This month, I’ve been temping on and off for a little extra money while I wait for my paralegal course to start — long story short, the goal is to pay for psychotherapy school from a few years of saved earnings as a paralegal. I’m currently being pimped to a technology office filled mostly with guys. Having graduated from a school that’s (unofficially) about 70% women, and having taken classes which were also mostly attended by women, I was excited at the opportunity to be surrounded by nerdy, youngish men in a new and exciting setting.
Although I consider myself a professional, I realize that other people in offices sometimes do unprofessional things on the job, like use vulgar language, watch YouTube videos, and make personal phone calls. They also solicit sex, sometimes.
One of my coworkers — I’ll call him Seth, since I anticipate running out of alternative pronouns, and I don’t think anyone in the office actually has that name — has been friendly to me since my first day. As much as I like to consider myself a solitary person, I’ve come to realize that it is nice to have someone with whom to chatter on occasion in an otherwise mostly shy, quiet office where I perform tedious, repetitive tasks.
This office’s internal communication method of choice is Skype. It’s practical, it’s fast, it’s free, and the bright blue icon on the task bar lights up in a jolly shade of orange when you receive a message. It is also mighty convenient that everyone in the office is linked to a few groups on Skype, so we’re all given everyone else’s Skype contact information by default.
Flash forward to the other day when I received a friendly message from Seth. He was outgoing, chattery, and wanted to know if I had a boyfriend. But, that wasn’t the creepy part of the conversation. The creepy part of the conversation was when he:
- …said he was watching me work. (My desk is in a central location, while his is buried in another suite around a couple corners. He can’t see me from his desk, to my knowledge.)
- …made a “That’s What She Said” joke, and a weak one, at that.
- …said that my career aspiration — to own my own practice as a psychotherapist, working with issues of sexuality and gender — was “hot”.
- …whined about how he hasn’t had sex in four years.
- …asked if I’ve studied people having sex right in front of me, as training for my future profession.
- …called me a “dirty girl” with a “wild side”.
- …asked me to “hook [him] up” with one of my friends, after I rebuffed his advances on me.
- …used the phrase “i can only imagine your adventures u got into” when I said my university was mostly women, then proceeded to call me a “dirty dirty girl”.
- …suggested that once I have my own practice, the boy on whom I’m currently crushing should “work with [me]” and “have them babies”.
- …asked if I only date for sex, after I replied to a previous comment by saying that I had never been in love.
- …asked if I have “ever been [sexually] physical” with any of my boyfriends, then asked me on a date, either to Starbucks or “dinner by candle light”, when I announced we would not be having that conversation at work.
I learned three things from my conversation with Seth.
First, even in professional settings where I’ve expressed my interests as purely academic, I would benefit from not mentioning my true career goals because laypeople don’t really understand or respect sex therapy as a profession. Second, I hate the term “dirty girl”. And third, Seth isn’t a threat to me; just a lonely, horny dumbass who is very, very lucky that I won’t be reporting him for sexual harassment.
Sex therapy is apparently one of the most taboo therapies to want to learn to practice. I have learned this not through reading, but through experience, as I’ve received an array of uncomfortable responses when I tell people what I want to do in my long-term professional life. Most women with whom I’ve spoken react with mildly horrified facial expressions and awkwardly try to change the topic, while most of the men have responded with creep-ass grins and skeevy comments challenging my integrity and professionalism. A friend of my mom thought I meant sex coaching, or as she put it, “teaching young men how to lose their virginity”. Other people have assumed I meant prostitution. Then there are the folks who take the discussion a step further and start divulging lots of totally unsolicited details about their intimate lives.
Consent, consent, consent. Always ask first.
While I do enjoy discussing sexuality in my free time, unless I’ve already given the okay for the conversation to get personal, I prefer to keep things on an academic level. If you came across a budding dermatologist in the grocery store, you probably (hopefully) wouldn’t whip out your moles without first asking if they’d look at them, nor would you likely accuse that person of having a sexual infatuation with skin. So, why does sex therapy not get that same respect? Chances are, it’s just misunderstood. For anyone who wasn’t yet aware, yes, it is possible to talk about sexuality without talking about sex, itself, just as a discussion about sexuality is not intended to serve as a request for sex. I do it all the time.
Let’s squelch some misconceptions.
When I have my own practice as a psychotherapist, my intention will be to challenge people’s thought processes to help them proactively solve the gender- or sexuality-related problems plaguing their minds, relationships, careers, and/or daily lives. That’s it. To my understanding, conversations in sex therapy more often than not deal with self-acceptance and communication among partners than any of the racy intimate details that come to mind when laypeople think of the profession. It’s not just talk about the physical side of things; it’s also delving into deep psychological topics, like body image, cross dressing, internalized homophobia, transgenderism, impotence, fetishes, guilt, and so much more.
As for that “dirty girl” crack…
I hate the phrase. It brings to mind the Madonna-Whore Complex, as if I’ve traversed the irreversible decline from normal good girl to big slutty slut. So what, I’m tainted now that some guy has been turned on as a result of talking to me? It is as if a woman who acknowledges that she controls her sexuality and sexual expression is a separate “type” of woman. In the perfect world which has yet to exist outside of my brain, everyone has that control, not just the “dirty girls” ostracized by people like Seth.
I’m choosing to not report Seth to HR, though.
Although much of what he said was completely inappropriate for the workplace — and, quite frankly, rude — I have no intention of reporting him. He’s an idiot, but not a threat. If his annoying advances continue, I may change my mind, but with the way things are currently going, I see no real harm because he hasn’t mentioned that special conversation since the day it happened.
He’s a dumbass who was out of line, but I think it’s more a matter of him genuinely not knowing better. He a lonely guy who wants to attract a girlfriend but doesn’t know how. He’s also lucky that I was more annoyed than uncomfortable. Considering he was naive enough to make these sexual advances via Skype, giving me a complete written record of our discourse, I’ve got him by the balls, and there’s a decent chance I could get him fired if I pursued legal action.
If a friend was in my shoes, me being me, I’d probably encourage her to skewer him, hoping that would discourage the behavior in the future so he won’t creep on other women. But, since this is my experience, and I see no real threat present in this case, I’m either going to let things slide or, once my temping period is over and I’ve left the company, I may briefly reinstate a line of communication with him to give advice about how to be less repulsive to women. Honestly, a small part of me does pity his ignorance… somewhat.
I close by saying that I, by no means, want to encourage others in the workplace to take the route Seth took in prioritizing sexual tension over professionalism, nor do I want this issue to be taken lightly. He broke the rules, and I have every right to request that my superior appropriately reprimand him for it. I’m not sure he realizes the significance of what he did, but I do. Sexual harassment in the workplace is a serious problem that many individuals are forced to deal with, and my heart goes out to the victims who have had to risk their financial security because of someone else’s bad behavior. There are rules in place for a reason, and it’s important to speak up when someone crosses a line. The difference here is that Seth did not cross my line, though I would absolutely support anyone else in my shoes who instead would have chosen to report him.
After substantial hemming and hawing, I talked to Seth a few days after writing this piece. I let him know that our conversation had made me uncomfortable, and we discussed how that happened. He misinterpreted my description of my career plans as an open invitation to disregard professionalism and, as he put it, took things too far.
I told Seth that I would have a solid case if I reported the incident to HR, and that I wanted to be sure he did not have this sort of discourse with a future female employee. He promised that this was a unique incident, and I’d like to believe him.
Currently, we’re buddies at work, and I am enjoying giving him advice about better ways to approach women in other settings without causing them discomfort. He seems eager to learn.
I’ve asked him to read this post after I leave the office at the end of May, and I trust that he will. I hope you learned something from this experience, Seth.