Office romances aren't going away post-Weinstein—so let's talk about them honestly

There's no point pretending that power dynamics and grey areas don't exist. So here's a manifesto for a better way forward—without sliding into lazy moral puritanism

December 18, 2017
Startup Stock Photos
Startup Stock Photos

In the wake of #MeToo, there is fresh confusion about the fine line between the personal and professional, and between flirtation and harassment. Over the past few weeks, I have felt conflicted, with various questions about the ethics of workplace attraction confounding me. Is all entanglement between work and sex out of bounds now? I have wondered. When is a relationship between unequals ‘wrong’, and does that mean it isn’t worth pursuing regardless? And how do we decide what is ‘wrong’, anyway?

I haven’t been alone in asking these questions. Recently, Allison Benedikt wrote an article for Slate on “the upside of office flirtation”—which, for her, was marriage and kids following a relationship with her editor when she was in an entry-level job aged 23 (beginning, she writes, with a “non-consensual kiss”). She warned of taking a black and white approach to workplace sexual morality, which she suggests risks penalizing and scapegoating men for behavior that is not always “wrong,” especially in cases where there is disagreement over whether something even is “harassment.”

Later that week, Lorin Stein, the editor of The Paris Review, stepped down as a result of an internal investigation into his “behaviour towards women.” The resignation referenced a consensual affair he had with a female writer, whose work was subsequently turned down by the magazine.

Citing this, Josephine Livingstone then wrote an article responding to Benedikt’s, warning of “the perils of extracting universal principles from fairytale endings”—as, clearly, not all office romances work out so well as Benedikt’s.

In her discussion of Stein as well as her own relationship with a tutor at university, however, Livingstone seemed to extract universal principles from negative manifestations of the workplace romance, whether direct or not. She wrote that while she had no regrets about her relationship, she still thought that her tutor had been ‘wrong’ simply because he had been her superior. She also considered it important to insist on the ‘wrongness’ of such a relationship, whether or not it also had benefits, in order to ‘protect’ younger and less powerful women from potentially negative consequences.

While I commend Livingstone’s considered and intelligent article, I take issue with this last point, particularly. I don’t think that it is a good idea to insist that all such relationships between ‘unequals’ in a professional setting are wrong. I don’t think that every single kiss that is not preceded by the question, ‘can I kiss you?’ counts as harassment. And I don’t think it is fair to insist on protecting the younger and less powerful.

While one could argue that in a context where there is an imbalance of power, the weaker individual does not have real ‘choice,’ I would insist that taking away that choice completely is not the answer. Relationships, even toxic ones, are learning experiences. Discomfort does not in itself mean one is not culpable, either; in Kristen Roupenian’s Cat Person, to take a fictional example, the protagonist is involved in an ‘unequal’ relationship and makes a decision she later regrets, but it is nevertheless her own decision. It is something to learn from and not repeat, but it is not necessarily an instance of victimhood.

We need to allow people to embark on whatever journey they want to, and encourage them to embrace their personal freedom and the responsibility that comes with it, in order to grow and hopefully become more empowered.

Young women don’t necessarily need to be ‘saved’ or stopped from making mistakes. They need to be given ways to become wiser through their own volition; to make better decisions, perhaps, but not to have their decisions made for them.

Unless we think carefully about this leap from moralism to protectionism, there is a real risk in spiraling into a lazy form of moral puritanism. It was this move that seemed, for instance, to recently motivate a theatre to drop a production of Rita, Sue and Bob Too—which explores the power dynamics as two young women embark on an affair with an older man—after one of the directors was accused of sexual harassment. (The theatre later reinstated the play.)

We need a better solution, which accounts for the humanity and liberty of those involved, and the inevitability of sexual attraction in the workplace.

This solution also needs to better understand the issues of sex and power within a broader context of other personal relationships and hierarchies in the workplace, rather than reducing everything to this stark and basic idea of all ‘unequal’ sexual relationships as immoral.

Human relationships are messy and unclear and shifting; a power dynamic may start one way and transform over time. Attraction is intriguing, complicated and often unclear.

To spiral from accusations of rape to denouncing workplace flirtation as morally reprehensible is a very ineffectual and distracting strategy for reducing the occurrence of sexual violence. Instead, it creates confusion; a fixation on the political correctness of a smile, a glance, or a kiss without a question.

To avoid puritanism and conflation, I propose the following ideas moving forward, in order to navigate workplace sexual attraction with more clarity and pragmatism:

  1. Communication and consent: It’s clearly important to establish consent before sexual behaviour, and to respect a “no.” I don’t see why someone shouldn’t be suggestive or flirtatious but then step back if the other person isn’t interested, and respect their decision. The suggestion itself doesn’t have to be a crime. A clearer understanding of what sexual harassment actually entails, and realizing that there are ambiguous situations where there is a difference of opinion, is important.
  2. Taking responsibility for oneself: If you do give consent to an ‘office romance’ (or similar) with someone in your field (and particularly someone in a position of power), then that means taking some responsibility for the fall-out as well. Ultimately, taking responsibility for such situations is more empowering than assuming one is a victim by default of the power dynamic.
  3. Paying attention to the nuances of each situation and not reducing everything in a puritanical way. Don’t assume that every case is the same, or that every instance of unwanted flirtation is malicious. Try to understand other people rather than resorting to knee-jerk condemnation.
  4. Being ready to forgive, if not forget. Trying to make peace with those who have hurt us is helpful in moving on and in turn, helping others. “The worst of us are only human” as the old adage goes.
  5. Realising that this problem is not all about sex: People get ahead in their careers just by being friends with the right people, for being socially manipulative and exploitative in other ways. Reducing everything to sex is overly simplistic and ignores the myriad devious and Machiavellian ways some people aspire to and stay in power, and the ways other people don’t manage to.
  6. Accepting that if we spend lots of time with people for work, then attraction may be inevitable, whether mutual or not. We have to accept that and work around it, rather than aspire to this total professionalism—which may well be unrealistic, particularly in industries where the personal and professional overlap so much of the time. If there can be workplace friendships, there should also be some acceptance of workplace sexual relationships and associated drama.
  7. Promote more women: The necessary culture change isn’t to remove sex from the equation necessarily, but to change where power lies. If more women were in positions of power then perhaps there wouldn’t be such an imbalance in the first place, where (usually young) women may feel pressured to appease (usually older) men simply because they’re in charge. I also think there would probably be more accountability and discussion about what is and isn’t ok, on a case-by-case basis, rather than a futile aspiration to a single basic rule. While sexual abuse should be tackled in order to allow more equal opportunities, that shouldn’t have to involve condemning all workplace relationships and flirtation.
  8. Move away from aspiration to the Don Draper archetype—and try to understand why that type is so attractive to some: Minimising the disproportionate power of the ‘male ego’ in creative industries would be a worthwhile change, as would making that ‘type’ less aspirational in wider culture. If young men didn’t go into whatever creative industry wanting to be the next Don Draper (or similar), then maybe there would be less of the sort of behavior that type tends to glamorize. And it goes for women as well as men. If people didn't actually find the ‘powerful, morally ambiguous’ stereotype so alluring, then the real-life versions of him probably wouldn’t be so successful. The Don Drapers of the world are in charge because people like them being in charge. Firing some of them won’t change this underlying psychology. We need to probe deeper. Why did we hire them in the first place?
  9. Allow the personal freedom to make mistakes, but be prepared to offer support when people encounter the negative consequences: We need to be free to make potentially unwise decisions, so long as we are not forcing others into that behavior. It may help if there is more support available to those who find themselves trapped in toxic situations, even when they do so through their own choices. Such support need not be judgmental, pitying or moralistic, but simply compassionate and balanced. One does not need to be a victim of sexual abuse to receive sympathy. 
Ultimately, despite all the bad press, this probably isn’t the end of the office romance—or questionable sexual affairs and power plays more generally. This is a deeply rooted social issue that requires a lot of thought, care and discussion, and, quite possibly, a certain amount of acceptance and forgiveness.

Moving forward and creating a new reality will not just happen by firing people and clinging to moral absolutes, but by considering deeply what it means to have certain desires, what it means to be desired, and what it means to work with other people.

We need to think about where we want to create boundaries and where we want to subvert them; where we want to have power plays and hierarchies, and where we don’t. The best place to start is through talking to each other, no matter how hard the conversation, and no matter how much we may disagree on what is or is not “wrong.”