Welcome to The FAQs of Life, R29's new advice column. Each Tuesday, Colette will offer her sage wisdom on modern life and all its stumbling blocks. If you've got a query you'd like her to take on, send it to FAQs@refinery29.com or leave it in the comments.
THE Q: I work in a small start-up. It’s more casual than a big corporate office; people wear sneakers and everyone’s friendly — there are a lot of after-work hang-outs and happy hours. It’s great, but I have one coworker whose, uh, friendliness is starting to wig me out. It’s 90% these shoulder pats. I’m sitting at my computer, and he comes by to talk and kind of drums on my shoulders from behind. Not quite a massage, but definitely friendly touching. And, then, a couple times after a work happy hour, he’s hugged me. That’s it. Two hugs and some patting. It’s never been anything more, though I don’t think he does it to anyone else. He's the nicest guy, but it distracts me, and once or twice I've skipped a meeting because I felt awkward around him. I want him to cut it out, but I also don’t want to raise a big stink about something petty, especially since it’s such a small office. If it helps, I’m in my 20s; he’s probably early 30s and, while not my direct boss, definitely a notch or two senior to me. What do I do? — Don't Touch Me, Bro THE A: I love the start-up vibe, DTMB, I really do — but there are really only three instances when coworkers should touch each other, whether you're in a suit-and-tie office or a Ping-Pong-table office: 1. Celebratory high-fives (good for successful meetings, successful puns, or HBO series finales), 2. When trust falls at team-building retreats, and 3. If you have spontaneously combusted and your coworker is using a blanket to put you out. That’s it. Make no mistake: What’s happening to you is sexual harassment. Low-level sexual harassment, sure, but sexual harassment nonetheless. It's making you uncomfortable and affecting your work — and it ought to stop. Unfortunately, not every creep is going to act like a Tex Avery cartoon and punctuate his crude comments with loud AH-WOOGAs to drive the point home, which is why so few women bring these cases to light. Sexual harassment is insidious, thriving in the gray area where glances linger just a bit too long (maybe?) and off-the-cuff comments later reveal themselves to be come-ons (or, maybe not?). It doesn’t matter how successful you are, how many pantsuits you wear, or if you’re “one of the boys” — it can still happen to you. Hell, even Kirsten Gillibrand has experienced sneaky touches and creepy comments, and she's a GD Senator.
Here’s the most important thing for you to know: YOU ARE NOT CRAZY, and THIS IS NOT OKAY. It’s easy to convince yourself that you’re making “a big deal” over nothing; the loudest male opinions would have you think that it’s “just a bit of fun,” that you need to “lighten up,” but that’s bullshit. You’re entitled to a work day free of unwarranted physical contact.
Now that we've established that, how you react to his behavior is entirely your decision. No one is expecting you to be the Norma Rae against workplace sexual harassment — your feminist card won’t be revoked if you don’t mobilize a full-scale protest or storm into your boss’s office and demand to have the perpetrator’s badge. Your mental health and your happiness are your foremost concerns. So, pursue this to the degree that you are comfortable with: If that means getting supervisors involved, go girl! If you’d rather roll your eyes, put your head down, and get back to work, do that. But, given your circumstances — and that you seem to think he's not the world's worst guy — I'd suggest you try to talk to him about it. Grab him alone, and briefly but firmly say something like, "Hey, it makes me a little uncomfortable when you do that shoulder-patting thing. Mind cutting it out?" Chances are, he'll be embarrassed, murmur an apology, and stop. If he doesn't, then write back and we'll discuss ways to bring out the cavalry.
THE Q: I'm a 23-year-old professionally minded gal and have lived in New York City for about a year. Work takes up most of my time and energy, and I don't want to complicate life with romantic entanglements right now. But, at the end of the day, a woman has needs. The last several months, I have had a bunch of trysts with various men — some I see once, and others I keep on speed-dial, though no encounters go beyond a post-coital slice of pizza. It’s working out fine for me, but my best friend doesn't understand how I can have such a detached position on sex and fails to hide her disdain when I mention one of my casual flings. I should probably mention that she's been in a monogamous relationship with the same guy for almost four years. Is there something wrong with me — or her? Am I having sex with too many men? I'd like to put this disagreement with my friend to bed, no pun intended. — Single Lady’s Urges Triumph THE A: First things first, SLUT — let’s not use that word. Are you a grown woman who is getting hers within the parameters of consensual sexual experiences? Yes. (And, let me just say I’m jealous. You should hold seminars on how to successfully have casual sex, because the only people who swipe right on my Tinder profile are Juggalos.) The word “slut,” by the way, doesn’t even mean anything. A woman will be called a slut for applying too much makeup, wearing a short skirt, flirting with a guy in public, going home with her date, not going home with her date, or, the real kicker, “acting slutty.” Who is a slut, and for what, is entirely subjective. The word is used to shame any woman whose behavior deviates from traditional gender roles; it exists only to serve those doing the shaming and assigning the roles — who, in both cases, are usually men. My English degree might not be useful for much (sorry, Mom; sorry, Sallie Mae collections officer), but it did teach me this: If a word has so many ambiguous definitions, it isn’t useful or trustworthy. So, ladies: Please delete the word “slut” from your vocabulary.
Here's what’s up: You are not hurting anyone with the decisions you are making about your own body — not yourself, not the “various men” you are trysting with, certainly not your friend. “You sound intelligent and thoughtful about what you want in your life right now,” says sex therapist Vanessa Marin. “You’re not being coerced into anything; you’re making these choices willingly and with your eyes wide open.” Clearly, you’re happy with your “No New Boyfriends” philosophy and yet, even in this letter, you feel the need to justify and contextualize your sex life. It shouldn’t matter how much time and energy you have or don’t have: A woman is allowed to desire sex without the pretense of romance or love. But, that’s the power of slut-shaming: It gets into your head and convinces you that things that make you happy, particularly things that make you come, are wrong. Society is misogynistic and vilifies women for being enthusiastically sexual. And, unfortunately, your best friend's concern and thinly veiled judgment are part and parcel of our culture that fetishizes patriarchal inventions like “modesty” and “purity.” The world pities and shames sexually adventurous women because sex is still seen as some catastrophic event that diminishes feminine worth. But, unlike a suburban mom’s garage collection of Beanie Babies, women aren’t commodities whose value is determined by how relatively untouched they are. I’m sure your friend only wants the best for you. “Sometimes, part of being a good friend means gently calling each other out on potentially harmful life choices," notes Marin. However, "it sounds like your friend is taking this way too far.” Instead of worrying about who will buy your cows and your milks, your friend should only ask three questions after your casual encounters: 1. Were you safe? 2. Was it good? 3. What kind of pizza toppings did you get? How do you get her to accept your love-'em-and-leave-'em style? “I’d say something like, ‘If you have any fears about my safety or well-being, please let me know. Otherwise, let's keep this topic off the table for a while,’” Marin suggests. If she continues to play Judge Judy of the millennial set? Well, the great thing about you and your friend is that you’re two separate people who each have their own vagina. What you do with yours and whom you show it to is none of her business. Let her know that while you have lost nothing from participating in these casual encounters, she stands to lose you. You have plenty of other things to think about, like how to secure an equal wage, who is coming after your reproductive rights, and how Dan could’ve been Gossip Girl when Kristen Bell did the voice-overs; you shouldn’t have to worry about defending yourself against your best friend.