Rocky Road: Sexting in the workplace and columnist insecurities
Dear Rocky Road, I really like this boy at work, but I’m not quite sure how to broach the subject. He always seems interested when I talk to him, but I’ve heard he has a girlfriend. Should I text him a sexual picture?Ready For Romance
Before we get to the specifics of your proposition, I’d like to address the broader issue: romance in the workplace.
Our society is mightily challenged by this topic right now, but the forces have been brewing for generations. It started when we left the farm en masse more than a century ago. Now, we now move routinely, for work, opportunity, or adventure.
My own father is a textbook example of this. He was born and raised in a small Oklahoma town where everybody knew everybody. But as soon as he graduated from college, his migrations began. First it was Texas for an engineering job, then Montana, for service in the Air Force during Vietnam. After, with a family in tow, it was Colorado, where he was part of a small alt-energy startup during the ’70s oil crisis. When that ended, it was back to Oklahoma, but not to the town where he grew up. My life has been similarly itinerant. This is the norm.
The result is that for many, the workplace has become the most cohesive, structured unit we pertain to. Proportionally, it is where many of us spend the largest chunk of our day. Our occupation defines us. That’s why “What do you do?” is a perennial conversation starter. Even if your work is a collection of service jobs to fuel your adventure lifestyle, that is a defining choice.
Our modern peripatetic tendencies have also undone the traditional ways of finding a mate. Family, caste, geography and gender all have lost their power to assign us a partner. So anything goes, right?
“Culture tends to argue that it forbids only that which is unnatural. But from a biological perspective, nothing is unnatural,” wrote Yuval Noah Harari in his “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.” “Whatever is possible is by definition also natural. A truly unnatural behavior, one that goes against the laws of nature, simply cannot exist, so it would need no prohibition.”
But as quickly as we seemed to be moving to a “whatever is possible” stance on human coupling (itself an anachronistic term), we have run headlong into the #MeToo moment, which demands clear constraints on certain sexual behavior.
#MeToo threw klieg lights on the reality that many women and some men too have been gravely harmed by being forced to function in a sexualized workplace. Having your body and not your abilities be the focus of your employment rapidly makes your job feel more like slavery. This should be intolerable to any modern, just society. While #MeToo has particular relevance to the workplace it is also has implications anywhere that sex is out of context. Where exactly is sex out of context? Welcome to the vast gray area where most of us live our lives.
Large swaths of gray area can be problematic for societies. Patrick Deneen, author of “Why Liberalism Failed,” argues that many of today’s social ills, including the opioid crisis and rising suicide rate, are a result of our putting individual freedom above all other values. Traditional cultures subjugated the individual to the whole, thus constraining both choice and bad behavior.
“To be free, above all, was to be free from enslavement to one’s own basest desires, which could never be fulfilled, and the pursuit of which could only foster ceaseless craving and discontent,” Deneen writes.
Without some sort of institution or belief system to control us, he argues, we devolve into tribalism, hedonism and violence. In an odd intersection of interests, #MeToo asks for the same thing. But what is the thing that will help us know whether is it proper to proposition a coworker? And if it arrives, will we like it or will we bridle at its infringement on our freedom?
I’ve brushed up against this question of workplace interludes many times (I see you raising an eyebrow at me, Freud). The father of my two children I met through work. By virtue of both being young journalists, we’d self-selected for a plethora of interests and values, including a penchant for high stress, long hours, low pay, and alcohol.
By its very nature, work is fertile territory (there I go again) for finding people who share your lifestyle. According to a recent survey by ReportLinker, a market research company, 15 percent of respondents in a relationship met through work.
A good test to know whether a proposition is safe is to look at the disparity in power between you and the object of your interest. If there is one, proceed with extreme caution. But just because there is not doesn’t mean its open season. You have to think about it from all sides. If he’s not interested, how will the advance be perceived? How would I feel if I received an overt advance from someone I wasn’t interested in? Is there a more conservative approach than a sexual text that would signal your interest but lower the stakes? This is the old-fashioned art of flirting. It can even be the best part of the dance of attraction, this lingering in that middle state between knowing and not knowing whether the thing you are feeling is real. I recommend you savor it.
Dear Rocky Road, I need your help. I write a new advice column, but I haven’t received many questions from readers seeking advice. What should I do? Is it because everything is perfect out there in the world? Or should I assume it’s me?Rocky Road
Dear Rocky Road, I know it’s easy, especially when you are trying something new, to question the rightness of your chosen path. But let me be honest with you for a minute here. You chose to become an advice columnist, which is not a job for snowflakes or shrinking violets. Don’t go getting all maudlin just because your inbox isn’t overflowing after the second week. Give it time and readers will get used to you being around. As they move through their day-to-day lives, they will run up against situations that perplex, incite, or unsettle them. They will think, “Jeez, I really wish I had an understanding but independent observer to bounce this off of.” Then they will remember you. They will remember that their identities will remain anonymous so there is no negative consequence to their seeking your counsel. They will think, “Why not?” and off their inquiry will go to your waiting inbox. Remember, you called this endeavor Rocky Road, because nothing worthwhile is achieved without hardship. As far as assuming it’s you, forgotten humorist Olin Miller* would say this: “You probably wouldn’t worry about what people think of you if you could know how seldom they do.”
*It’s a poetic irony that Miller is only remembered for this quote, which has been incorrectly attributed to more notable figures such as Mark Twain And David Foster Wallace.
Katie Burford has worked as a social worker, journalist, university instructor, nanny and barista. These days, she’s a mom, professional ice cream maker and writer. She has two boys who eat a lot ice cream. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org, @rockyroadadvice (Twitter), or Rocky Road, 1021 Main Ave., Durango, CO 81301.