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    Monday, October 03, 2005

    Sexual Harassment Considerations

    After responding to the Nerve "Sex at Work" issue, I keep feeling strange. I guess the question I keep asking myself is, "why is it important to keep sexuality in the workplace?" Is it asking so much of ourselves not to make sexual innuendo for the hours we are on the clock, not to flirt, not to splash sexual imagery around our work areas, not to make dirty jokes? Honestly, I think that it's reasonable that people not flirt, not sex-joke, not sexualize work encounters. (Caveat: the Friends case, where art is being made- conversations about sex might occur; you can't expect those working in a gynecologist's office to avoid all mention of female anatomy; academics whose work deals with sexual themes- these things should be treated differently.)

    I think I would prefer a work situation like that to any work situation I've had. It doesn't kill me, but when my boss makes sexual comments, it isn't neutral to me either. I have also felt that expressing any discomfort with flirtations and sex jokes and such at work would cause problems. So I don't. I play along a lot of times. And I don't think I should have to.

    I think that one unfortunate by-product of sexual harassment lawsuits is that women often have an even more difficult time being hired or being promoted because men feel an entitlement to sex-oriented conversation and feel safe that, with other men (assumed heterosexual), they can have this conversation without offending anyone. (I was told that my boss didn't really want me in the same part of the building because everyone else there is male and he didn't want to have to watch what he was saying because a woman was around.) Women have to, then, participate in a sexualized work culture just to show how comfortable they are with it, so as not to jeopardize their mobility within the company/organization/institution. All this is not the fault of sexual harassment law, but of the harassers, of course.

    But the article by the lesbian who was fired for sexual harrasment brings up an interesting point: how might such strident sexual harassment policies be unfairly applied to queers? Because heterosexuality is considered "neutral", one can mention one's husband or wife or other-sex-significant-other without calling up anything particularly sexual. But the simple mention of a same-sex partner seems to indicate something more sexual than might be considered appropriate in the workplace. (This is another argument for the assimilation model of gay lib- as long as same-sex relationships are "different", there is higher level of accountability for those involved, and harsher division between "gay" behavior and relationships and "straight" behavior and relationships.) I have also noticed that straight people deal with non-straight people (read: with their discomfort with non-straight people) by talking about the queer person's sexual preference A LOT or not at all. Just like some white folks deal with people of color by emphasizing that they either do not notice their skin color or are comfortable enough with it to mention it. So, for both parties, the very fact of integration between queer and non-queer people complicates the "sexual harassment" question. Which was, in some permutation, an argument against the integration of women into male-dominated careers.

    Pinko Feminist Hellcat has an excellent post about the class issues involved in the dissolution of sexual harassment law and her post is accompanied by some very interesing comments.

    And, considering the comments section on PFH's blog brings me back to my original question: "why is it important to keep sexuality in the workplace?" And this becomes complicated the second time around because, as someone who studies sexuality, part of my belief system is that sexuality is everywhere and in everything. Is it possible to make a pragmatic distinction? I think so. But I still haven't figured out exactly what the line should be.


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