If you work in the gig economy, things can get weird. Like sexually suggestive, or worse. Just ask Roxanne, 27, a freelance chef who hired herself out as an in-home cook through the Kitchensurfing app. (TaskRabbit for chefs, basically.)
One client, after his girlfriend was a no-show, asked Roxanne to join him for dinner on his rooftop. “I was like, ‘No, I’m going to leave,’ she says. ‘This is too much.’"
He pressured her to stay, eager to show off his new apartment, but she said she had another booking. “I try to leave it civil; I try to make sure the situation doesn’t end up coming off badly, just try to leave it like: ‘No, thank you anyway, but I’m going to head out,’”she says. “I don’t just plainly say, ‘No, you weirded me out. Now, good-bye.’”
And it’s not just chefs. Across the gig economy, independent contractors are navigating tricky sexual waters as they work—often inside the homes of their clients. They experience everything from suggestive looks to unwanted touching to frank propositions. It’s hard to know how to respond. And the already-ambiguous situation is further complicated by the fact that most gig workers are independent contractors who need good reviews from the client and who don’t have access to an open-door human resources department or colleagues they can complain to.
Part of that weirdness is because so much gig economy work takes place in the home.
Homes are generally considered to be private, intimate locations. In conventional social settings, inviting someone to your home can be a signal of friendship, sexual desire, or familial closeness. The gig economy introduces a whole new set of relationships without any fixed norms. It's awkward to have total strangers in our kitchens, on our couches, and even in our bedrooms. At the same time, the sharing economy, with its focus on peer-to-peer service, often relies on unknown people entering the home of a fellow unknown either to cook (Kitchensurfing) to sleep (Airbnb) or clean, make minor repairs, or assemble furniture (TaskRabbit).
In response to many people’s leeriness of outsiders, sharing economy companies often promote their background screening mechanisms. For example, TaskRabbit’s website notes that Taskers must pass an identity check, are screened for criminal offenses, and must attend an orientation. Airbnb relies on Facebook or LinkedIn identity verifications, while Kitchensurfing’s background checks for chefs seem to have been limited to a test meal audition in the platform’s corporate kitchen.
Many companies also promote the idea that their workers are insured and bonded. If something does go wrong the damage is covered. For instance, TaskRabbit’s Happiness Pledge, while not an insurance policy, offers clients up to a million dollars for property damage arising as a direct result of a tasker’s negligence and Uber and Lyft also offer a million dollar liability policy.
But even though workers are screened and insured, clients are not. Worker profiles are often much more complete than those of clients and include a photo and short biography. TaskRabbit, in particular, requires workers to supply additional information for their profiles before it allows them to “pass” orientation. As a result, clients can generally rest assured that they have a fairly good idea of who they’re hiring or letting into their homes—but workers don’t have the same luxury.
As Jasmine, 23, one of the people I interviewed for my book Hustle and Gig explained, "I felt like they would let anybody get on the website as a client. Sometimes I would get people who wouldn’t have a profile picture and they would have no reviews. They would basically have nothing on their page, but they want to hire you. How is that fair that we have to basically give them blood, and then they will let anybody come on the website?"
In addition to being offered wine and marijuana during tasks and being propositioned via text message after tasks, Jasmine was hired for a cleaning job that was even more unnerving. The first two times she cleaned the home of one New York city client, she noted the male client’s dirty sheets, lotion, box of condoms, and empty wine bottle, but turned a blind eye.
Then Jasmine was hired for a third time. This time the client was home and he asked about her TaskRabbit experiences. She told him that it was sometimes uncomfortable when she cleaned for men and they hit on her.
"And two minutes later he’s like, 'I got all my stuff. I’m going to go to the café across the street so I’m out of your way.' And I thought to myself, 'Oh my God, was he trying to . . .?' I think he was testing me those last two times," she said. "Like they look for opportunities everywhere.”
Workers regularly encounter behavior—including suggestive comments, sexual propositioning, and even touching, that clearly crosses the line into sexual harassment. But as independent contractors who are outside federal workplace protections regarding sexual harassment, and who often find themselves working behind closed doors and in private homes, workers struggle to name their experience. If you saw your boss’s dirty underwear or condom wrappers in a professional office, you’d know it was inappropriate. But in a private home, where such things actually belong, or on a cleaning task where dealing with dirty sheets is the whole point in the first place, it’s harder to identify the divide between unacceptable and to be expected.
Research on temporary workers has found that they are often expected to be deferential, owing to the status of their job. This asymmetrical power relationship increases workers’ vulnerability and potential for experiencing sexual harassment. Temps are often on the job for just a few days, weeks, or months, and the transitory nature of the work helps explain their sense of isolation or their employers’ failure to, say, remember their names. But in the sharing economy, workers often find themselves working gigs that last just a few hours or less. And this, partnered with the ratings and review systems, further increases an already asymmetrical power situation.
Far more than regular employees or temps, gig workers have to be careful to be polite and respectful, assuming the posture of congenial visitor rather than critical colleague. In their 1997 article in the journal Gender & Society, "Hey, Why Don't You Wear a Shorter Skirt," researchers Jackie Krasas Rogers and Kevin D. Henson found that workers at a particular temp agency were told to think of themselves as guests rather than as laborers and “were reminded that a polite guest neither challenges nor otherwise risks offending his or her host.” Aside from helping enforce the emotional work of smiling and being cooperative, the guest role also enforces passivity by "rendering any complaining or self-assertion by temporary workers on assignment as inappropriate.”
But while workers are expected to demonstrate deference and friendliness, they also run the risk that their friendliness can invite flirtatious behavior or be interpreted as encouraging it. Roxanne learned first-hand about the risk of friendliness being construed in a sexual manner.
"I had this really cool couple who were my last couple to cook for that evening, so we were sitting around and talking, sharing stories, blah, blah," Roxanne says. "And I didn’t know they were swingers; the wife tried to hit on me and it was very weird. She was really hot, but I was like, OK, this is a really random turn; I’m usually going with things, but you guys are married. It’s not my life.'"
"Sometimes it can seem like I’m flirting with people. I’m really not. I’m just really friendly,” she says, laughing. (Roxanne laughs a lot.) “I really don’t flirt with anybody. I’m just really just friendly, and I guess they thought that’s what was going on. The questions started getting a little more personal. I’m like, 'Are you hitting on me—is this what’s happening right now?' I’m like, 'Your husband’s right there, number one. Number two, no. I’m very flattered, but no, I’m sorry. I’m going to go now, thank you for the drinks. I’m glad you guys enjoyed the food.'"
Just how personal were the questions? "They were getting to like, 'Are you into certain bedroom extracurricular-type situations?'" Roxanne says.
In most workplaces, being asked about one’s sexual interests or being invited to engage in a sex act, would result in a stern meeting with human resources. But in the sharing economy, where the peer-to-peer nature of the work means that boundaries are often blurred, workers hesitate to describe their experiences as sexual harassment. It shouldn’t be surprising. Gig economy companies market themselves by touting a sense of community and trust. Workers buy into this, so when they experience situations that would ordinarily be thought of as sexual harassment, they don’t identify it as such. Instead, they experience it as feeling “uncomfortable.”
Perhaps because Kitchensurfing chefs are almost always in direct contact with clients, they find themselves exposed to sexual behavior more often than other sharing economy workers. For instance, when I asked Randall, 43, a Kitchensurfing chef about any memorable experiences, he told me about a gig cooking for what he first described as a “sex club” before clarifying that it was a “swingers, wife-swap-type party.”
"I get there,” he says, “and it’s one of those UWS apartments. It’s one of those classic prewar ones, and it’s very gothic inside and everyone seemed kind of cool. It was probably 25 people, and they’re talking; and then I hear negotiations. They’re negotiating sexual activities , and I’m thinking, 'Huh. Swingers’ club.' And there’s different playrooms and swings and the whole thing.” Then he laughs.
When the staff he brought with him seemed incredulous, Randall was quick to remind them not to get involved, no matter what happened. Describing it as “an experience,” he was quick to note, “They were great. They tipped great. They were friendly. It was fun.”
The speed with which Randall explained away the experience, and even his laughter, is telling. Randall noted that he didn’t know that the party would involve swingers but at the same time was quick to minimize the experience by focusing on the fact that the partygoers were great, good tippers, and friendly.
In addition to the temporary nature of the work, sharing economy workers—digital records and background checking aside—are essentially strangers and, unless specifically requested, are unlikely to be seen again. Randall suggests that his status as a “stranger in the house” is part of his appeal to clients.
"Another favorite thing is for me to go to the house and they go and screw while I’m there," he says. "Say a couple is having their 10 friends over, and they’re not there yet. I usually get there two hours before. So, say someone hasn’t showered yet, and they’re like, 'Hey, the kitchen is over here. I have to go take a shower.' And then they both disappear. And then you hear the shenanigans.”
Randall says he's, "OK with it. Whatever. Who cares. I don’t care. If that’s what they need. Cool. Whatever. It has happened on multiple occasions. The first time, I was with a colleague, and I was like, 'I think they’re fucking in there.'” The colleague replied sternly: “They are.”
The experience has become common enough that Randall now makes wagers with his staff about what will happen while they’re onsite. His bet? That the couple will be “doing it.” “I usually win. Most of the time it’s yes,” he says, laughing. “Maybe it’s something that people think about, fantasize about. Strangers in the house or something. They probably think I’m going to be confidential because I’m cooking for them. I guess it provides them anonymity to a degree. It’s great. It’s great.”
As much as Randall stresses that these experiences are “great” or that he doesn’t care, the fact that they come up so readily in our conversation suggests that perhaps a part of him did care.
Finally, sometimes workers find that they’re involved in jobs where the task itself is sexually uncomfortable. When I ask Cody, a 22-year-old black male, if he’d had any weird deliveries in his work for UberRUSH (Uber’s delivery service) and Postmates, he tells me about accepting a 10 pm pickup that needed to be brought to midtown Manhattan, about 40 blocks. He expected that the run would take him less than 20 minutes, even if he went slowly, so he quickly accepted the gig. As with many on-demand tasks, time is money—workers who take the time to read the entire description may find that someone else has already accepted the work.
He hadn’t read to the bottom of the request until he was on his way. “I had to go to a dildo store,” Cody says. “So I look at it; I’m like, ‘Did I read what I read?’ There’s ‘long black dildo.’ I’m not against nobody’s sex or nothing. So I went to the store.”
Embarrassed to say the words, he tried showing the request to the staff member. "I’m like, 'Can I get this?' The guy wrapped it and put it in a bag. And the other one, at the bottom, was: 'I need an eating . . .' It was some eating thing. Some sexual eating . . . I don’t . . . I’m sorry about what I’m gonna say. You put it on the vagina of the girl. And you eat."
Cody brought the sex toys to the client's apartment and rang the doorbell.
"Surprise and surprise. It’s a girl. And she looked at me. She was like, 'Are you Cody?' I’m like, 'Yes.' She looked left, looked right. 'Do you have my stuff?' 'Yes, ma’am.' 'Can I . . .' I give it to her. I’m leaving. She was like, 'You don’t wanna come and see what’s gonna happen?' I’m like, 'I’m not . . . I’m not going in there.' It was a sex party. . . . I’m like, 'Excuse me, I’m out.' That was the weirdest thing I ever did."
Like other sharing economy workers who have found themselves in sexually uncomfortable situations, Cody is careful to be polite, saying “excuse me” as he declines the offer of sexual activity and leaves the client’s home.
While the underlying notion of a “gig economy” is fundamentally forward-facing—new tools, new capabilities, and new ventures— it’s also an exercise in regression, taking us back to a time when sexual harassment was considered normal at work. The alleged egalitarianism of peer-to-peer connections means that behavior that would be unacceptable today in a corporate office is ignored or explained away as “weird” when it occurs behind closed doors in a client's bedroom or kitchen. Instead of alleviating the need for boundaries and safeguards, the ambiguity and forced intimacy of working in a private home is a fresh reminder of the importance of generations of hard-won workplace protections.
Adapted from from Hustle and Gig: Struggling and Surviving in the Sharing Economy by Alexandrea J. Ravenelle, University of California Press. © 2019 by the Regents of the University of California.
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