Don't grope your co-workers. I learned the hard way.
"Don't shit where you eat" is crass but fantastic advice. It's also an axiom I spent the first decade of my professional life blithely ignoring. At nearly all of the twenty or so jobs I had from age fourteen (a farmer's market) to a couple of years ago (various glossy magazines), I was the very pink of unprofessionalism.
At twenty-two, I made out with my fellow archivist at a research library. At twenty, I ate grilled woodchuck and drank far too many cans of Budweiser with the migrant workers on an organic farm in Massachusetts. At sixteen, twenty-three and twenty-five, I flirted shamelessly with fact-checkers, copy editors and interns at magazines where I interned or wrote. I never actually had affairs with my coworkers at photo labs in Texas, Montreal and Brooklyn (ages nineteen, twenty-one, twenty-three) . . . oh, wait, I totally did. My permanent record shows that I have been, at almost every opportunity, the office slut.
I have been, at almost every opportunity,
the office slut.
Why? For one thing, I'm extremely efficient. On the farm, I could weed a field of beets before we piled in the truck to go into town for our lunch break at 11 a.m. At the photo lab, I could print and sepia-tone a stack of fiber prints before my first iced coffee melted. I've typed eighty-seven words per minute since junior high. As we efficient types know, halfway through the afternoon you often get stone-cold bored. And how better to cope with boredom than to scan the room and fantasize about what you could do with that tousled new recruit in the break room?
Affairs at work not only kill time, they are also a particular kind of thrilling. Years ago, I got deeply involved with a mysterious co-worker a few cubicles away. We spent the day emailing each other devastating character assassinations of our cohorts, delighting in the fact that no one in the office even knew we knew each other, much less that we were an army of two allied against them.
I had a boyfriend, but I didn't think my office crush jeopardized that relationship. The office guy and I were just new best friends, and besides, I was flirting with plenty of other people at work too. The office felt totally separate from the rest of my life. At home, I could be a real person; at work, I could exude the gleeful impropriety of a busty blonde '50s-comic secretary, perched cross-legged on her desk, surrounded by balding men.
Right around that time, over dinner one night my aunt told me that my uncle had just cheated on her with someone he met at work. I became furious on her behalf. How could Uncle John do such a thing? I thought, in between emails to that guy at work, whom I was now emailing dozens of times a day. What a jerk.
Anyone who considers himself progressive shouldn't feel such things as lust for a boss or underling, so he pretends he doesn't.
Somewhere at the height of this work flirtation, my company's human-resources department sent out a sexual harassment handbook. My office crush and my other friends at the office — for it took more than one man to stem the tide of boredom — forwarded choice passages to each other, mocking their stern sincerity. I'd been all pro- such manuals my freshman year in high school when I discovered Bikini Kill, but ten years later, I felt like I was so over advice like "Set boundaries." I thought boundaries were for sissies.
My coworker friends and I found terms like "inappropriate conduct" utterly hilarious. We riffed on double entendres like "Assert yourself firmly." We tried to figure out if anyone on our floor did not contribute to a hostile environment as the book described it. After all, each of us sat next to people who fit this description: "Mary Sue shares an office with me. When she uses the phone for personal calls, she uses profanity and an abusive tone." The sexual harassment handbook was like all those "It'll kill you, you know" anti-smoking campaigns: futile, because mortal danger is part of the appeal.
We all took the multiple-choice test that came with the online booklet and compared our appalling scores. It was clear that we'd deliberately flunked, for the test was a cinch. Sample question: "The two types of sexual harassment are: a) "quid pro quo and hostile environment; b) sexual advances and dirty jokes; c) pro bono and fairy tales; d) supervisor to employee and employee to employee." (The right answer was a., but I bet we all put down c.) It reminded me of the gleeful debauchery and amoral self-righteousness ushered in by those purity tests that seem to appear in your locker the second you turn fifteen.
Then, seemingly out of nowhere, my office crush and I kissed at a bar one night after work. At first, it didn't even occur to me that I'd completely fucked up. He didn't seem to have anything to do with anything else. I acted as if it was all completely normal and I was not, in fact, engaged in a far-too-close emotional and increasingly physical affair. Then my boyfriend started asking me just whom I thought I was kidding, and the wall I'd set up between the two worlds came crashing down.
The week after my boyfriend confronted me, I told the office guy I couldn't talk to him anymore. Things had gone too far for us to go back to any kind of normal relationship. His emails turned nasty, calling me mean and a liar. He accused me of screwing up his life and using him to get my boyfriend to marry me. I repeatedly burst into tears at my desk, mostly because I couldn't believe how close I'd come to obliviously pushing away my longtime boyfriend in the pursuit of someone I'd barely seen outside of the office, someone I hardly knew at all. And he was right — I was mean. I'd hurt both men just by failing to set a couple of boundaries that, in retrospect, should have been obvious.
I'd hurt both men just by failing to set a couple of boundaries that, in retrospect, should have been obvious.
I now know that this was an utterly predictable trajectory, documented in painfully precise detail in the important book about at-work affairs called Not Just Friends, written by Ira Glass's mother, Shirley P. Glass. It's one of only two self-help books I've ever owned. (The other is Alan Carr's Easy Way to Stop Smoking, which I also recommend.) In "Part One: The Slippery Slope," Glass offers a helpful quiz entitled, "Has Your Friendship Become an Emotional Affair?" That was an easy question for me to answer. The harder one was this: How did Shirley Glass get so smart about these things and how did I get so stupid? She outlines, step-by-step, the self-deluding process by which one becomes infatuated with a colleague while maintaining a "we're just friends" state of denial.
Shirley Glass also says that sex and emotional involvement combine more in modern workplace affairs than they did in the past. Before, she says, men often had flings at the office and on business trips, but these were far more likely to be simple sexual liaisons without an emotional component. Now, with people marrying later in life and working longer hours in offices that are less hierarchical and far more co-ed, the workplace has become, as magazine articles tell us incessantly, the new singles bar.
I don't know about the singles-bar analogy. At no job that I've had were people openly cruising. If anything, I think the issue is that sexual tension is so sublimated in our current work culture that it's constantly bubbling up. Anyone who considers himself progressive shouldn't feel such things as lust for a boss or underling, so he pretends he doesn't. Meanwhile, he's having vivid daydreams about doing filthy things on the conference table and making unnecessary trips to the supply closet so he can walk by the object of his affection's cubicle.
Getting crushes on people you're around for large swaths of the day is inevitable. And when you work long hours, a kind of alternate reality takes hold. This situation is compounded by the popular practice of after-work drinks, where one's superego is muzzled as one's id is let off the leash. Whether as a tension breaker or what, everyone I know has drinks after work with colleagues and it often leads to some kind of boundary-less behavior, which leads to morning-after weirdness.
At one recent job I had, I wound up at a bar after the Christmas party with a bizarre assortment of employees, bosses and interns, all fantastically drunk off of the most deliciously fruity, stealthily potent drinks anyone had ever had. God only knows what happened after I sobered up and left the bar around three, but the next few weeks brought — if not a hostile environment, then a distinctly uncomfortable one. Such socializing just sneaks in around the edges of what you'd find in a sexual harassment manual.
Is it possible to have work-sex etiquette that doesn't revolve around infantilizing sexual harassment manuals?
After my fellow photo archivist ended an affair we were having, he and I had to continue sitting at desks three feet apart, twenty hours a week. Where we had once flirted, joked, and played each other mix tapes, we now worked in dead silence, our backs turned to each other as we cataloged photograph after photograph, making neat stacks in our white gloves, pressing down a little too hard with our pencils. We were housed in a small office, but there was so much tension it radiated throughout the building. One day not long after the breakup, I noticed our boss standing in the doorway, just watching us. He didn't say anything, but the next day I was given an assignment in the stacks, and the guy was given a computer project several floors away.
One friend of mine started sleeping with a substantially younger intern in her department. She was spotted by a coworker snuggling with him on the street near their office, earning a reputation as a cradle-robber that she kept until she quit. Another guy I know passed out on the couch at a work party — thirty seconds after reaching out and grabbing an editorial assistant's ass in front of the entire office. Like me, they resorted to the lamest three words to explain their behavior: "It just happened."
I wonder if our ignorance of professional etiquette isn't a generational thing. My twentysomething friends and I are so confident about how genderless and classless and egalitarian we are that we don't notice we're stumbling into traps that people in the '50s with their rigid rules and gender divide avoided with a slew of unspoken codes.
The question is: is it possible to have some kind of agreed-upon work-sex etiquette that doesn't revolve around infantilizing sexual harassment manuals? I think there is, and it's this: for God's sake, don't do what I did, what so many of us do, and ignore all the evidence that the sexual tension is there. Don't do the most embarrassing thing of all and pretend you have your inappropriate lust under control, then work late or go out and get a little tipsy at the Christmas party or on the expense account and "accidentally" take things too far. Having sex on the conference table is too much fun to do if you don't really mean it. n°