“Can I Call You Sometime?”

UVa women share their stories from behind the bar.

You’re standing behind the bar. The smell of beer, fried food, and sweat hangs thickly in the air. It’s only 11:30, but it’s already been a long and taxing shift. You hear heavy footfalls on the stairs, moving at an uneven pace. Sure enough, the man that emerges is visibly drunk. He stumbles to a seat at the bar, mumbling about getting a drink. You know you can’t serve him in this state.

Usually, telling a drunk man you can’t serve him means getting rudely talked back to or lectured; you, apparently, “don’t know what I can handle.” You know this, so you don’t say that anymore.

“Sorry, sir. We’re closed.” He protests, slurring his words: he can’t believe you’re closing this early, he can’t believe you won’t serve a paying customer. You insist that the bar is closed.

“Well, how long will you and your legs be open tonight?”

You’re a little furious and a little frightened and you’re not sure how to react, what you’re supposed to say next. They don’t teach you how to handle men like this in server training. If there even is a way to handle men like this. Your male coworker sees you pleading with the man to leave and comes to intercede. He tells the man he’s not welcome at the restaurant anymore. The man starts pulling out hundred dollar bills.

“Please, how much do you cost, huh? How much do you cost?”

It takes a full five minutes for the man to give up and stumble back down the stairs.

There’s nothing like working behind a bar to find out just how disrespectful, rude, and obnoxious people can be. No one knows this as well as the servers who work on the Corner. From game days to regular Thursday nights, from block party to graduation, the Corner bartenders see it all. But behind drunk bar patrons, and people who just get a little too wild on the weekend, there is a real threat that makes women feel unsafe in their workplace. And often, these women are University students.

I spoke to five female UVA students who are bartenders or servers at five different Corner establishments. I’m keeping these women anonymous so they don’t lose their jobs— I wanted them to get a chance to share their stories from behind the bar.

One woman summed up all their stories simply. “Going into work as a bartender, I expect to be objectified or treated as lesser because I’m a woman behind the bar.” She told me about one customer who was passing through Charlottesville and struck up a friendly conversation with her. As the night progressed, and he finished his sixth beer, he became more aggressive and confrontational. By the time he was slurring his words and having trouble standing, she cut him off. But when she left the bar to use the restroom, he grabbed her cardigan, trying to pull it off of her. “After I told him stop, to sit back down, I got out from behind the bar, walked behind him to go to the bathroom and he turns around and grabs my boob.” She told me that this invasion of personal space had, obviously, made her uncomfortable and upset for a while afterwards.

After grabbing her, the man had asked, “can I call you sometime?”

A server at two different Corner bars was willing to speak to me about one particularly upsetting experience she had. She was working behind the bar when a group of students refused to leave her alone, telling her to come and “give us a hug.” After she declined, they repeatedly asked for her number and snapchat. When she also declined to give them her personal information, they eventually left without leaving a tip— because, she guessed, she “hadn’t given them anything in exchange.” She’s a self-described outspoken person, tall and with a big personality to fit, but none of that mattered behind the bar.

It’s not just the patrons that female bartenders have trouble with. Corner bars have traditions and policies that can facilitate sexism as well. One server who has been working on the Corner for almost a year said that the popular bar she works in “definitely fosters an environment that encourages sexism, especially with the outfits. I remember my interviews, they were like ‘ok here’s the dress code, we all hate it but we all go along with it, because it’s what our owner wants.’ I was kind of taken aback by that,” she said. She told me that she’s had issues with the uniform since then. In her view, the intentionally demeaning requirements mean that “as a girl running around in a short skirt, you don’t feel respected.”

On or off the Corner, a female server or bartender is working in an industry well-known for its sexism. In Virginia, any tipped employee can be paid a minimum wage of $2.13 an hour. This requires them to make $5.12 of “tip credit” to reach Virginia’s minimum wage– otherwise their employer has to pay the difference. This creates high pressure for employees to receive enough, and regular, tips. Servers and bartenders who want to make above minimum wage, especially those who work in establishments where tips are pooled, are highly dependent on tips as a large part of their earnings. The result: an absurd amount of power in the hands of bar and restaurant patrons.  

Because American tipping culture is largely based on perceived niceness, attractiveness, and social expectations, there’s a markedly high expectation of female subservience in the food service industry. There’s a reason that it’s commonplace for female servers to be asked for their number in exchange for a tip. Because of our tipping culture and existing gender expectations, female servers and bartenders face a dramatically unequal power dynamic. Women behind the bar are put in a unique and incredibly vulnerable position for harassment and sexism. And, of course, this power imbalance is only worsened by heavy binge drinking.

Half of the bartenders and servers that I talked to said that the biggest contributor to their negative experiences was the UVA-centric environment of Corner bars. Having five, ten, fifteen men arrive at a bar in a pack isn’t typical for, say, a Downtown bar. One woman explained, “when guys are together they just rile each other up; in my experience, when guys are by themselves, they are more likely to treat people well.” Another bartender agreed that “college students, when they get into big groups— especially groups of males, are more comfortable being rude.” She’d worked at private events on the Corner where men were rude simply because the person before them behaved that way. An entire room could quickly become threatening when a small group of men started behaving aggressively. She noted, however, that older men who were alone were usually worse than just one college-aged male. “I just think there’s a similar culture in a lot of bars,” a bartender at one of the largest Corner bars said. “It’s a space where people find it appropriate to do things that just aren’t normal appropriate behavior.”

I asked the bartenders and servers who I interviewed what they thought could be done to prevent their frequent experiences of workplace harassment. Although all the women I spoke to had been confronted by a man who made them feel uncomfortable, unsafe, or disrespected, they all agreed that it was usually just considered as  “part of the job.” One bartender suggested the creation of a Corner bar support network, “so if a bartender had a problem, they could call another bartender or server to ask for help.” But most women didn’t think that there was a particular set of solutions— barring a huge shift in the social constructions of gender at UVA and beyond. “Because it’s such a norm,” one server told me, maltreatment of women in bars is “almost impossible to prevent.” Considering the structure of the food service industry, then, it would be doubly important for female student servers to have access to mental and emotional support specific to their workplace harassment— and they don’t.

Ever since national attention turned to sexual assault on college campuses, UVA has been forced to face the dangers posed to women at frat parties and, to some extent, at Corner bars. Now UVA has several official sexual assault prevention campaigns, including Green Dot, the Not on Our Grounds and Alcohol-Wise modules, and the Sexual Violence Prevention Coalition, which includes seven different student-run groups. But the Corner is still rarely, if ever, contextualized as a student workplace. This is especially problematic given that many Corner bartenders, servers, and patrons are UVA students.

One bartender explained that UVA’s sexual assault training, while beneficial, “focuses on extremes. The words people say are not addressed as much.” She felt that her experience of a less violent, but near constant, undercurrent of harassment went overlooked.  “I’m behind the bar, so I’m not ‘actually’ being harmed… except for my ego or my mental health, and that’s something that’s not emphasized [by UVA] at all.”

Other women believed that it simply isn’t UVA’s responsibility to address incidents of sexism in Corner establishments, whether or not they involve students. As much as the Corner is culturally part of the University, the restaurants and bars on the Corner aren’t fiscally connected to it. UVA stepping in for student employees could threaten the independence of Charlottesville business owners. Plus, as one woman said, acknowledging this particular issue in Corner bars would force the University to address a slew of problems they would rather leave alone. “They would never sanction half of what goes on there,” she said, laughing nervously, “so trying to regulate something you don’t want to be happening at all is a little tough.”

Another woman agreed that UVA should stay out of Corner businesses, pointing out that plenty of employees and many patrons weren’t UVA students or affiliated with the University at all. She thought that the responsibility to push for better treatment of female servers was on the City of Charlottesville and Corner business owners. “The second the University takes over this problem, they have kind of overstepped their bounds,” she asserted. “The bars themselves in Charlottesville could definitely take steps to make the environment a little bit better.” She wanted to make it clear, though, that asking for a different party to take responsibility didn’t mean that she condoned the current norms.

“I always hear people say that ‘you should expect that.’ Like we should expect to be harassed, or even in some cases assaulted. I think that’s victim blaming, the conversation shouldn’t be that; we shouldn’t tolerate that.”

“You should expect that.” That pervasive mindset may be part of the reason why these women have a hard time articulating what can be done to limit verbal and physical harassment of female employees. Sexism is basically a given for any woman working in the in the food service industry, whether they’re UVA students or not. One bartender explained how she stuck with her job when things got tough. “When it comes to female bartending, you just have to be smart. You have to stand your ground.” She paused and added, “which is something we’ve been taught our whole lives.”


Related Stories

More Like This →

About The Pioneer + HackCville

The Pioneer is the publication of HackCville. All of our producers are either current students or graduates of HackCville’s media education programs.

Our producers develop skills in modern media production through publishing stories about creative, civic, and entrepreneurial innovators in the University of Virginia and greater Charlottesville community. Learn more →

HackCville develops the skills, networks, and entrepreneurial ability of talented U.Va. students. We accelerate our students’ ideas, projects, and startups through our experiential programs and tight-knit community. More about us →

Founding Partners