Criticism — From the April 2018 issue

Hostile Work Environments

A sexual harassment reading list

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The newspapers these days are full of sex scenes. Tales of exhibitionists, frottage specialists, voyeurs. I would normally be heartened to read about so much perversion, in the respectable press no less, but these are articles about sexual harassment in the workplace — so they are also the stories of unwilling participants who were intimidated into silence, threatened with professional retaliation, or assaulted. As the accounts of unwanted sexual advances pile up, I’ve been thinking about one of the rare novels that actually features terms like “unwanted sexual advances.” Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods (2011) is a satire of American business culture that now seems prescient: its salesman-hero is peddling a solution to the problem of office harassment. “I believe that those in a place of work who do not welcome sexual advances should not be subjected to them,” Joe tells his CEO clients, but he assures them that he makes no moral judgments about harassment. “We know,” he informs the CEOs, that the most successful employees are the kind of “high-testosterone-level individuals” who, because of their hormones, also can’t help harassing women: “Women were being molested in the workplace solely because their colleagues did not have a legitimate outlet for urges they could not control.” When it comes to sexual harassment, Joe believes, everyone is a victim, even the perpetrators, and thus everyone is a potential beneficiary of his lightning-rod system.

Illustration by Katherine Streeter

The lightning rods are a team of office sex workers who blend seamlessly into one’s administrative staff. They send faxes and make copies and are available for quickies in the bathroom. No one in the company knows which secretaries are lightning rods and which are just regular secretaries. After careful study of his own favorite masturbatory fantasies, which involve women leaning over walls having sex from behind, Joe comes up with a way to protect the lightning rods’ anonymity: an opening in the wall that will allow a sort of trolley to slide through from the women’s bathroom to the men’s, bearing the bottom half of a naked lightning rod, ready for action. Her upper half remains on the other side of the wall, inaccessible to the client and therefore anonymous. Citing made-up studies about the mating habits of captive baboons, Joe persuades one CEO to give his idea a try.

Joe’s solution presumes that men who harass women are seeking only a female body, and that any body, even one with no evident head or upper torso, will do. Joe doesn’t exactly believe this. “Most men tend to see sticking their dick into someone as a form of domination,” he acknowledges to himself. “To be honest . . . that’s what they like about it.” Still, Joe bets that there’s such a thing as a good enough sexual outlet, and that the lightning rods will be just that. None of the men testing the product find it very hot; between the poor ambience of the bathroom stall and the missing upper half of the woman, employees report the experience to be unsatisfyingly “clinical.” But as they stand in the bathroom feeling disconcerted, staring at the lightning rod’s ass,

they would suddenly remember all the information they’d been given on the baboon in captivity. They would realize that the clinical, unerotic environment was there for a reason. And they would remember that experts had determined that the male animal performs best if certain physical needs are given a release.

Being competitive, results-orientated individuals, they took a professional approach: If something will improve your performance, go for it.

And once they do, a lot of them find the lightning-rod program to succeed as advertised: they are less distracted at work and more patient with the women they date outside the office. The women working regular jobs in the office seem happier, too.

In spite of all that talk of uncontrollable urges, the male employees’ sexual desires are fairly easily satisfied; with the right combination of incentives and opportunities, their lust is discharged cost-effectively, and everyone can get back to work. In DeWitt’s satire, lust is not a tyrant but a craven yes-man to career ambition.

And isn’t this actually something we’ve known all along? Nearly everyone, it seems, harasses down, not up. (How many entry-level employees ever made the boss watch them masturbate? Grabbed the CFO’s ass?) We take this for granted as part of the psychic landscape of sexual harassment. Some would say that the exercise of power, the domination, is what gives sexual harassment its charge. But might we not see in the patterns of harassment a subconscious calculation? The libido thinks fast, remembers where its paycheck comes from, doesn’t want to see its name in the papers, settles for less than it wants, and then treats its attainable objects with the scorn they’re due. Everyone knows his place in the hierarchy and harasses accordingly. Which suggests that far from being unruly, the libido, like the worker himself, is eminently manageable.

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