About halfway through my article on Desire – Male vs Female, I stop discussing a review of a book on that subject – which looked at the topic from a scientific viewpoint, and instead started to look at it from a sociocultural lens, specifically the #MeToo movement. It was March 2018 when I wrote that article, and my tone towards #MeToo had become noticeably beleaguered, as related events had been unfolding for quite a few months. It’s in contrast to my more optimistic attitude towards #MeToo around January of 2018, when I was writing Consent in the #MeToo Era. In my article on Desire, I advised men to refrain from ever flirting, or asking out any female coworkers, as in the current climate it was too dangerous, as it seemed anything could be deemed harassment. It’s with this in mind that I want to draw your attention to the following article in Slate that I read shortly after writing Desire.
In it the writer Allison Benedikt recalls a period in her early twenties when her boss, an editor in the magazine they both worked for, started coming on to her. While she initially felt uncomfortable with his attempts, she didn’t refuse him; which would have perhaps been the appropriate course of action, and additionally in our post #MeToo times, report him to HR. Instead she continued seeing him, and fourteen years later they are (presumably) happily married, and have three kids. She poses the following question: would the story of how her husband and her ended up together, if it happened today, be considered a case of sexual harassment? She answers in the affirmative, and I’d have to agree with her. While she believes the cultural shift that has exposed abusers like Harvey Weinstein is a good thing, she notes that an unfortunate byproduct of #MeToo is the “expansion of our collective definition of harassment.” To the point where some young women are drawing the line between legitimate behaviour and abuse, such that harassment is any interaction that made them uncomfortable. This is especially relevant in light of her own story, where if actions undertaken by her boss such as asking her out for a drink, or subsequently attempting to kiss her hadn’t happened, she wouldn’t have her marriage or her children. To her these actions should occupy a grey area, where they are instead now residing in a very much enlarged no entry zone for interactions between coworkers.
The resulting play it safe style behaviour by men, where they will never instigate any flirtatious behaviour or an approach with a co-worker they find attractive, while protecting women from abuse, will also in Benedikt’s words “protect us from experiences that I’m not sure I’d relish giving up”. She concludes that “a world…where any power differential or wrong move is seen as predation, robs women of the ability to consent as well.” And there lies the rub. The flip side of #MeToo by taking away a man’s agency to take a risk and pursue a co-worker, especially an underling, also takes away a woman’s agency to decide whether to consent, or reject a man’s advances. Those advances will never come. Benedikt goes on to explain that the very taboo nature of her relationship with her boss, and the fact that they had to keep it secret, made it all the more exciting and in my opinion probably strengthened their bond.
But she wonders why, when John her boss, first asked her out for a post work drink, or later kissed her, that it wasn’t harassment. It certainly could have been construed as such. She firmly states that the fact that it worked out, that she consented, is not reason enough on it’s own. A man cannot know ahead of time if his approach will be rejected or not. And as she describes, there were many ways that it could not have worked out. Ultimately it seems, they trusted each other, and took a risk.
She goes on to state a few things that I always thought were implicitly understood about male female relations, but perhaps need to be restated.
“It is completely within the norm of human exploratory romantic behavior for people to take steps—sometimes physical steps—to see if the other person reciprocates their feelings. It is OK to flirt with a person who you aren’t sure wants to be flirted with. It is OK to not be 100 percent great at reading signals. It is even OK to be grossed out by someone’s advances, as long as those advances stop once you make clear you aren’t into it.”
And she uses this to justify the continued possibility of a romance like hers. Unfortunately I just don’t think it’s possible, the resulting culture of fear has seen to that. I stand behind my recommendation to never flirt, or come on to a coworker, although perhaps these invisible restrictions will be relaxed in time. It’s a pity since I think the workplace is a great environment to meet a potential partner. Working with someone means long hours in their company, getting to really know them, and letting attraction and chemistry develop. Office romances are the subject of so many tv shows and romantic movies. Now compare this with Tinder and Bumble and mind numbing swiping. Not exactly movie plot material.