that a powerful man harmed her, the go-to response is not, She just wants to take him down, which is another way of saying, She just wants power.
As though it’s something we can just reach out and take. Much less keep.
I want a world where the onus is not on the victim to prove she didn’t somehow desire the harm that has befallen her. One where, when I called Human Resources that day, I didn’t feel the panicked need to spill my credentials to the person on the other end of the line—
I’m a university professor, I’m well-published—I’m writing a book…about this, I—you can look me up, I swear—
Why wasn’t He tried to kill our son enough?
(Here are the medical records.)
Why wasn’t He traded child pornography and groomed minors for sexual encounters enough?
(Here are the emails.)
Myths and denials about women “making up” stories of harassment for revenge against former lovers or powerful men are so potent that, today, watching Olympic gold-medalist Ally Raisman testify against a doctor who had sexually abused dozens of young female gymnasts over dozens of years, I stared in horror.
And then, the hideous little voice whispered—What if they’re all making it up? What if it’s a witch-hunt?
You know the one. We all have it. But some squash it as the crazy that it is. And some amplify it.
The person I spoke to from Human Resources was a woman. She listened carefully. But at the end of the day, she never called me back. She never responded to the evidence I sent her. Not an email. Not a text. Not a whisper that anyone had looked into any of it.
So, who is due process working for? And who will ensure that it works? Who will believe women—not the famous, not the rich women. No New York Times reporter knocking down your door. Just a hostess, a professor. A mother or ex-wife.
Who will ensure he is far away?
Emily Van Duyne writes about feminism, surviving domestic violence, precarious faculty in higher ed, and Sylvia Plath. She teaches writing and gender studies at Stockton University in New Jersey, and is co-editor, with Dr. Jillian Powers, of the anthology-in-progress The Precariat & The Professor. She is also at work on Loving Sylvia Plath, a book about Sylvia Plath and superfandom. You can find her on Twitter @emilyvanduyne.