or “If You Don’t Want to Be Labeled an Asshole then You Shouldn’t Open Your Mouth”  (Alternate title was a co-worker’s contribution. Thanks, Leo!)

To the customer who came in toward the end of my shift and instantly inspired rage, I’m sorry. I was a little short with you. What you said was, in the grand scheme of things, pretty innocuous. It really bothered me, but I could have handled it better.

Allow me to explain: most people who work in retail have a number of annoying encounters in a day, and though it’s to be expected, it doesn’t always roll right off of us instantaneously. We are, contrary to popular belief, people, so even if we keep a stiff upper lip and continue doing our jobs in the face of customers getting rude/huffy/inappropriate with us, some of us are still raging on the inside. If you’re a woman (or read as a woman), and you work a retail job, you take a special kind of abuse: people constantly objectify you and say inappropriate things (as they are wont to do to women in all contexts), and because it is your job to smile and be nice to people, you have few ways of responding that are polite, yet effective at shutting down the inappropriate commentary.

I have a canned responses to all sorts of things that people say to me. “Please don’t comment on my appearance.” “That’s a rather inappropriate question to ask a stranger.” “Please treat me like a clerk, not an object.” “I’m just here to work.” “Don’t say things like that.”

Here’s a tiny handful of things people have said to me today, this week, this month, and repeatedly over the last year in my store:

This morning a man interrupted me, mid-sentence, and said, “Has anyone ever told you how pretty you are?” Yes. All the time.

Yesterday, as I sat behind the counter taking my first few sips of coffee, a man walked out of the store and said, as he did, “How’d you like the rain this morning?” Then he added, narrowing his eyes and looking back at me, “Did you get all wet?” It was 8:20 AM.

The day before that, a man said as he walked to the door, “Take care honey….you ever think about being in any of these movies?” He wiggled his eyebrows at me. I said, “That’s a pretty inappropriate thing to say to a stranger.” (This was not John Stagliano and also, eyebrow wiggle.) He laughed and said, “Naaaah!” and left the store. He was completely unfazed.

The day before that, I helped a customer find a swinger themed DVD. As I ran his credit card, he said, “Are you into swinging, too? Have you tried it?” I calmly replied, “That’s a pretty personal question to ask a stranger, don’t you think?” This man was, to his credit, a little embarrassed.

On the same day, I received a phone call in the morning. The man on the phone asked if we had the S.T.U. by Fleshlight. I told him we did. He asked many questions about it that struck me as reasonable, then more about other Fleshlights and other masturbators. It’s like this man knew that when he called, he’d get the girl who goes into expert mode at the drop of a hat and has an inordinately high degree of knowledge about Fleshlights in particular. I completely forgot all the warnings my boss gave me about answering questions on the phone. I was a little uncomfortable with some of the things he said on the phone, but he sounded legitimately confused about different Fleshlights and hell, “Can I come in it?” “Can I see myself inside it?” “Is it tighter?” “Does that one stimulate the head more than the shaft?”- these are all completely reasonable, if indelicate, questions. Right around the third time he prompted me to say “Fuck Me Silly” (“What is the name of that line again? I don’t see it on the website!”) I realized we had a problem. I got off the phone as quickly as I could, telling him he should just come to the store if he had more questions. I fall for this shit so much more often than I want to admit. (And I blame myself before I blame the people who do this! Look at that!)

People compare my appearance to that of the mannequin in the window, which is always dressed in lingerie. She’s almost as good looking as me, said one old man, after asking if he could buy her and telling me what a turn-on it would be to have her in his bedroom.

People ask me “What toys do you use on yourself? What do you like?”

A man once thanked me for always smiling and being polite, then handed me five dollars and said he’s at the Budget Inn down the street. When my jaw dropped and I said, “Excuse me?” he said, “What, are you married?”

I’m repeatedly asked how much I weigh and told I could be snapped in half/thrown around like a rag doll. Yes, you could assault me with no problem because I am a very, very small person. Now it has been said out loud. Once again.

A man belabored the point that Mister is a lucky man and I must “take good care of him” because I work at a porn shop. Thanks for talking about how I must fuck my man like crazy. Thank you. Thank you for expressing your jealousy. You’re one of many to mention that my man must have one hell of a life.

A man called the store after he left and said he and his girlfriend both think I’m drop-dead gorgeous and would I like to have drinks in their hot tub one night? I laughed and declined, impressed that he was direct, and then lost my mind a week later when he called again and asked if I had reconsidered. He called when he knew I would be at work.

I’m told I’m just as sexy as the girls in the videos. I’m told I’m beautiful and cute and pretty and I am always expected to smile and giggle and say thank you. One man who leaned over the counter and said, out of nowhere, “You’re pretty,” said “I don’t see you as an object, I see you as a pretty little girl!” when I told him that I am a clerk, not an object.

And I can’t ignore it when people comment on my appearance, because people look at me expectantly, grinning and raising their eyebrows, waiting for their cookie, once they’ve offered their commentary. I work in a space that is perceived as being “for” men, and despite the fact that I’m the one running the store, I’m supposedly the intruder. What’s more, I am the only representation of a woman in the store that is not sexually available. Unlike the women on the box covers, my job is not to provide for your viewing pleasure. But this doesn’t register for a lot of people. It either does not occur to them that a woman in a porn store is not the same as a woman in porn, or they take offense to the proposition that a woman in “their” space does not want to be objectified, and they are trying to show me they don’t give a shit that I’m a clerk- they’re going to look at me whether I like it or not. Maybe they think I would feel left out if I weren’t an object.

I have to fight back. I have to politely inform people that their commentary is unwelcome, no matter how innocuous they may think it is. This is not easy to do. It doesn’t get through to most people. But I will not let it slide. I have to say something. I have to stand my ground and defend my store. I have to be on top of every little thing people say, because I need them to know they will never get the upper hand against me. That’s really how it feels some days. That’s really how I’m treated and how people think they can behave. Please understand that when you, customer, walked into my store, you walked into a loaded space.

So what happened today?

You walked into my store. I was behind the counter and I said, “Hi there!” and flashed you a big retail smile. You grinned and said, “How you doin’ today, beautiful?”

My face fell and I said, “Good, how are you?” I realized immediately that I should have said, “Good, but that’s not my name,” and kept smiling. I was too firm with you. Again, I expect that I need to be.

“You were smilin’ till I spoke. What happened there? Why?”

“I don’t like to be objectified at work.”

“What does that mean?”

“I don’t like to be assessed based on my appearance.”

And then, immediately, you said something that blew my fucking mind. You said, with a hint of indignation, “Look where you work!” You spit it out so fast. That’s what gets me. You shot this back at me instan-fucking-taneously. You didn’t go the normal route of “I’m just paying you a compliment!” You told me, point blank, that THE POINT OF MY WORKING IN THE STORE WAS TO BE LOOKED AT AND ENJOYED. Holy shit, you really did this, you really, really did.

“I’m not in porn, I just sell it.”

“You don’t want people to do that, what are you working here for?”

“I just work here. I have bills to pay.”

“Look where you work!”

“I just work here-”

“Get a different job.”

“It’s tough out there, man.” I tried to lighten the mood. I tried to stop this from going on any longer.

“You don’t want people to say that, get a different job.”

You kept saying this. You kept telling me to work somewhere else and look at where I work. And I can keep blaming myself for getting too short with you, but then, holy shit, you responded as you did, you told me to look at where I worked, you told me to leave my job, my job that I love and cherish and which rewards me in ways I can’t properly put into words. You drove the point home over and over in an attempt to put me in my place, and I bet you think you succeeded because I stopped responding.

You reminded me of all the ugly undercurrents of my industry. You reminded me of all the shit in this post. You confirmed all of my pessimistic thoughts about everyone who walks in the door and can’t stop themselves from telling me I’m pretty.

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