I wasn’t hearing what I wanted to hear: “Don’t mix work and play,” everyone said. “Don’t shit where you eat.”
“Don’t go fishing off of the company pier,” my buddy warned me, plunking his empty beer bottle on the bar.
“Even though I’m not going to stay at this job for very long?” I pleaded, peering into my wallet.
“Oh, in that case,” he said, smiling as I paid for the fresh round in front of us, “rape and pillage!”
My interviewer at the small, upstart media company (which I’ll call “The Content Producers”) is a tall, good-looking maniac. We share a mutual friend. On our tour of the Content Producers’ overstuffed, understaffed office, I can’t help admiring his broad back and powerful, satyr-like haunches. “Here is a man,” I think to myself, “who would not look out of place playing the Pan pipes while frolicking in a sun-dappled forest clearing.”
Our subsequent talk goes well enough that he calls two days later and offers me the job. I consider inviting him to a party I’m co-hosting that night, but a sudden pang of shyness overtakes me. It is the last time I will feel such a thing for several years. Over the next eighteen months, I will take the Content Producers by storm, a gleeful and impulsive Viking Conquerer of Love on an erotic tour that will eventually lead me up and down the office phone list.
The place is not exactly corporate. Major funding for our first project comes from a man who wears his money and power with such arrogant charm that he can still call underlings “Sweetheart” and “Doll” without getting his ass handed to him. On my first day, the whole staff is giggling about a couple from the office downstairs who have stopped the service elevator to indulge in a quick oral sex sampler during the lunchtime rush. All the Content Producers watch them on the security monitors in the lobby, hooting their encouragements until the doorman has to intervene.
My first crush happens later that day, when Ernie looks up from the copy machine to smile, then blush, at me. I stand, tax forms in hand, instantly smitten by the dark, curly-haired son of a gentleman doctor from Maine. My gut-churning crush on this earnest young soul will be quashed within weeks, but not before we spend a day riding the Cyclone at Coney Island.
The Human Resources guy probably gave me some sort of Content Producers sexual-harassment policy when I started working there. But maybe not. He was also the office manager and the IT guy, so he was constantly fixing the color printer before the art department had a collective meltdown, or explaining to the Fire Marshal why the mailroom guy was the only person on our floor who participated in the mandatory fire drill. Only then could he get around to pesky matters like payroll and potential lawsuits. But I doubt I would have bothered to read it anyway.
Twenty-nine years after the first Title VII sexual harassment case was resolved in D.C. District Court, a company can’t afford not to have a stated policy against sexual harassment. Individuals whose unwanted sexual advances create a hostile work environment face humiliation, termination and/or litigation. And yet, a recent survey conducted by CareerFinder.com found that 56% of American workers have dated someone on the job. If you factor in repeat offenders like me (31%, according to the same survey), assuming a workforce of approximately 150 million, you have to wonder why anyone bothers to put clothes on before heading off to work.
“The conventional wisdom is that unless the relationship interferes with the work, management has no business interfering,” says Monica Griffith, a Florida-based management consultant who specializes in employee relations. “Our waking life is in the workplace. It could be, even should be, a source of potential mates. But you want to create an atmosphere of openness between peers, between equals.”
As a reasonably well-educated thirty year old, I came up professionally among peers for whom gender equality is assumed. In this atmosphere, a sexual advance is no more threatening than it would be in a bar. Bawdy jokes told around the water cooler are entertainment, not oppression. Does this mean that sexual harassment is going the way of those monstrous ’80s-era power suits?
In another survey, this one run by teen site Alloy.com, a large majority of respondents answered that “touching and groping” is not necessarily sexual harassment, and that “sometimes that stuff is just good clean fun.”
If you ask me, the kids are alright.
Under the cover of this thing called “my new job”, I meet and befriend a cavalcade of smart, straight men — a species I’ve lived without since splitting up with a Big Love nearly a year before. On the night of the Content Producers’ big kickoff party, I’m the first one downstairs. Basking in the summer-evening warmth of the sidewalk, I watch the junior staff pour out of the elevators and ricochet around the lobby like a sackful of superballs. (What I didn’t discern at the time: within two years, four of them would be married or engaged to each other.)
At the party, the dorkily handsome Australian web designer attaches himself to me. I’ve never really spoken to Webby before, but I’m flattered by his attention and charmed by his quick wit. I don’t particularly trust either, but after six glasses of Sancerre, what sensible girl wouldn’t snag a half-bottle of champagne, hide in the coatroom of the empty upstairs bar, and make out with him like a randy teenager for an hour? When I find out that Webby is notorious for this kind of thing, I don’t even care. Adrift in a sea of options, I’m rapidly shedding my chronic libido-crippling shyness.
That’s how I find the nerve to pursue Billy, the twenty-four-year-old son of a noted theater producer who’s also a design consultant for the Content Producers. As we’re being introduced, I can’t help but notice a few mischievous tendrils of dark hair creeping up his broad chest, toward the opening of his wilted linen shirt, a shirt which happens to perfectly match the overdyed blue of his eyes. We flirt until one very late night after someone’s birthday. He hurls his jacket to the ground in mock disgust over the lack of available cabs. I’m still laughing when he sweeps me into a loose backward dip and gives me the last first kiss I’ll want for quite some time.
I lay my head on Billy’s broad chest for almost a year, at first in secret. I cautiously out us to good friends at work as they start to look askance at our suspiciously synchronous cigarette breaks or similar-sounding vacation plans. One particularly loathesome assistant starts giving me knowing looks, so I draw her into conversation, mention Billy in passing, and let her ask me about him. I deny anything untoward but entrust her with the “secret” that I — hey, doesn’t everyone? — have a little crush on him. Billy and I continue dating in privacy until we’re finally tired of arguing all the time. He leaves the Content Producers, and soon afterward, I leave him. He promptly takes up with someone at his new job.
For several weeks, I am a mad kissing bandit, both at work and in my larger life. One day, my buddy Mack, the daddy of New Business Development, takes one long, wolfish look at this new swing in my step and yells down the hall after me, “Hey baby, you want some fries with that shake?” As it happens, I do.
Mack, who’s about fifteen years and eighteen salary levels my senior, has a lot more to lose than I do. He is an unruly man of large and messy appetites, not empirically attractive but powerfully sexual. He drinks too much, drives a revoltingly fast little car and wakes the neighborhood with his barking when we fuck. And for one hot summer, that’s about all we do. We establish from the outset that, having each just ended capital-R Relationships, we will indulge our ids without wondering what to call it. We will not submit to the tyranny of underwear. It is perfect bliss, until suddenly, one night over dinner, it is simply not. He says, “Um, listen…,” and I say, “I know,” and we hurry home together one last time.
After a year-and-a-half with the Content Producers, I’m a little fatigued. I know that I don’t want to fool around with Francis the copywriter as soon as I take his glasses off. He stands there blinking at me like a stunned bat, apparently wondering what’s going to happen next. I want to shout, “Some sort of sex act happens next, so get it going!” And I’m frustrated that my job isn’t changing anymore. The fun is over, so I get some lucrative freelance work at a more established company, The Content Recyclers. On my first day there, I discover that I will be sitting right next to my one-time fling, Webby, and two chairs down from another Content Producer I once knew — I’ll call him BJ. If they hadn’t put the copier across the hall, I might’ve been surrounded.
Everyone hears — and has — tales of career-immolating disaster: Getting caught in the powder room with two grams and a topless intern at the boss’s Christmas party; obsessively dressing for, and walking past the office of, the person you kissed after a work event six weeks ago and immediately became invisible to; fending off the needy boss who mistakes an assistant’s eagerness-to-please for a secret love. These projects, once launched, tend to end badly.
I think I got lucky. My pride got wounded, and I obsessed about a few guys I didn’t even like that much, just because they were there. But despite the occasional whispered speculations about my leisure activities, I was never the center of an office scandal. Either I have a gift for giving my notice just in time, or else bringing work home with you isn’t what it used to be.
Perhaps the culture of the workplace has expanded to include as many diverse expressions as the American family. Perhaps post-post Baby Boomers are the first to have the luxury of using the corporate ladder as a prop in our libidinous gymnastics routines. At least I’ll never be fired for not getting along with people. And I have eight or nine references who can attest to that.
Names and identifying details have been changed.
This article originally appeared in Nerve’s True Stories.