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[Criticism]

Hostile Work Environments

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A sexual harassment reading list

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.

It might seem an act of literary anachronism to put a novel written in 1740 on our harassment syllabus. But what is Samuel Richardson’s Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded if not a story of workplace sexual harassment? Pamela Andrews is a poor, fifteen-year-old servant in London whose employer, Lady B, dies, leaving her rakish son in charge of the household. Pamela describes these events in letters to her parents in the country, who reply with urgent warnings about her possible “ruin” — they know all about what can happen to maidservants when a young man takes charge.

Pamela dismisses their fears, but pretty soon, Mr. B grabs her and kisses her while she’s doing needlework in the garden. “I struggled, and trembled, and was so benumbed with terror, that I sunk down, not in a fit, and yet not myself,” she writes to her parents. Pamela professes revulsion and fear at Mr. B’s advances, but she also rebukes him with poise and conviction. “You . . . have lessened the distance that fortune has made between us, by demeaning yourself, to be so free to a poor servant.” Mr. B is enraged and intrigued and ultimately moved by Pamela’s moral authority. She stands up for her sex and class: Mr. B should not assume that he can touch her and kiss her and try to win sexual favors with trinkets just because she’s a poor maid working in his household.

Pamela’s courage to assert her values, even as a young servant in vulnerable economic circumstances, electrified readers. Her puritan values were Richardson’s own; he believed in chastity until marriage — for housemaids and ladies no less than burghers’ daughters. Pamela insists on her right to practice sexual virtue; she condemns her boss for not doing the same and nearly dragging her down with him: “Not content to be corrupt himself, [he] endeavors to corrupt others, who would have been innocent if left to themselves!”

Critics of workplace sexual harassment policy have regularly used the term “puritan” (or sometimes “Victorian”) to describe its perceived overreaches. These are used loosely and interchangeably to suggest prudishness, hypocritical judgment, and an ill-conceived desire to regulate sexual behavior and protect women from male sexuality. They’ve shown up in discussion of the #MeToo movement. “We seem to be returning to a victimology paradigm for young women,” Daphne Merkin wrote in a January op-ed in the New York Times, “in which they are perceived to be — and perceive themselves to be — as frail as Victorian housewives.”

Accusers and their allies indeed sometimes casually use the language of protection: that some company or organization failed to “protect women” is a common claim. When Rosanna Arquette is quoted in The New Yorker as saying, to a rampant Harvey Weinstein who was propositioning her with promises of a job, “I will never do that” and “I’ll never be that girl,” it can sound like Pamela: “I dread of all things to be seduced, and would rather lose my life than my honesty.” When today’s accusers (including the male ones) recount their anguish at unwanted come-ons, or their proud refusal to engage in sex even at the risk of losing work, it’s easy to think we hear echoes of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century sentimental heroines. A heroine like Pamela, whose moral authority was based in large part on her chastity, her “dread” of sex outside marriage, has left a treacherous rhetorical legacy for feminists who support free sexual expression and sexual pluralism while fighting sexual harassment.

Yet the echoes of Pamela and the charges of puritanism can lead us to miss a crucial point. What Arquette will “never do” is agree to sex for the sake of career advancement — not because sex is wrong but because the sexual quid pro quo is wrong. Taken together, the stories of harassment that have been reported over the past six months have allowed us to see sexual harassment as a widespread form of corruption — not corruption of the innocent, in Richardson’s sexual sense, but corruption in the more common contemporary sense: the extortion of favors by powerful people, which, like graft or cronyism, makes a mockery of the ideals of fair play and merit-based advancement. The corrosive effects of sexual harassment ripple out well beyond those who are directly harassed, potentially to anyone working in a given industry and even to the public at large. To take the clearest example, lobbyists in statehouses across the country say they have been groped or propositioned by lawmakers, which they felt they had to tolerate because their jobs required access to elected representatives. A New Mexico lobbyist quoted in the New York Times recalls a lawmaker saying to her, “You can have my vote if you have sex with me.” What bill was he voting on? The article doesn’t say; New Mexico residents may well wonder. Their lives may be affected by one man’s single-minded pursuit of sex with a colleague.

Sexual harassment policy is not charged with protecting women but with protecting working relations. Though the policies may regulate even consensual sexual expression in some circumstances, they’re not a vestige of either Puritan or Victorian sexual morality, with its focus on individual sexual continence, its interdictions of nonmarital and nonprocreative sex. Instead, the movement against workplace harassment (which involves, but is not limited to, promoting better harassment policy) suggests an ideal of collegiality and camaraderie across gender, an ethos of public life in which the shared endeavor of work is more important than possible sexual or romantic relationships.

Pamela eventually falls in love with and marries Mr. B. Her harassment case is trapped in a romance; her triumph is not in getting her boss to leave her alone but in parlaying his sexual interest into a marriage that dramatically raises her social and economic status. The anti-harassment movement obviously promotes different modes of advancement for women. It also might invite us to reconsider our values when it comes to romance and work. How much room do we need to make for sex or love in the workplace? Does discouraging even consensual sex dampen our working relationships, or might it improve them? Are our lives primarily love stories, or are they work stories, or some other kind of story entirely? Of course, we can’t get too sentimental about anti-harassment policies that are drafted at corporate headquarters with the ultimate aim of protecting profits. Though one strand of #MeToo — the Ansari strand, let’s call it — has led us to debate sexual relations between men and women generally, another has been asking, What else will make workplace conditions fair and more fulfilling? Equal pay? Paid family leave, guaranteed regular hours, tighter safety protections, a living wage?

An ambiguous case can be the bane of an activist movement. Critics of sexual harassment policy tend to focus on such cases — sometimes speciously, in order to cast doubt on the larger movement and its quest for justice. At some workplaces there may be cases of policy overreach or a rush to judgment, while in the majority you are still much more likely to find tolerance of sexual harassment. Most of the cases that have been reported thus far seem to be accounts of clearly unethical or criminal behavior. Many of them are cases of outright sexual assault. Some involve unwanted groping or kissing, being stalked or badgered for sex even after clear refusals. Others have been stories of workers who consented to unwanted sexual activity because they felt they had to in order to get work. And some of the harassment stories are about punitive measures taken against an employee after a boss’s sexual overtures were declined. Still, ambiguous cases exist, and sometimes it’s in considering complex and inconclusive scenarios that we can best see the stakes and the implications of the movement against workplace sexual harassment.

If I were to tell you about a young woman, barely out of high school, still living with her parents and her older sister, working her first job as a secretary in a small-time suburban law office, and I told you that her boss, the lawyer, called her into his office one day, told her to bend over the desk while he spanked her, and kept calling her in and spanking her for several weeks until one day she couldn’t stand it and left her job, you’d probably say that this was obviously a case of sexual harassment.

But Mary Gaitskill’s “Secretary,” from the collection Bad Behavior (1988), is anything but obvious. When the narrator, Debby, fresh out of secretarial class at the local community college, lands a job in a lawyer’s office, her normally uncommunicative family celebrates over a bowl of popcorn. “My family’s enthusiasm made me feel sarcastic about the job — about any effort to do anything, in fact.” But she quietly looks forward to it nonetheless. “I felt like I was accomplishing something. I wanted to do well.” And she does. Her boss, “a short man with dark, shiny eyes and dense immobile shoulders” who shakes her hand “with an indifferent aggressive snatch,” runs a sleepy operation: a few uncomfortable locals shuffle in each week. Debby likes the boss’s brisk style and the simple, repetitive nature of her work.

But in her third week, something changes. Her boss starts complaining of typing mistakes. He’s been finding them all along. He goes cold. “You’re wasting my time,” he tells her when she turns in a letter with still more mistakes. She feels mortified and nervous. The next week, he berates her even more harshly. “Come into my office. And bring that letter.” He asks her to bend over his desk and read the letter out loud.

Though critical in her private observations, Debby doesn’t seem one to say no to people in positions of authority. It may not even immediately occur to her to think it. Or it’s possible that she is instinctively drawn to precisely the scenario that the lawyer has in mind. In any case, she does what he asks, and while she’s reading the letter, he begins spanking her. “The funny thing was, I wasn’t even surprised.” She starts to cry.

The word “humiliation” came into my mind with such force that it effectively blocked out all other words. Further, I felt that the concept it stood for had actually been a major force in my life for quite a while.

She goes back outside to the front desk, “planning to sink into a stupor of some sort,” but a client comes in, and work goes on as usual, and she finds that “my life had not been disarranged by the event except for a slight increase in the distance between me and my family.”

In developing policy, we think in terms of hypotheticals. Is an employee really free to say no when her boss makes a pass at her? We study real-life examples, consider all possible contingencies. In fiction, there are no contingencies. It is Debby’s fate to be turned on by spanking.

When I got into bed and thought about the thing, I got excited. I was more excited, in fact, than I had ever been in my life. That didn’t surprise me, either. . . . I masturbated slowly, to put off the climax as long as I could. But there was no climax, even though I tried for a long time.

The spanking happens twice more. Debby’s neutral descriptions of the events seem to defy the common and often sentimental vocabulary we have for sexual intrigue. Does she like the lawyer? Is the spanking fun? Does it bring her pleasure? Reading Gaitskill, such terms seem cheap and beside the point; sexuality, in this story, is a set of intense sensations and excitements, as likely to be uncomfortable as physically pleasurable. Yet something about these encounters seems exactly right to Debby, salutary even: they gratify a desire she didn’t know she had. She has a recurring dream in which they are smiling at each other in a field of red poppies, and he says, “I understand you now, Debby,” and they hold hands.

In waking life, however, their relationship goes on as before: when he’s not spanking her, he gives her assignments with brisk good cheer; she fulfills them. Her sexual revelation doesn’t fit in any easy way with her general sense that the lawyer is mildly risible, beneath her in sensibility. She struggles to reconcile their encounters with her life at home, especially with her father’s daily defeats at his own (unspecified) job. “There was one time I felt disturbed about what was happening at the office,” she tells us. (Only one time, we note.)

My father was upset about something that had happened to him at work. I could hear him yelling in the living room while my mother tried to comfort him. He yelled, “I’d rather work in a circus! In one of those things where you put your head through a hole and people pay to throw garbage at you!”

Behind his closed office door, Debby and the lawyer burlesque their work roles, and their other roles as well — male and female, older and younger, richer and poorer. In every way, he’s on the top and she’s on the bottom, a redundancy whose weight threatens to collapse their delicate arrangement. Is Debby playing with humiliation, or simply being humiliated on the job?

The lawyer, for his part, doesn’t seem concerned with the distinction. One day, instead of spanking her, he tells her to lift up her skirt and pull down her underwear while she’s bent over the desk. Debby complies. She becomes aware

of a small frenzy of expended energy behind me. I had an impression of a vicious little animal frantically burrowing dirt with its tiny claws and teeth. My hips were sprayed with hot sticky muck.

She goes to the bathroom as soon as she can to masturbate. When her mother picks her up, she observes that Debby looks “a little strange.” Debby stays home sick the next day and never goes back to the office. She does not tell us exactly why. The lawyer sends her a note:

I am so sorry for what happened between us. I have realized what a terrible mistake I made with you. I can only hope that you will understand, and that you will not worsen an already unfortunate situation by discussing it with others.

He encloses an extra-large final paycheck. The next time Debby hears about him, he’s running for mayor. An unctuous reporter calls to invite her to speak about her personal experiences with the candidate. She hangs up without speaking. Why not tell? Because she’s implicated? Because she liked it? Because there’s nothing to be gained from translating her complex experience into a campaign muckraker’s journalese?

“Secretary” is a story about an erotic discovery, it’s a story about wanting and not wanting to leave home. Is it also a story about sexual harassment? Debby doesn’t accuse the lawyer, and in a way, his moral status is beside the point. We don’t know what the episodes will mean to an older Debby, whether they’ll represent a valuable revelation, an instance of exploitation, a dead end of emotional overload — or something else. Reading “Secretary” today, we may think that Debby’s situation sounds like sexual harassment, but that’s not the story she’s telling.

Yet one point emerges clearly: before their encounters began, Debby liked working for her boss. “I enjoyed feeling him impose his brainlessly confident sense of existence on me,” she says.

He would say, “Type this letter,” and my sensibility would contract until the abstractions of achievement and production found expression in the typing of the letter. I was useful.

Once their sexual relationship began, she could no longer take the same pleasure in her job. Other possibilities may have opened up, but her simple satisfaction in the work itself was foreclosed.

A tremendous number of stories circulate in our culture about the importance of sexual fulfillment. We have fewer stories about the importance — and the pleasures — of simply feeling useful in one’s job. What conditions would allow more people to feel useful instead of feeling used?


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April 2018