UPDATE, NOV. 12... So this "scandal" has now apparently cost several dozen jobs. Unreal. Not all that surprising, given the tenor of the times. But still unreal.
I once kick-started the process of losing a high-paying management job by telling my 17-member department that I didn't care if they had sex in their offices during lunch as long as they were reasonably quiet and hygienic about it. And I was willing to compromise on the quiet part. I did not just say this out of the blue, by the way. The company was in one of those periods when there's a hyper-emphasis on productivity, and we managers were obliged to communicate that top-down agenda to staff; I was simply trying to be a good guy by underscoring that as long as my team gave me 100% when it counted, what they did during their, uh, down-time was none of my concern. I encouraged them to use their breaks to decompress...and that's when the sex idea hit me. I was half-kidding. I think.
Word got around and a few days later I was summoned to the office of the boss of bosses and informed that by merely putting that notion “out there” I'd opened the company to massive liability under hostile-environment statutes, which were just then reaching critical mass in HR circles. I did not help my cause when, during this dressing-down, I pointed out that among the company's 300 employees were a dozen or so who'd have these notoriously loud arguments with their spouses, both on the phone and in the staid corridors of the building.
Ergo, I smartly asked (or so it seemed to me, anyway), “Which would you rather hear on a regular basis, fighting or fucking?” Unimpressed by my alliterative flair, my boss went into anaphylaxis.
This decades-old episode comes to mind in the context of several recent news items, notably an escalating scandal here in Pennsylvania over racy emails, images and videos circulating in the state Attorney General's office. It is hard to exaggerate how overwrought the coverage of this matter has been. Daily we locals are treated to some new revelation involving two or three more officials who received and may have even—God help them!—looked at these materials, which apparently are so graphic and appalling as to augur the fall of Western civilization as we know it. There have been a half-dozen forced resignations to date. Among the casualties is a state Supreme Court judge. More departures are expected.
Is there anyone who can survey what's going on in the world in these times of Ebola, ISIS, Ferguson and the rest, and tell me that sexy emails are worth worrying about?The attempt to police sex at work technically took life as part of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but was catapulted to national prominence a decade or so later as women increasingly moved out of the steno pool and into careers with a management track. They began voicing objections, thoroughly legitimate ones, about the odious abuses they encountered on that very boys-clubby path: unwelcome groping, tacky references to female body parts and, worst of all, quid pro quo harassment, wherein a women's professional advancement would be tied to her willingness give the boss a sexual thank-you. But as typically occurs with major cultural reforms—once windfall-minded tort lawyers get involved—the core concepts were soon expanded beyond all reason. HR departments scrambled to keep up with precedents established in the latest “hostile environment” lawsuit: “Don't you dare touch” became “Don't you dare make people uncomfortable.” Worse, discomfort was defined as an eye-of-the-beholder offense. Risk-averse HR managers began crafting policies to placate even the most sensitive beholder's eye.
Now, I am not implying that employees should be free to devote large parts of their workday to surfing porn. But an occasional joke, cartoon or, yes, a glimpse of Web-flesh can be a great tension reliever and a pleasant diversion from an otherwise taxing day. I see no reason to punish such diversions.
Moreover, the most bizarre and frustrating aspect of our “hostile environment” statutes is that they never even attempt to punish actual hostility: that is, the garden-variety verbal and procedural assaults that can make 9-to-5 life an unremitting hell regardless of gender. Bullying, degradation, general nastiness and even utter assassination of an employee's self-worth are all just fine, as long as they don't target someone in one of the familiar protected categories enumerated in the Civil Rights Act.
So I urge you to put aside your preconceptions and your social conditioning and ask yourself which is honestly worse—you ready?—are the preconceptions and social conditioning safely put away?—OK then, so again, which is honestly worse: hearing a coworker orgasm or hearing a coworker sliced into tiny pieces of humiliation by a boss with a machete for a tongue?
In any case, when did exposure to sexual themes become hostile? You certainly wouldn't draw that inference from the rest of the culture. Have you seen the figures on the growth of the porn industry since the advent of the internet? (The link takes you to a Google topic page, but be careful what you click on; some of the site results made my antivirus howl.) Regular TV, too, gets steamier and steamier: Its biggest hit shows revolve around who's sleeping with whom, who wants to sleep with whom or, in the case of those proliferating “special victims” shows, who was forced to sleep with whom at knifepoint. Even the geeky Big Bang Theory is loaded with double entendres (beginning with its title). Pop music? Do we really need to go there? Beyonce and Jay Z practically had sex on-stage at the Grammy's. More people have probably seen and admired Miley Cyrus' butt and boobs than can correctly identify the present Secretary of State on this, the eve of Election Day. Critics and film-goers alike made “happenings” out of books and films like 50 Shades of Grey and Gone Girl, both of which overtly mate sex and violence. Now that's sexual hostility.
In fact—spoiler alert—I'd bet women would rather look at pirated clips of Ben Affleck's johnson from that scene in Gone Girl than at those pix of your kids or grandkids that you inflict on everyone at work. I'm even thinking that most women, if they're going to be honest, enjoyed that glimpse of Anthony Weiner's eponymous appendage.
Still, it's as if we've come to a point where, in our public lives, we need to pretend that sex doesn't exist. It's laughable, and it's maddening.Anthony Weiner is of more than passing relevance because he demonstrates that our faux puritanism has very real costs. In Weiner's case, a brilliant and seemingly uber-dedicated public servant was rendered unelectable for the great sin of sexting. Granted, his situation was complicated by infidelity, but infidelity is a private matter between husband and wife that should not cast a pall over the rest of a man's (or woman's) public oeuvre. Similarly, Eliot Spitzer was a devout crusader against Wall Street excess at a time when the nation needed every such crusader it could find; he too had to go. Bill Clinton, by many measures a successful president, barely survived impeachment. What would've happened if JFK's “workplace” indiscretions had been made public? Or what about beloved FDR? The iconic Thomas Jefferson? (Did you know that Sally Hemings was barely into her teens when ol' Tom took her with him to Gay Paree?) The fella did an okay job as as statesman, though, I hear.
Which is why I'd urge everyone reading this to tear off the PC strait-jacket and press for an end to the hypocritical charade. Bring it up at the next staff meeting. Then by all means enjoy your lunch hour, and tell 'em you got the idea from me.