That's What She Said
A history of sex and the office traces the evolution of women: from threat to a man’s attention, to threat to a man’s job.
When somebody says the word “office” I think immediately of the cubicle: that charmless little box of efficiency, a quality unconnected to sexuality in any way—one that is, at least to my mind, its opposite. Which is perhaps the point. As Julie Berebitsky points out in Sex and the Office: A History of Gender, Power, and Desire, sexual relationships—consensual or not—have long been considered a threat to productivity and morale, eclipsing the mid-century trope of the secretary sitting on the boss’s knee. Employers labor to strip their offices of expressions of id, encouraging their sublimation elsewhere. (She said “strip”!) But all that this repression suggests is the persistence of what needed repressing in the first place.
Women first started to take office jobs during the Civil War, and their conspicuous presence prompted both desire and suspicion from men who were used to working only among themselves. Lots of chasing, leering, and pinching ensued. (One idea from 1915 went so far as to suggest installing the stenographer in a wire cage.) At work, some women met the man they would marry, but many did not, and a whole industry of advice-giving sprung up to serve the considerable number who found themselves in situations that were either untenable (e.g. the extramarital affair) or intolerable (e.g. the lecherous boss).
Berebitsky, a professor of history at Sewanee, cites several of these guidebooks, noting that they unanimously agreed that “if a woman could not personally handle a man’s ‘strictly dishonorable’ intentions, she would have to quit.” The onus was on her to muster all her superhuman powers to ignore the male libido: “She must learn not to see that his glance is too fervid, not to feel that hand that rests on hers or the arm that slips around the back of the chair,” counseled one guidebook, though it also made clear that she couldn’t simply push the poor schlub’s hand away. She should take care to treat him with “tact and politeness, for it is not the rebuff that counts so much as the way in which it is done.” This last point was key. As one woman wrote anonymously in Harper’s in 1926, “the male of the species does not relish being made ridiculous.”
The advice-giving even extended to a man’s wife at home, who was told that she needn’t worry about those “sleek, wily, manicured creatures” prowling her husband’s office as long as she made sure to “pretty herself up, love her man devotedly, and believe in him.” Men, however, were spared the exhortations and admonitions. They didn’t need any advice because they were expected to satisfy their uncontrollable urges. In the 1936 film Wife vs. Secretary—one almost expects the poster to include crushed skyscrapers engulfed in flames and screaming people underfoot—there’s a scene in which a woman tells her mother-in-law that her husband has been cheating with the secretary, and then the mother-in-law says something truly scary: “It’s horrible but you mustn’t be too hard on him. … You wouldn’t blame a little boy for stealing a piece of candy if left in a room with a whole boxful.”
Although she devotes only a few paragraphs to same-sex relationships, Berbitsky otherwise makes thorough and thoughtful work of the material at hand, showing how sex is never just about sex; it’s often about money, too. Any gains made by women in the workforce during the 1920s were swiftly undermined by the Depression, when ambitious women—already suspect—were treated with naked hostility. Women were advised to seek out positions in feminized occupations and told that, in order to get a job and keep it, they “would need to be impeccably feminine in attitude and appearance.” Men, fearful already for their jobs, were looking not for competition but for subordinates. A 1935 article in Fortune spelled out the advantages of striking the right gender balance in the office. With “their conscious or subconscious intention some day to marry, and their conscious or subconscious willingness to be directed by men,” women made for “amenable and obedient” little workers.
by Julie Berebitsky
Yale University Press
Unlike the factory or the farm, where men’s virility was rarely in question, the proliferation of office work aroused anxieties over manliness, which was presumably sapped not only by the growing cloud of estrogen in the office but also by the stuff of office work itself—its soft sedentariness, its pencil-pushing. The gentleman valorized for most of the 19th century distinguished himself from the coarse lower classes by corralling his desires, but the organization man of the mid-20th century was expected—even encouraged—to do the opposite, if he were to escape utter emasculation. Sex was a way for a man to assert the he was a man, to keep in touch with his essential nature and protect it from the depleting effects of his job. When, in 1959, the journalist Edward R. Murrow exposed how companies routinely hired prostitutes for clients and wrote the costs off as a business expense, the scandalized public was nevertheless afforded a degree of relief. As Berbitsky puts it, “the sex-in-business scandal at least proved organization men were still men.”
If sex was a lodestar for men, making clear what it was that a real man should want and pursue, sex—at least culturally—was more of a fitful variable for women, who were given so many mixed messages about how to dress and behave that it’s a wonder they made it into the office at all. They should make themselves attractive, but not too attractive; available, but not too available. The stereotypes over the years vacillated between victim and vamp. For the most part, however, the sexual woman was still presumed to be looking for love rather than professional advancement. Then spake Helen Gurley Brown.
When Sex and the Single Girl came out in 1962, Brown told women that sexuality could be a boon to business as well as love. Rather than being an “unnatural penis-envying wolverine ready to spring at a man’s jugular vein,” she wrote, the professionally ambitious woman should find that “flirting and being seductive” would stimulate men to “give you better breaks.”
Photograph courtesy Yale University Press.
This kind of advice was, of course, much more threatening to the accepted order of things. It was one thing for a woman to be on the make for a man’s attention; it was another to be on the make for his job. Writing in 1963, Philip Wylie warned of the “Sirens” who “must compete with and, if necessary, cripple manhood and masculinity on earth.” (It’s hard to know what kind of woman Wylie would have found bearable; in his book Generation of Vipers he also excoriated moms, whom he likened to both Cinderella and Hitler.) But the increasing presence of women in more powerful positions meant that sex in the office would become even more disruptive than it was in the days of expendable stenographers, at least from the employer’s point of view. A more established professional presence also gave women a different sense of the kind of treatment they deserved.
It wasn’t until 1975 that all the ogling and teasing and touching would get the name “sexual harassment” from feminists at Cornell, allowing a problem that had long been considered a private predicament to become a social issue. Still, women who claimed they were sexually harassed have had to contend with endless suspicion—of their credibility, of their motives, of their senses of humor. A sexual relationship deemed coercive by one side could be called consensual by the other. (As the lawyer and scholar Catharine MacKinnon said about one woman’s case in the mid-’80s, “If you’re fucked, you’re fucked.”) During the 1991 confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas, his supporters tried to discredit Anita Hill by insinuating she was a crazy liar and/or an untrustworthy minx, a defense tactic common enough that it goes by the name “nuts and sluts.” Twenty years later, Herman Cain brushed aside sexual harassment claims by dismissing one of his accusers as “a troubled woman,” and it sometimes seems as if every new revelation gets mired in old rituals that have played themselves out many times before.
All the changes in the law haven’t been matched by comparable changes in attitudes about gender, about power, about who wields that power and who is subject to it. Men and women have periodically swapped the mantle of victim—women as economically vulnerable, men as sexually vulnerable—but the general contours of the discussion have stayed the same. Some legal scholars have tried to change that, arguing that sexual harassment isn’t always about the sex, but the idea hasn’t gotten much traction among the public at large, whose interest is more reliably piqued when something sexual is involved. Which allows other, less salacious, forms of power-mongering to go unnoticed, or at least untalked about. May we be forever disgusted by the noxiousness Anita Hill had to endure. But we risk losing sight of the enormity of the problem as long as a pubic hair on a can of Coke is worth a thousand rounds of golf among the guys.
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Jennifer Szalai is a writer living in New York.