Oct.-Nov.1998 Articles:
The Race to be Florida's Next Governor

Mindpower: Love and a Big Butt

Spoil Your Inner Child

Preventing Rape: The Do's and Don'ts

Sexual Politics in the Workplace

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Sexual Politics in the W.o.r.k.p.l.a.c.e.

by Morris Sullivan

Not too long ago, some men tried to sleep with the women who worked for them, and some tried to use power to expedite that. It was a pretty commonplace thing, and everyone was too embarrassed to talk about it. Certainly, no one sued
anyone over it.

Jason and Shirley sat in my office. Jason stared fixedly at a point in space about three inches in front of his crossed knees, and Shirley looked at me with a combination of anger and embarrassment.

I looked at Shirley. "So," I began, "I hear you're having some trouble with your staff."

Shirley answered with a litany of denial and defensiveness--telling me over and over that she and Jason weren't "fooling around," the rumor was unfounded, and her subordinates shouldn't have spread it, and on and on.

I interrupted her. "Look. I don't care if you have or not..."

"We're not! I swear! I couldn't..."

"Shut up, Shirley," I said. "I don't care what either of you do with your personal life. It's none of my business, and I don't want to know. I do care, though, if it becomes my problem. And right now, whether you are or you aren't, it is my problem. And I don't want this problem.

"Now we now have a morale problem among the sales staff, because they think there's a romance going on here, and..."

She protested. "But honest, we weren't..."

officepic1"I don't care, I told you. And I meant that. Now...Jason. I want you to stop following Shirley around like a puppy dog. You should have plenty of work to do, and if you don't, I'll find some for you. If you guys are fooling around, be more discreet about it."

They both chimed in at that. "But we're not!"

"I'm going to tell you one more time, I don't want to hear another denial. The thing is, if you act like you're fooling around, people will assume that you are. Based on what I've seen and been told, I'd assume you're fooling around, too. However, I wouldn't expect you to admit it to me. It would be rude and meddlesome of me to ask, so I won't. And if I did, I'd expect you to deny it.

"Besides, even if I found out for certain that you were, I don't know what I'd do about it, so stop denying it, and go straighten out your morale problem."

As they slunk out of my office, I thought about office romance, and I wondered a little about my it's-none-of-my-business attitude. I wondered how many other employers felt that way. I'd once been accused once of "inappropriate relations," as Clinton put it. My boss--the owner of the company--had asked me to lunch one day and confronted me with the allegation.

I was still a couple of rungs from the top of the ladder, then; I supervised the delivery guys and ran the warehouse. One of the delivery guys had called my boss at home to tell him that I'd been unfairly "riding his ass." He said that I was doing it out of jealousy--that I was "fooling around" with one of the bookkeepers, and that I was jealous of his friendship with her.

I felt shocked, and my first urge was to defend myself against the charge. I was married. As far as I could tell, the young woman in question was as pure as the driven snow, and I hardly knew her.

I held back, though, and thought about what he'd said. Then I answered: I had been "riding" the guy--but not unfairly. I'd caught him claiming overtime while he was actually goofing off. I'd threatened to fire him if he did it again. I had corroboration, too--I'd been tipped off by someone that his truck was parked in front of his parents' house while he claimed to be working. I'd also been told by the head bookkeeper that he was wasting his time--and theirs--hanging out, chatting up the young lady in question.

I explained all that. My boss checked it out, then fired the delivery guy.

I still felt embarrassed, though. I was surprised that my boss would consider me capable of such a thing. "By the way," he asked. "You never told me--are you been fooling around with her?"

"For the record," I replied, "No, I'm not. But if I were, I wouldn't tell you. Who I sleep with is none of your business, because I wouldn't let it affect my decisions at work. I wouldn't want it to affect yours, either."

I thought of these incidents again while attempting to avoid the latest news on the Clinton sex scandal. It's too bad more people don't have the good judgment to differentiate between their own business and everyone else's. As talk shows and "real story" shows turn human foible and strangeness into entertainment, the Oprah-fication of America has made airing dirty laundry seem commonplace. We seem to have lost all shame.

Combined with this, I think, is feminism and the increased number of women in the workplace. As more women moved into the workplace and rightfully began to insist on equal pay and equal treatment, workplace sex roles have been upended.

officepic1Not too long ago, some men tried to sleep with the women who worked for them, and some tried to use power to expedite that. It was a pretty commonplace thing, and everyone was too embarrassed to talk about it. Certainly, no one sued anyone over it. About the worst consequence one of these predators could expect was a well-crafted, insulting rebuke, a slap in the face, or a punch in the nose from an irate husband. This was bad, of course, and legislation and a string of civil suits started to change the face of workplace sexual behavior.

Unfortunately, stories about sex attract an audience, and the media latched onto this titillating trend as a way to sell papers and increase ratings. Now, of course, it goes far beyond the real news to talk and magazine shows on which people disclose the most embarrassing things about themselves imaginable.

I have a psychologist friend who thinks this trend is good--that if we see others disclosing their nuttiness on television, then maybe we'll be able to feel better about our own, and lacking this shame, be more likely to get help when we need it. On the other hand, however, I think some things are best not shared with the public. I don't think there's any dishonor in keeping one's private life private.

I don't think Clinton's a great president. However, I agree with him that his sex life is none of our business, provided there isn't coercion involved. It's pretty obvious Lewinsky was never coerced. It's unfortunate that Clinton didn't say--right from the start--that whether or not he'd had sex with Lewinsky was nobody's business. That would have been the honorable thing to do. Of course, we wouldn't let him get off the hook that easy. We'd insist on an answer, just like we wouldn't have elected him if he'd said it was nobody's business if he'd smoked dope when he was in college.

Of course, a perfect leader would never get himself in the position where he'd have to lie about having sex with an intern or smoking pot.

We'll be hardpressed to find a perfect leader, though. And I'm afraid we'd never vote for an honorable one. •

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