When we think about sexual behaviour in the workplace, it's easy to conjure up the Christmas-party fling or the clandestine affair; or, if we're in a more sober mood, we might turn to the topic of sexual harassment. Harassment and office romance are also the focus of most of the research in this area. Yet workplace sexual behaviour comes in many flavours, according to a new paper by Marla Baskerville Watkins and colleagues.
The article is interested in how the workplace contains sexual performances, meaning the act of presenting yourself to others in a way that includes a sexual component. Just like a pop concert or piece of theatre, an effective performance is something that has value for its intended audience. The value of a sexual performance can be implicit - such as when a flirtation promises the possibility of something more - but can also be self-contained, such as a flirtation enjoyed simply because flirtation is enjoyable.
The authors emphasise that while some performances snowball into torrid affairs, the vast majority may just bubble along as the froth on top of everyday social interactions. Their purpose, Watkins argues, is ingratiation – getting another party on-side. But the purpose and methods may be quite different for men and women. Women's sexual resources have a high value, so common performances involve emphasising these by adjusting dress and other aspects of appearance. Meanwhile, men tend to enact sexual performance through chivalry and giving favours. Both men and women tend to use a third type of performance, other-enhancing, which involves compliments and raising the status of the other party.
Watkins and her co-authors suggest the general male goal is to maximise the exchange of sexual performances – flirt for the chance of more flirting - whereas women act more tactically to redress power imbalance. For instance, women working in highly masculine industries adopt more instrumental forms of sexuality.
But sexual performances aren't a fail-safe strategy. The existing literature on workplace ingratiation shows how behaviours perceived as excessive and insincere end up hurting the performer's status. Here, this may involve being pigeonholed as 'that kind of girl', or for a particularly clumsy man, spill over into harassing behaviour. The paper argues that we shouldn't act as though sexual behaviour in the workplace is binary – you're not doing it or you are doing it wrong – but that there is a continuum of unremarkable behaviour filling in the gaps. A woman judged for being a sexual operator may only be magnifying what her co-workers – women and men – are already doing in moderation.
The authors are aware that their analysis is heteronormative – that is, it focuses on heterosexual norms and interactions – and point out that sadly in many environments sexual performance towards people of the same gender is tacitly or actively discouraged, meaning that it is fairly invisible in the literature and would benefit from more active research.
There may be a benefit to sexual energy at work, and in any case it would be hard to eliminate it entirely: “the reality is that humans are sexual beings and that simply joining an organization does not magically extinguish their desire to express their sexuality.” Rather than taking a zero-tolerance approach, Watkins instead recommends ruling only on behaviours that are clearly out of bounds and letting local culture and individual judgment sort out the subtleties.
Hearn, J., & Parkin, W. (1995). Sex at work: The power and paradox of organization sexuality. New York: St. Martin’s Press.