When talking about sexual harassment in the workplace we now have a very clear mark in time—before #MeToo and after. The flood of allegations women from different industries and experiences bravely shared over the last few months made it clear that sexual harassment goes deeper than “a few bad apples,” and now we’re finally exploring how misogyny has been normalized in the workplace. But we should be clear in understanding that this is not merely a problem of men abusing their power—this is the result of a culture that denies, suppresses and distorts sexuality.
Our professional culture prevents us from talking about sexuality as a force that shapes our whole lives, including our interactions in the office. Not directly addressing sexuality obfuscates an important aspect of the puzzle of sexual harassment and assault: the truths that most people don’t know how to set and respect sexual boundaries or how to respectfully manage their own sexual energy and desires. Add to the mix the unacknowledged biases and sexual norms for how masculinity and femininity are performed—which play out everywhere, including on-the-job—and we have created a sexual wild west in our workplaces. Here, our culture-wide inability to address sexuality meets imbalanced corporate power structures, making conditions ripe for sexual harassment. Cloaked in the myth of the “sexually neutral workplace,” even well-intentioned executives and companies trying to avoid perpetuating dynamics of sexual harassment can end up fueling the vicious cycle.
A “sexually neutral” workplace—one that is set up to ignore how people are socialized around gender roles, bodily autonomy and sexual agency—doesn’t and cannot exist, and we should not insist on it as an ideal. Men and women do not operate, in their sexual or professional lives, from a level playing field. We must address the roles that each gender is expected to fulfill and the respective rewards and punishments doled out when these roles are and are not met—and we must connect the dots between how those roles shape our jobs and the rest of our lives.
As sexuality educators, we’ve witnessed these dynamics personally and worked with hundreds of adults in the intimate terrain of sexuality and relationships. Because sexuality has been so deeply exiled in our society, learning sexual skills as an adult can lead to a profound reclamation of confidence, joy and personal power. The empowerment that extends from that sexual evolution touches every part of a person’s life. It’s time to stop thinking about sexuality as something that’s confined to the bedroom, and consider it instead as a natural and important part of being human.
Work is not the place for overt sexual expression—but dynamics from the sexual realm play out there anyway. Just one example? The gendered sexual role for women: to be the object of men’s sexual attention and to be rewarded for it. The flip side: men hold more power and get more permission for their desires. This is how a culture enabling sexual predation and abuse of power gets made.
Several decades of gender equality initiatives in the workplace have not resolved the fact that women still earn lower wages than men, get interrupted more often in meetings, are more likely to have their contributions dismissed and disregarded, consistently undervalue themselves in salary negotiations and are much more likely to experience sexual harassment and assault in the workplace. Corporate women who have chosen to “play the man’s game” have had to walk the razor’s edge of not being too pretty or sexy, but also not so assertive or dominant that they are branded bitches, mannish or masculine—deeply gendered insults that show the price women still must pay in their search for sovereignty and professional power.
Men face a double-bind of their own: in seeking to avoid any appearance of misconduct, executives increasingly report that they avoid 1-on-1 contact with female employees and mentees because they don’t want to run the risk of harassment charges. Meanwhile, those who have no compunction about taking advantage of women may still be rewarded by a society that gives them a pass for “locker room talk” or simply says, “boys will be boys.” In this spirit, women are not usually invited for afternoon bourbon or afterwork drinks at the local strip club and therefore, can’t build relationships with the same compunction that will help them succeed. The exclusion of women is multi-pronged, and is indeed limited by sexual roles and expectations.
People who do not identify within this gender binary or who do not perform the role of woman or man “properly,” which includes heterosexually, are at risk of harassment for that very fact, too. With our neophyte ability to understand gender beyond two boxes, transgender and non-binary employees have even less support or recourse for navigating sexual dynamics and gender-based harassment in the workplace.
The solutions we’ve tried aren’t working. Workplaces are supposed to protect employees—yet have built systems that keep them silent and at peril. Corporate language about not seeing race, gender or sexual orientation may look great on paper, but clearly, these problems run much deeper than well-meaning sentiments. Anti-harassment trainings have evidently not been working—and coaching women to navigate gender and leadership in a broken system doesn’t help in this already fraught context. (How does a woman safely “lean in” at Weinstein Co, Fox or Uber?)
Some advocates have said that a solution to sexual harassment, long-term, is comprehensive sexuality education from a young age, so that learning how to set and respect sexual boundaries, understanding our own sexuality and clarifying our desires and how to communicate them would be a given in everyone’s educational upbringing. The sexually neutral workplace is not dissimilar to abstinence-only education in schools, where we talk around the issue of sex, which renders our interventions ineffective. We have a professional culture that disallows us from talking about sexuality as a force that shapes our interactions in the workplace, so we can’t have the conversations we need to have in order to address the problem.
But this growing awareness to the source of the problem isn’t a solution for working adults who need a direct intervention now. To effect change that encompasses them, we have to start at the top—and scrap the ideas that sexual harassment is always about power and sexual assault is always about violence. This isn’t only a power problem—it’s a sex, gender and sexuality problem too. Given that sexuality and power are intertwined in our lives, and that our workplaces are microcosms of the bigger world, how do we make our workplaces safer for people if we’re not talking about sex?
Much like colleges and universities, companies have been invested in appearing squeaky clean, insisting “this doesn’t happen here.” Litigious workplace environments incentivize companies to keep things quiet, which protects predators. The focus on avoiding sexual harassment lawsuits coupled with the myth of the sexually neutral workplace prevent deeper analysis of the gender dynamics that play out in the office—keeping certain people quiet, others complicit and everyone at risk.
What if, instead, companies acknowledged the ubiquity of sexual harassment and misconduct and took leadership in changing the culture of the workplace by assuming it is there? What if companies divested themselves of the myth of the sexually neutral workplace and instead acknowledged that these power dynamics are intrinsic—and made a commitment to deepen understanding and change them? Industry leaders and executives should heed the longtime warnings of advocates and get rid of “cover your ass”-style anti-discrimination trainings that protect the company and the people in power; invest in a leadership model that acknowledges the links between sexuality, gender, violence and power; train people with power, including and especially male executives at the highest levels, to understand their own unconscious sexual bias and intervene in the dynamics at play; and institute programs for employees that address the real nexus of sex and power in the workplace and how that impacts leadership, professionalism and success.
When workplaces acknowledge that sexuality is a part of our humanity and our well-being, we will be able to address so many of the power issues that have hurt, disenfranchised and abused people. We will build professional spaces that value bodily autonomy and in which the body is not at risk for unwanted touch, commentary and objectification. We will have professional environments in which we can identify blind spots about gender and address how even well-intentioned people can unwittingly fall into roles that are limiting and deeply unsatisfying. We will have workplace environments that accept and support transgender, non-binary and other gender-non-conforming employees.
What we need is not a sexually-neutral workplace. What we need are strategies to acknowledge and effectively address the real impacts of sexual power and gender inequity.