Yes, Attraction Is A Gray Area. What Does That Have To Do With Harassment?

Photographed by Nicolas Bloise.

Not long before the resurgence of #MeToo, a good friend of mine asked me for advice about a work situation. He had recently started working closely with woman in her early 20s and wanted to know the best way to ask her out. He is in his early 30s and good at his job, but is justifiably frustrated with many of his colleagues, some of whom are terrible employees, don’t care, and still skate along, making even the simplest of collaborative tasks a slog. She was a recent hire not long out of school (having completed undergraduate and advanced degree programs back-to-back), and brought fresh, sharp perspective. They seemed to be on the same wavelength almost immediately, he told me.

She picked up on the dysfunction of their workplace and had good instincts for how to navigate it. Unprompted, she shared her own impressions of what was wrong, and gave him opportunities to vent. She was a pleasure to work with, and also exactly the kind of woman he might go out with in “real” life. His problem was how to go about doing that — and if he should.

Breaker of dreams that I am, I advised him against it. Not only had a previous office relationship between him and an ex-coworker imploded, but, I explained as gently as possible, making a move on this new colleague seemed slightly self-interested to me.

Of course he felt drawn toward her; she was a breath of fresh air, as corny as the saying is. She was smart and insightful, she “got” him as a person, and he enjoyed working with her — a big change from most of his daily interactions. But she had only just started that job; and as much as I care for my friend, I identified with how she might feel if he changed their relationship.

I’m 29 years old, have been working for years, and am not new to work or working in an office. Still, I could easily imagine being a new hire, hitting it off with a colleague, and feeling good about getting shit done together, only to learn that his interests weren’t so simple. My friend was not her superior, but he had been there long enough to have seniority and be seen as necessary in keeping things together. I asked him to consider what it might be like for her to possibly lose an ally so soon — and for him to be seen as someone who regularly initiates romantic relationships with coworkers (with a track record of them going poorly).

"Let's be honest about who usually benefits from murkiness about sexual mores at the office as well. Doing so doesn't do away with women's sexual agency; it makes men more responsible for theirs."

If his interest in her continued, I said, he should first make sure not to put the responsibility for that on her. She hadn’t shown any indication of wanting the nature of their relationship to change and shouldn’t be put in charge of his feelings. Second, her time at the company already had a deadline. She was placed there on a temporary basis until her full-time position at a different program was officially confirmed; I didn’t see why he couldn’t wait until then, which was only a matter of weeks.

My friend respected my opinion, and I’m sure would have been happy if I’d given him a secondhand okay to press ahead. (Especially since I’m a woman.) But he appreciated my advice to hit the brakes, and I appreciated him telling me about his feelings; as someone who swears off dating colleagues, I didn’t realize how difficult some people find it to just take the L or delay. Establishing a firm line between my sex life and my work life isn’t a gray area to me, and although I understand it is more nebulous for other people, taking pains to establish firm lines in a foggy zone is still crucial.

As men in various industries continue to be implicated in and punished for their role in sexual harassment and assault scandals, the questions being asked have gradually expanded from is this really happening? (yes, since time immemorial); to what is happening (unusually similar instances of touching, exhibitionism, and intimidation); who is doing it (mostly men, from the stories we are seeing); and what is lost by creating more strident boundaries in workplaces interactions.

For example, in a recent essay for Slate, “The Upside of Office Flirtation?", executive editor Allison Benedikt wrote about how she ended up with her husband, an “older and more powerful editor” who was responsible for her career, and unquestionably attracted to her. At the time, she was 23 years old and an entry-level fact-checker. He flirted with her when they were alone at a bar after a staff booze cruise, and the rest (kissing her “without first getting consent,” “brushing past each other in the office and sitting with our legs touching under the table at after-work gatherings,” and 14 years of marriage and three kids) is history.

Benedikt argues that the confused considerations many men are making now, including second-guessing their chances with women at work, can be a big price to pay. “[It] doesn’t just protect women from abuse,” she explains, “it protects us from experiences that I’m not sure I’d relish giving up.” But the key word here is "I’m" — as in, for her —and the “experiences” she speaks of are specifically about opportunities for sex, love, and meaningful relationships outside of work, even if they start at work.

“I’ve felt a rift with many of the younger women I know, who claim to understand exactly where to draw the line between legitimate behavior and abuse and seem to view harassment as any interaction with a man that has made them uncomfortable,” Benedikt writes.

It may be true that some of that exactitude is bravado (the kind many women employ in the face of being told their perceptions of indistinct, but all-too-familiar, experiences are unfounded), but for many, it is also exasperation. Perhaps young women don’t know precisely how to articulate that line and should be more honest about that, but let's be honest about who usually benefits from murkiness about sexual mores at the office as well. Doing so doesn't do away with women's sexual agency; it makes men more responsible for theirs.

"Whether #MeToo erases nuance about sex and attraction at work is not the point; whether men take advantage of that uncertainty in professional situations — often compromising women’s career aspirations — is."

I’ll admit that as an infrequent dater, I may be somewhat of an anomaly. I never date people I work with, and barely sniff at people in my own industry, as they can work in a different city one day and then be one desk over the next. But I don’t feel nostalgic for all the romantic opportunities I may have missed out on; the professional aspirations and goals I’m working toward, which I’m still figuring out and am learning to articulate, often feel just as exciting and tenuous as anything else. Why should that be gambled on?

I’m not a stone. I get the sexy appeal of a consensual work relationship and why many people happily leave themselves open to the possibility. But I don’t believe that asking men to consider their actions, impulses, and the often gendered nature of power more deeply is too much — or is an unequal trade for a chance at romance. I’m reminded of another essay in The New York Times about sexual harassment in science and academia, titled “She Wanted to Do Her Research. He Wanted to Talk ‘Feelings.’” Whether #MeToo erases nuance about sex and attraction at work is not the point; whether men take advantage of that uncertainty in professional situations — often compromising women’s career aspirations — is.

“There has to be room for a relationship like mine to happen,” Benedikt writes. “The difference between actions that can get you married and actions that can get you fired can’t simply be whether or not the person you are interested in is interested back” — but often, they are.

The Times published an autopsy of the actions leading up to the resignation of Lorin Stein ths week, the most-recent editor of The Paris Review. Stein reportedly had consensual sex at the office, started romantic relationships with interns, and repeatedly sought out sexual relationships with colleagues in his industry.

“Viewed by some as a throwback to the literary world’s glamorous past of boozy lunches and charismatic editors, Mr. Stein, dapper and charming, projected an aura that made literature seem sexy and fun again.” Deirdre Foley-Mendelssohn, a former senior editor at The Paris Review who left in 2012, talked about the downside of such an atmosphere, saying that “[Stein] wanted us to be pretty, he wanted us to act that role, and if we didn’t, we weren’t in the light of favor.”

Of her experience dating a boss, Benedikt says, “I know John wouldn’t have punished me at work had I not been interested in his advances,” but that is the certainty of hindsight. It is wonderful that they jointly worked to appoint someone else to edit her after their relationship began, and found other ways of creating a professional firewall. But the difference between Benedikt being okay with her boss' flirting, touching, and “look[ing] down the back of my jeans at work” really is luck. For women like those who consented to relationships with Stein and believe they were blackballed after “the souring of their romance,” I guess that is their bad luck. That romantic success or disappointment is a dice roll is hardly the bigger issue.

The fact that many people have sex with colleagues (with no serious relationship in mind), or flirt with coworkers (looking for something long-term) does not mean the rules of attraction should be the same at work as they are at a bar. Who doesn’t like to be chased? Benedikt asks, recalling a conversation she had with a confused male friend. I don’t. Not at my job.

Women should “have the power to not be threatened by an unwanted but unmalicious move [and] the power to say no to a man’s advances without being that man’s victim,” she continues, and I agree. But men should be held accountable for acting on those feelings, however things work out. To suggest that romance, and even love, is the biggest thing women lose by demanding circumspection from men encourages a rom-com fantasy about missed opportunities, which doesn’t play to many women's advantage in real life. Women are asking everyone to do the work of severing the link between their desirabilty and professional success; this is an invitation for men to do the same.

If you have experienced sexual violence and are in need of crisis support, please call the RAINN Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).