Tabatha Sander still remembers the shame and discomfort she felt after she says she was sexually harassed by a male co-worker when she was 17 years old while busing tables at a Regina restaurant.
She also remembers trying to justify the behaviour, thinking, “Oh, it’s not that bad, I’ve heard worse or it’s not as inappropriate as other things that have happened.”
Her co-worker, an older man, would send her late-night texts, belittle her with comments, and whip her thighs with a kitchen cloth at work, she told Global News in an interview Wednesday.
Sander decided to share her experiences in a recent Facebook post in hopes of encouraging other women to come forward with similar stories. She’s just one of several Regina women turning to social media in light of recent sexual harassment allegations in the restaurant industry.
Many allegations are posted on an Instagram account called Survivor’s Stories Regina.
The page first posted July 21. It now has close to 5,000 followers.
Many posts share stories of alleged sexual assault. Dozens of others allege sexual harassment from a number of Regina restaurants and tattoo shops, calling out the alleged abusers and perpetrators by name.
According to one of the posts, the two people behind the account are “survivors who have committed to providing a platform for voices that are often silenced in instances of sexual harassment, abuse and assault.”
Sander said she never told anyone about her experiences at the time because she was worried no one would believe her and she would lose her job.
“I knew what he did wasn’t right. I just didn’t have the confidence to speak up,” she said.
Sander was 19 years old and working as a hostess in the same restaurant when she realized dress codes created even more problems for women in the industry.
She says she was required to wear high heels on the job, but after trying to break in a new pair one night, she asked if she could switch into her flats.
“(The heels) had been hurting my feet, my ankles were bleeding and I showed management,” Sander said.
“He said, ‘Put your heels back on or go home,’ so I kept my shoes on.”
Sander has been in the restaurant industry for 11 years. In that time, she’s worked at five different establishments, at three of which she says she’s experienced sexual harassment in some form.
“Restaurants that I have experienced it in are bigger chains and the two restaurants that I haven’t experienced this in are smaller, local restaurants,” said Sander, adding she hasn’t been sexually harassed at her current workplace.
Mirroring the #MeToo movement
The overwhelming response to the Instagram page, which has over 150 posts, is similar to what happened during the #MeToo movement, according to Moravia de la O, a counsellor at the Regina Sexual Assault Centre (RSAC).
“It can be a little less scary for people to come forward as part of a group effort,” de la O said.
“It shows how common sexual violence is, whether that be sexual harassment or sexual assault or sexual abuse, around the world and particularly in Saskatchewan.”
One in three women will experience sexual violence in some form throughout their lifetime, she said. For men, the odds are one in six.
According to de la O, close to 90 per cent of sexual violence survivors don’t file police reports.
More often than not, the justice system doesn’t result in “accountability for perpetrators,” she said, which is the main reason people don’t report it.
“In the few cases that are reported, very few of the people are actually ever charged and even fewer of them are people ever convicted,” de la O said.
Another challenge for survivors is victim-blaming, she said. As a society, people struggle with believing survivors or they blame them for the violence.
“We minimize sexual violence in all its forms, oftentimes through the pop culture that we consume,” de la O said.
“It can be really hard to understand what sexual violence is because it is so often minimized in our community and our society.”
Calls to the RSAC’s crisis line and counselling services surged during the #MeToo movement, and de la O said she wouldn’t be surprised if the same thing happened again as more people continue to share their stories online.
While sharing these experiences is one way for survivors to hold abusers accountable, de la O said the RSAC is focused on educating youth on abuse recognition, consent, and bullying prevention, as well as working with law enforcement to enact institutional changes.
For Sander, she said she’s hopeful that there will be a culture shift in the restaurant industry as more sexual harassment allegations come to light. But policy changes need to come with it, she said.
“We need more transparent sexual harassment policies within the restaurant industry and other industries on how to treat and not to treat your co-workers to make people feel safe and comfortable to come forward when they are facing these types of things,” Sander said.
Global News has not verified allegations made by Sander and others on the Survivor’s Stories Regina Instagram page.