I Didn’t Want to Get Anyone In Trouble — Why We Can’t Stay Quiet about Sexual Misconduct
I used to work in a pretty typical neighborhood coffee shop when one of my regulars invited me over to grab some old jackets he was giving away. This was an older gentleman that I had very pleasant and generally innocuous interactions with. He was in the café everyday, and we’d generally chat about the day’s events, and I knew a fair amount about his life and him mine, and I had mentioned that I was looking for a new jacket. He was a smaller guy, and thought this one old jacket that he had might fit me, he was going to give it away, and that I should come by and check it out.
I texted him later that day and went to his apartment, which was about a block from the store I worked at. As I walked in, he was drinking wine and offered me a glass. I had just finished work, so I agreed and he started asking me about my day and other personal questions about my life. When I began to feel uncomfortable, he would refill my wine glass and tell me he was just being friendly. He kept saying he was a nice guy.
This is probably a story whose ending you can begin to piece together. Things were not as they seemed, and this customer was not as harmless as I thought. I was in a situation where I quickly had to discern between what was safe and real and what was being forced and coerced, and those lines began to blur together. I didn’t go over to this guy’s house thinking anything like this could happen. This was someone I knew. Someone who came to my coffeeshop everyday. Someone who I trusted and was close with the owner of the store, and there’s no way I could have even guessed things could get out of hand until they did. I was in his home for a little less than two hours, and it didn’t come together that something terribly wrong happened until much later. In the two hours I spent with this man, I wasn’t sure how to see past the drinking, past being alone in someone else’s home, past the fact that this was someone I knew and respected and I wanted to give them the benefit of the doubt that this was all happening or it was wrong because I didn’t want to upset him or accuse him of any wrongdoing. I told him I was uncomfortable, and he told me I was being crazy.
This was not the story I meant to share. This year, I competed in the United States Barista Championship in Atlanta, and while I was there I was confronted with a situation that happened between myself and a fellow member of the coffee community at a barista event four years ago. I felt unable to talk to this person about the situation when it happened, and did my best to ignore him and shrug him off over the years. At competition, he attempted to talk to me about my performance, and I sort of shrugged him off and didn’t engage in conversation. And yet, I felt worse. I felt angry that this person didn’t apologize to me, or acknowledge that he did something wrong. From that moment to now, I’ve had very little interaction with this person, and have been confused and conflicted as to how to deal with it. But there he was, and I couldn’t ignore it, and all these feelings of resentment and anger came out.
I wasn’t sure what the solution was or still could be, but I eventually decided that I did need him to acknowledge it. There were times during competition where I fantasized about going up to him and saying, “You owe me an explanation. You owe me an apology.” But I didn’t. I felt like I couldn’t call him out in front of others like that. So I did nothing.
Once I got back to San Francisco, I was at a party and I shared this story with two of my friends, who also are in the coffee industry. One was supportive of my need to talk to this person about it, and encouraged me to reach out and have a candid conversation with him. The other thought I was letting this person have too much control over my emotions, and that by acknowledging it, I was validating that control.
Both are right, in some ways, but I think the latter advice is one of the many reasons why sexual assaults and general misconduct don’t get reported or at least talked about. Yes, by acknowledging my hurt and frustration I was letting him win over me, but if I didn’t say anything, I would let him win over everyone. Saying nothing wouldn’t minimize the hurt I felt, and he’d never know how terrible and upsetting this whole thing was for me. Saying nothing would trivialize all the confusion I felt immediately after and still feel today. I can’t ignore those feelings. I can’t go backwards and scold myself for allowing him any control, and I certainly couldn’t just say to myself, “Hey, you stop feeling these things!” He’d be free to do this again to someone else, and by confronting him I know that he won’t do hurtful things to others because of my refusal to call them out.
As I sat down to write this story, the incident with the customer came to mind, because that’s something that I’ve never known how to talk about for a lot of the very same reasons. Mostly because I could never pinpoint them as a definitive ‘thing.’ They didn’t fall into the neat categories of rape or sexual assault (and when I say ‘neat’ I don’t mean nice but in a way that it is often forced to be traditionally clear and easy to identify, which oftentimes they are not). With the regular, I couldn’t confidently say I didn’t agree to go over, because I did, or that I accepted more alcohol, because I did, or that I didn’t willingly take off my clothes, because I did, or that I had sex with him, because I did.
I don’t want to cause a scene. I’m not trying to make something out of nothing. I’m not trying to get people in trouble. But these same sentiments are what cause women to shut down when something questionable happens to them. Because we’re not sure how to categorize them, we instead err on the side of caution to avoid making someone look bad or being labeled something ugly. But that doesn’t make it go away. And especially in communities, both among your professional colleagues and within the neighborhoods your work and live in, it can seem like more of a risk to call these incidents out than to keep them to yourself and live with the shame and disgust of the attacks on your person and your body.
As time passed, it hurt me to see either of these men in leadership positions, succeeding in their careers without having to own up to their wrongdoings, especially the gentleman whom operated within the coffee community. I don’t think they deserve to be condemned indefinitely, but I do think there needs to be a way to talk about these things, to sort them out and open up a discussion. Would I feel better if I confronted both of these men? Perhaps. Do I feel like I can? Now? Yes. Then? No.
I’m older now and have a bit of footing within my industry, and I feel comfortable addressing these things, but when they happened to me, I felt completely powerless. These things happen to me because there was an imbalance of power, which will continue to exist for the most vulnerable members of our communities, especially women and minorities. Today, I feel like I can write these ideas and say that these things were wrong because I know members of my community won’t turn their back on me (at least not all of them). But would I say that if I were still a barista? Would I think that if I wasn’t in a leadership role in my community?
I think the incident with the customer highlights that best. I was 24, and he was 43. It took me almost 5 years to identify that this was something wrong he did to me as opposed to feeling stupid for letting it happen. I thought if he was older, if he was telling me that this was fine and that he was a nice guy, that if my coworkers and bosses liked him, then it was my fault that I felt bad.
He came to the store the next day, and I couldn’t talk to him or look him in the eye. I had another barista serve him, and I continued to avoid him day after day. He texted me a few times, telling me I was sexy or wanting to know where I was always at some ridiculous hour of the night, and I never responded. Eventually, he stopped coming in and I stopped thinking about him, but travelling to USBC and seeing this other guy there brought up all those unresolved feelings of disappointment, anger, and disgust.
There’s still a power imbalance between myself and the coffee professional because he’s a well-respected individual, and often represents members of our community in large-scale events and forums. I still feel hesitant to share my story because of this dynamic. And yet, I feel that this could be a teachable moment. Yes, something happened that was wrong, but how do we address it in a meaningful way and ensure these power dynamics aren’t abused again? I don’t think this person should be punished forever, but I do think he should admit to wrongdoing and speak out and against situations like this. There’s still time. He still can and should address this.
As for me, I hope I’m doing my part in sharing, and opening myself up to questions and perhaps criticism. I see trends in the coffee community, especially pushes for customer service, and yet we don’t talk about the abuse of power that can happen not just within our industry, but within the customer/employee relationship. Customer service is important, but baristas need to know that the leaders within their organizations will support them if an interaction with a customer gets uncomfortable or that there is an action plan to ensure that customers who cross the line are not welcome back. This standard needs to apply not just to baristas, but to any member of the coffee community whose sex, orientation, or skin color become subject to unfair treatment and manipulation. I know that, at the time, if I had confronted my boss with what had happened, he would have told me that there was probably two sides to the story and that he couldn’t kick out a paying regular just because I felt uncomfortable.
So let’s talk about this, and I hope not just those who feel that they’ve been subject to mistreatment and manipulation speak, but those who have used their power unfairly share their stories. To heal and to make things right involves both parties. It’s hard to admit when things aren’t working, and it’s difficult to bring up a problem when it seems like everything is as it should be. But the structure of power within our industry isn’t working, and accepting that it can’t be any better validates these power dynamics. Things don’t have to be this way. We can, and should, recognize our privileges and powers to correct abusive and manipulative behavior.