Sexual Harassment as a Daily Work Hazard
Imagine having a job that exposes you to sexual harassment everyday, merely because you are wearing a certain uniform ~ and probably not a very revealing one, either. It’s the symbolism of it, that seems to attract the unwanted attention. If you’re a maid, you might have to put up with all sorts of inappropriate behavior from your hotel guests. Just look at the major cases in the news lately ~ former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Mahmoud Abdel-Salam Omar, former chairman of Egypt’s Bank of Alexandria both accused of similarly heinous crimes involving maids. Both of them powerful men, who no doubt felt a sense of boundless entitlement, especially in the presence of a “lowly” maid.
And for the record, maids actually prefer to be called room attendants, and there are more than 10,000 of them working in New York City every day. Considering the way maids are still viewed by a certain segment of society, it’s probably a wise decision to distance oneself from that term. The maid profession and maids themselves have long been the object of sexual fantasy, and you can find myriad websites devoted to this fetish. Mostly the sexual images revolve around being a scantily-clad “French” maid, which would seem to preclude harassment of the modestly dressed, modern-day hotel worker. But erotic obsessions die hard, and this particular one is probably a throw-back to french theatrical farce. The master of the household would chase the maid around the bedroom, who would (of course) succumb to his advances, many times against her will.
This show of sexual dominance, in the form of a cat-and-mouse game, is still romanticized in popular culture. Go into any sex shop, and you’ll find racks of french maid outfits for role-play. And in movies and TV, there are plenty of examples of women getting into a maid costume to spice up their sex life, like in Friends with Money and 30 Rock, both with Jennifer Aniston. So the prevalence of these images, normalizing maids as sex objects, definitely does not serve the safety of room attendants.
Peter Ward, the president of the New York Hotel & Maid Trades Council, told The Wall Street Journal that while cases involving outright sexual assault are rare, sexual harassment is a daily hazard of the job. Room attendants often endure exhibitionism from male guests who decide to “surprise” them when they come in to clean the room. Propositioning is also a common problem, making workers feel degraded and unsafe. And there is something in the psychological set-up of it, of a woman coming into a man’s bedroom, that may subconsciously invite disaster: the bed is right there, the door may be locked behind you, and most hotel rooms are sound-proofed now. It’s a potentially dangerous work environment for women, and finally more is being done about it.
Legislation has been introduced to require New York State hotel owners to provide employee sexual harassment training, and establish a hotel employee bill of rights. It would also protect employees from retaliation if they speak up about abuses, which was a major reason why many room attendants did not come forward in the past. Many hotels are now issuing panic buttons as well, which will immediately alert hotel security of a threatening situation. It’s about time that the work force of room attendants, overwhelmingly female, can get the help they need to do their jobs in a safe and supportive work environment. It’s hard enough being the object of sexual harassment, merely because one is a woman in this world. It must be doubly hard when the image of your profession puts you at risk.