Sexualized encounters in some work situations actually can contribute to building camaraderie in a workforce, according to a new study by a University of Washington, Bothell, sociologist who examines sexual banter and power in the workplace. In addition, within certain cultural and organizational contexts, these encounters can help create a sense of belonging and help people to have some control over their working conditions, said Kari Lerum, an assistant professor of sociology and interdisciplinary studies.
To collect data for her research published in the journal Gender & Society, Lerum worked at three restaurants serving food and drinks over a 14-month period. These included an upscale Cape Cod, Mass., restaurant she called the Blue Heron and a Seattle strip club nicknamed Club X. For space reasons, the journal cut references to Annie’s, a family diner in Seattle, the third restaurant in which she worked. Her study focused on the banter and interactions among workers and between workers and supervisors, not those between workers and customers. Examples of this include sexual innuendos and puns as well as references to sex acts.
She said banter and sexualized encounters were a normal part of working at the Blue Heron and Club X, and seem to be pretty common across the restaurant industry.
In analyzing the impact of these encounters in a restaurant or any job location, Lerum said it is important to understand the unique culture of each workplace. The Blue Heron was a gay-centered establishment and she said there was general agreement on what sexual banter meant among the staff and the owner of the restaurant. These kinds of encounters become part of the shared culture of a workplace.
Banter and sexualized encounters were a normal part of working at the Blue Heron and Club X, she said, adding “you couldn’t work in either place without being touched by it. Certainly it is an integral part of the nature of the business in Club X.”
Another factor influencing sexual banter is the hierarchy of a workplace. Lerum said that the flat, or informal, hierarchy between the manager and the employees at Blue Heron encouraged a sense of sexual camaraderie. In contrast, the more vertical, structured hierarchy at Club X, led to more conflict between managers and employees over the meaning of particular words and acts. Lerum, who hadn’t worked as a server before starting her research at the Blue Heron, admits being surprised initially when she became the target of sexual banter.
“The first night I was shocked and couldn’t believe people were saying those things. I didn’t know how to react at first, but I learned to toughen up to fit in. I got better and started dishing it back. After the first month, I felt pretty comfortable and realized that sexual banter was just part of the job.”
Lerum cautioned against using her findings to dismiss cases of sexual harassment, which she recognizes as a pervasive problem in many work settings. She observed one or two situations at the Blue Heron that caused people discomfort and could be called sexual harassment. She also witnessed one incident at Club X, where the line between banter and harassment was blurrier, that might be considered harassment.
“However, if people went to these places with a fixed definition of harassment, there would be instances of it every night,” she said. “Ultimately, if you are trying to assess an incident it would be important to have a cultural understanding of that particular workplace and the people’s understanding of that culture. It is a complicated question. Keep in mind sexual banter and camaraderie can empower workers so they have control over working conditions and their creative, productive selves. Sexual banter is okay if people feel they are working in a safe environment and the banter is not disrespectful or a form of discipline.”
“Under the right conditions, sexual banter can help build camaraderie, and camaraderie is a positive thing for workers and the organization because if employees are happy and feel they belong they work harder and are more productive. This is not so much about sex, but about people being empowered and having ownership of their work life, ” she said.