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an open letter to bettina arndt

Dear Bettina,

I’m not sure if I form part of your key demographic, but now and then Facebook links me to your typings on men and what they want from us in bed, so I’m operating by the logic that if Mark Zuckerberg’s programming thinks it’s relevant to me, it is.

I have to say that often when said links come up the young men and women I’m friends with aren’t all that encouraging of your viewpoints. Maybe it’s a generational thing. Right now, though, I want to consider your perspective in this piece and what I think it says to young men and women everywhere.

The hook reads: ‘Confusing unwanted sexual attention with harassment impedes women’s progress’. The piece, as far as I understood it, is about misconstruing sexual banter in the workplace as something threatening and worth disciplinary action, rather than just having a ‘bit of fun’. You talk of the assumption that women don’t like sexual innuendo at work as being a way of infantilising their status further.

You also mention a conflict between Skepchick writer Elyse Anders and sex therapist Marty Klein, in which Klein disagreed with an instance Anders perceived as harassment toward her. This leads to an emphasis of Klein’s perspective that ‘sexual-harassment law was never designed to protect women from merely feeling uncomfortable’.

I have to say that I have a problem with your argument. The reason I have to say it is that I don’t believe rhetoric about innocent sexy talk in workplaces is really in the interests of students and young people with a foot wedged precariously in the slamming door of the working world.  I agree with you in the sense that sexual harassment cases are not always clear cut, and it isn’t out of the realm of possibility that one party may use harassment cases unnecessarily.

However, linking unwanted sexual attention to prudishness, as is done in the opening of the piece, is not a positive message to be sending to younger workers in particular. I’m talking about how that notion impacts the check out chicks, retail workers, waitresses and receptionists who may be on the end of ‘unwanted sexual attention’ at work before they’re really comfortable with their own sexual identities.

Implying that it’s ‘precious’ to be thrown off by an unwanted sexual advance isn’t a constructive thing to say to a seventeen year old shop worker whose boss asks her about her sex life while she’s making coffees. It’s not helpful to say that a nineteen year old check out chick should be thankful that her manager’s always asking her out on dates. Of course there might be cases where all parties are happy with the arrangement. But there are also cases where men and women of all ages need the job they have, and the idea of rocking the boat by telling an employer or co-worker that their behaviour is offensive is already painful enough.

Linking prudishness to this issue bothers me too, because it passes judgement on anyone who feels uncomfortable about workplace interactions. When I was eighteen a boss once told a staff meeting full of my colleagues that I was too busy having ‘special time’ with my boyfriend to attend a late night training session that wasn’t even paid. It was said with a smile, and we all had a good laugh. But he was making me feel uncomfortable because he wanted free labour from me that I wasn’t willing to give. Should I have just taken that in my stride because life dishes out uncomfortable situations daily?

I agree wholeheartedly that demonising our sexual identities and curiosities is problematic in a whole host of ways. Where I think arguments dismissing sexual remarks at work fall down is that these remarks often assume a whole lot about the person on the receiving end. Comments can assume someone has a certain level of sexual experience, they can assume their sexual orientation, and the comfort level of the person involved. If you’re not concerned about mere discomfort in the workplace, I guess this isn’t an issue.

Unfortunately, having worked in a slew of casual jobs and knowing countless gen Ys of both genders in the same boat, I believe that all an employer needs in order to exploit you sometimes is to elicit discomfort. I know people whose shifts have been cut because they weren’t so keen on being flirty with the manager. People who’ve hated every minute of their much needed jobs because their bosses wouldn’t lay off asking them who they went out with and what was their ‘type’.

Of course there are no hard and fast rules about banter at work, and each situation should be treated as a brand new set of circumstances. This is a really fair point.

The tone of the argument is what needs work though. Of course if you’re both up for a bit of flirting, go for your life. But not wanting to play at work is, to my mind, no reflection on one’s sexual identity or prudishness. If we’re going to lump ‘unwanted sexual comments’ outside of harassment, I can’t say that spells progression for women at all.

Regards,

Emma

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