One time I was coming back from lunch, excited about starting an expense audit (“excited”), when I found two colleagues having sex at my desk. Not on my desk, thank god, because it was, as usual, decorated with paperwork, paperwork and a tasteful potted plant, but at my desk. In my chair. I’ll leave the details of the particular sex act they were engaged in to your imagination — because Workology is, after all, a professional space, where we don’t have sex or share the details of sex we aren’t having at work.
Everyone who’s held a leadership role or worked in HR has at least one awkward sex-at-work story. When I worked in retail I got dragged into more than a few disciplinary conversations regarding teens having sex in stairwells, unmonitored back offices and once even the garbage compactor room. And of course every office I’ve worked in had rumours and at least one maybe true story about a couple getting caught. Sometimes these stories are funny (the compactor room, though!?!?!) because sex itself can be pretty funny, undignified as it usually is. But even the silliest sex at work story contains an element of creepy boundary crossing and disrespect. Maybe it’s funny to imagine your colleagues getting caught with their pants down. It’s less funny to imagine catching them at your desk. Even less funny to imagine the cleaners coming in at night and having to deal with the mess your colleagues left behind.
Like I said when I wrote about pornography at work, for some people it’s the thrill of doing something forbidden and maybe getting caught at it and for others it’s a compulsion. But there are also people for whom it’s not so much the voyeuristic thrill as it is the power. That having sex at work crosses other people’s boundaries is itself the thrill: having power over others and being able to get away with whatever they want.
Recently TechCrunch reported that UploadVR was being sued for sexual harassment, discrimination and wrongful dismissal. The company had fostered a “boy’s club” atmosphere where female employees were sexually harassed as a matter of course and had gone so far as to maintain a designated sex room in the office. This is the third major allegation of rampant sexual harassment at a Silicon Valley superstar this year (and it’s only May), but it’s the first one where the founders were foolish enough to institutionalize sexual harassment with a sex room that actually contains a bed. You’ve got to be incredibly sure of your position to think that kind of thing won’t end in your paying out damages and doing desperate PR damage control. You’ve got to be very sure that your employees will either join in or keep silent. According to the suit
In the office, Defendants would frequently talk about how much sex they were going to have at each party, and how many girls they were going to have sex with. UploadVR even set up a room to encourage sexual intercourse at the workplace. The room was referred to as the “kink room” and contained a bed. Male employees used that room to have sexual intercourse, which was disruptive and inappropriate. Often, underwear and condom wrappers would be found in the room.
UploadVR is an undeniable example of sexual harassment creating a hostile workplace. But it’s also interesting to me for the mundane aspects of how normalizing sexual harassment or sex at work can create friction and discomfort at all levels. Think about the people watching this go down, worried they’ll be the next ones to be harassed. Think about those poor cleaners. The workplace is a space with institutionalized power imbalances. Sex between two consenting adults is complicated under those conditions: workers are far too easily abused by managers, colleagues can too easily blackmail each other, and sex can be used to deliberately make some workers feel uncomfortable or unsafe.
Even putting cases like UploadVR aside — there’s a reason that sex in the workplace isn’t recommended and it’s not just professionalism or the threat of discipline; it’s the potential for abuses, from fleeting discomfort to more profoundly damaging ones. Sex at work? Don’t do it.