Talking about sex has become so commonplace these days, it’s easy to cross the line between personal and professional discussion, especially when the concept of sexual power enters the dialog.
The most recent book/movie phenomenon labelled it correctly–there are many, many shades of sexual expression and preference. While I believe consenting adults can play whatever sexual power games they wish in the privacy of their own homes, inappropriate public behavior or simply leveraging one’s gender or sexuality to assert power over another is downright unprofessional in the workplace.
This topic has fascinated me since the late Michael Crichton so expertly threw the feminist movement back on its heels with his 1993 novel “Disclosure,” which detailed exactly how a female boss could sexually harass a male subordinate. Up until that time, women had cornered the market on crying sexual discrimination and inequality in corporate America.
Both men and women seek power, unfortunately, and sexual power has become today’s weapon of choice. Emotional, social, and professional relationships have morphed into a political power struggle based on gender identification and supposed superiority. Politics by definition is “the practice and theory of influencing others.” But when is it ever right to use gender, sex or sexuality to influence or control others, especially in the workplace?
And what exactly is the workplace these days?
Here in Silicon Valley, personal and professional lives are becoming more and more blurred. Large employers serve three meals a day to their employees to keep them productive and at work for long hours. On site gyms, dry cleaners, and day care centers virtually guarantee co-workers will eventually get a sneak peek into one’s more casual side, relaxation preferences, or family secrets. Personal and business cell phones are mostly interchangeable for the supposed convenience of the employee, who trades off having to lug multiple devices around for a lack of private communications with friends, family…and lovers. Unfortunately, work has become almost the only real-world place to safely meet and get to know potential mates.
So how can we keep sex out of the workplace if that is where we spend all our time?
We each need to take a stance on re-drawing the lines more clearly between our working and personal lives, and to clarify what is unprofessional behavior—no matter which gender perpetuates it. Unprofessional, in my mind, means behavior not belonging in the workplace because it has nothing to do with the stated goals and mission of the organization. But even then, the lines get a little fuzzy. Here’s an excerpt from my novel, Private Offerings, from a scene between a Silicon Valley CEO and his VP of Marketing:
Kay rose as gracefully as a cat and perched on the arm of his chair. Her crossed legs effectively blocked his escape. “You know, Eric, you could show your gratitude better,” she murmured in a husky whisper, ruffling the hair at the nape of his neck. “We have an hour before we have to leave for the meeting.”
He jerked his head away and jumped up, not caring that he bumped her so hard she almost fell on her butt. “Cut it out. We’ve been through this before. Your behavior is inappropriate and unwanted. You’re my employee and nothing more.”
“But don’t you think I deserve a little reward for all my hard work?” She sidled up to his side, ignoring his glare. “Aren’t you the least bit tempted to know what I’m wearing under my suit?”
She released the top button of her jacket, and the thin fabric parted. “Only completely bare skin,” she whispered in his ear, brushing her breasts over his arm.
“Damn it, Kay, stop the games!” he yelled, jerking away. “I’m not interested in you, and that’s final!” He took a deep breath, willing his anger under control. She would be at the meeting later, and he needed her on his side. “I have work to do until we leave.”
Eric slammed his bedroom door and locked it with a deliberate twist, the loud click audible in the angry silence. He hated her advances. He’d once threatened to fire her if she didn’t stop, but she had smugly pointed out that if he did she would be the one to cry sexual harassment. Moreover, she would probably win.
Do you agree? Would she win when it’s his word against hers? He needs her at a meeting, and she’s leveraging it for all it’s worth. Who’s being unprofessional?
Legal recourse and fairness may be tough to pursue for any complaint of true sexual harassment. But there is no excuse to perpetuate and sanction illegal behavior, including by the victim, who too often chooses to accept the unwanted behavior rather than risk losing a job. That just doesn’t make sense. Find an advocate and blow the whistle–fast. The longer you wait, the less credibility you have later.
Yes, I ran across many instances in my own career where a line was crossed. And yes, it took courage and strength to expose it and escalate it to the highest level to make sure it stopped. No one can fight your battles for you on this matter, but there are people willing to help.
Sex is, and should remain, a very personal matter. Exploiting it for power, by either gender, in any interaction, is rarely healthy. In fact, pursuing sexual power rather than love or caring has probably contributed to a decline in trust and honesty in emotional relationships. I explore those elements of intimacy and communication in my novels, too. More to come….
(This article originally appeared on Balcony 7 Media & Publishing’s SaucyJaw.com)
Other blog posts about the topic of women in the workplace: