“Using” Sexuality in the Workplace

In Message #1633, I wrote an article titled “Women in Business.” In response to some of the things I said in that article, a colleague wrote:

“You know I always read your advice to women with particular interest … today was no different.

“I’m sure it’s not conscious, but I’ve noticed that almost every time you address the issue of women in business, you warn us about not ‘using our sexuality’ for career advancement. And I’ve never once heard you admonish men about combining sexuality and business.

“Last time I checked, it took two to tango … and men in powerful positions almost always come with libidos that correlate with the size of their egos. (Do we really think Bill Clinton was the first or only president to have sex in the Oval Office with someone other than his wife?)

“If women are ‘using’ sexuality – what are the men doing who are participating? And what is your advice to them?

“I’m not disagreeing with your advice, by the way. In fact, I’m trying to be better about taking it. But when it’s so one-sided, it makes you seem paternalistic. And I think you are wiser and more insightful on the matter than that.

“For the record, I think the intoxicating combination of sexuality and business has more to do with the fact that in our personal lives we marry someone who is our opposite because we need that to balance us and be healthy. But in business, we are attracted to people who are more like us, and the chemistry grows out of that yearning for connection with the same energy. I also think that it is often more innocent (though no less foolish) on the part of women than the motive you ascribe to it. Is it not possible that some of us are, like men, weak to the charms and flirtations of the opposite sex? And that we succumb for reasons far more complicated than career advancement?”

Hmm. Seems to me I’m being accused of two counts of gender bias here. Let’s see if I can defend myself:

Count Number One: “I’ve never once heard you admonish men about combining sexuality and business.”

Guilty as charged.

I’ve never done that. And here’s why …

When I think about using sex in the workplace for career advancement, I think of women as the potential culprits. I don’t think of men in that role, because I have a very old-fashioned, male-oriented view of sexiness. That is, I don’t see men as sexy. Not at all.

Of course, I’m wrong. Brad Pitt, for example. He’s a sexy guy. And Sean Connery.

If Brad Pitt or Sean Connery had ever worked for me, perhaps I would have realized the kind of havoc that can be caused by men wearing unbuttoned shirts and tight jeans. Much to the misfortune of my gender consciousness, the male characters that have played roles in my workaday life have been more of the John Belushi/Conan O’Brien variety.

But, seriously …

I concede that I’m wrong in thinking that only women can be guilty of using their sexuality to gain favor in the workplace. It is certainly possible – though not easy – for a man to do the same thing.

And, to tell the absolute truth, I would like to think that I myself have once or twice been guilty of using my manly charms to close a deal or get a promotion. Unfortunately, nothing comes to mind.

Count Number 2: I am biased. (“If women are ‘using’ sexuality – what are the men doing who are participating?”)

Not guilty.

Let me explain. When men (like Clinton) offer business incentives to gain sexual favors from women, they are doing something that is stupid, wrong, and self-destructive. And if a man were to use his sexuality to induce a female boss to give him a raise or some other business benefit, he’d be wrong and guilty of the same thing that I advise women against. It’s a form of prostitution.

As I’ve suggested, I don’t think men are often in the position of prostituting themselves in the workplace. They are, however, frequently in the position to play the john. Both roles should be avoided.

These behaviors are wrong and unproductive – but I wouldn’t classify them as ultra-evil. Sexual harassment, on the other hand (and by this, I mean real sexual harassment -threatening to fire or making someone miserable unless they have sex with you) is, and should be, a crime.

“Prostitution” at the office is mostly a woman-on-man thing. Sexual harassment is mostly a man-on-women thing.

Yes, there are exceptions. Which prove the rule.

I think there are all sorts of reasons we get turned on at the office. It’s not just (as my colleague suggested above) by people who are different from our spouses. And it’s not always a bad thing. In my “Women in Business” article, I never advised women to avoid sex or romance in the office. My warning was about using it for a business advantage.

I’ll stand by that.

[Ed. Note: Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]