A History of Sex and the Office

Today, cases of reported sexual harassment in government offices, businesses, and universities are ubiquitous. Yet in Sex and the Office: A History of Gender, Power, and Desire, Julie Berebitsky reminds the reader that the very concept of “sexual harassment” is a fairly new one.

At least as long as there have been female office workers, there have been bosses who were more interested in sex than stenography; however, the term sexual harassment did not come into use until the 1970s, when feminists began to frame court cases around Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It was not until 1986, when the Supreme Court ruled that Clarence Thomas’ unwelcome advances toward Anita Hill were sex discrimination, that there was a strong legal precedent protecting women—and men—in the workplace.

In 1920s New York, for example, office culture was so permissive of sexual advances that one businessman by the name of W. Ward Smith was able to complete a record of numerous sexual adventures, very often including secretaries and stenographers he met in the office environment. Although Berebitsky notes that some women seem to have taken advantage of this environment, routinely supplementing their salaries with gifts from their “boyfriends” that went toward the purchase of silk stockings and fur coats, not all of Ward Smith’s conquests were so in the know—one woman he describes was so sexually inexperienced that she was anxious her relations with the businessman would prevent her from bearing children.

Even as late as the 1950s, advice guides for working women warned female office workers against tempting their male coworkers (“some ‘curvaceous women,’…should have a warning sign on their desk”) and excused come-ons from male superiors as “efforts at ‘giving a girl a lift.’”

Of course, sexual harassment is not the only way of thinking about sex in the office. Berebitsky acknowledges that many women were happy to go on dates with men they met at work, and dreamt of settling down with a man on the make. With the publication of the famous Sex and the Single Girl in 1962, Helen Gurley Brown, the mother of Cosmopolitan magazine, reframed office culture as an opportunity for empowerment: women could both pursue a career and embrace a greater degree of sexual freedom. Yet fifty years later, the reader is all too aware that Brown’s advice “to say no if it’s no you want” could only go so far—Berebitsky reminds us that one friend of Brown still found herself resigning in order to escape “a real ‘creep.’”

Working with government records, archival evidence, and the material of popular culture, Sex and the Office historicizes our understanding of sexual harassment in the workplace to understand how much has changed—and how much has stayed the same—since the first women entered the office in the 1860s.

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