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WORKING / Sex on the Job

Risky Business

Bill and Monica aren't the only ones to have fooled around on the job. In fact, by most accounts, workplace sex is quite prevalent. Is it a professional danger, a nuisance or a fact of life?

November 23, 1998|STUART SILVERSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The workplace has become a sexy place for many people, as men and women increasingly team up or bump into each other on the job. In fact, for plenty of people--not just Bill Clinton and Monica S. Lewinsky--the workplace has become a place to have sex.

And the hanky-panky is happening in all sorts of business settings.

For night janitors and others who maintain office buildings, accidentally discovering couples in embarrassing embraces is a known occupational hazard. Mary Marx, a property management executive and chair of the Building Owners and Managers Assn. of Greater Los Angeles, said that in her field, "Everyone seems to have a story about an incident on a conference room table."

Workplace sex also has emerged as an issue for lawyers such as Michael D. Karpeles, who advises corporate managers on sexual harassment and other employment matters.

He said some of his clients have begun including bans on workplace sex, along with prohibitions on carrying guns, in their employee handbooks.

"It's amazing what we've had to add," said Karpeles, who practices law in Chicago.

And consider what USC researcher Cliff Cheng has uncovered so far in his current study of anti-fraternization, or no-dating, policies: They often backfire. Not only do many upper-level managers and professionals defy bans on dating, some even have sex with co-workers right at the office.

The sex-at-work phenomenon represents different things to different people. It can be viewed as a sign of modern moral decay, evidence of the ages-old human capacity for sexual intrigue or an expression of healthy, robust sexuality.

For employers, it also is a nuisance that inspires wicked gossip in the hallways and, when romances turn sour, provides potential grounds for harassment lawsuits. For the lovers themselves, workplace sex is loaded not just with thrills but with personal and professional dangers.

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'What Are They Doing for Brains?'

"These things never stay secret," said Joseph Posner, who hears about sex-at-work incidents in his job as an employment lawyer. "You keep running into cases where this comes up, and you just have to wonder, 'What are they doing for brains?' "

But libido being what it is, sex at work seems here to stay.

Lee Blackwell, a Huntington Beach-based psychologist and sex therapist who was co-director of the UCLA Human Sexuality Clinic until its closing in 1993, estimates that up to 40% of American adults have had a sexual encounter at work.

"If you're not doing anything self-destructive, like getting yourself fired, it can be a fun, adventurous thing to do," he said.

The trouble is, sex at work often is self-destructive--not to mention sleazy.

Hollywood's legendary casting couch, after all, is part of the history of workplace sex. So is the calculating secretary or low-level staffer who wins special treatment, or compromises the boss, by seducing him in his office.

"I was on top of the world," said a woman who, while in her 20s, had an at-work affair with her boss at a San Fernando Valley electronics plant. "This was a person with authority over a lot of people." (The woman wound up losing both her job and her lover.)

In recent years, the rising tide of sexual harassment litigation has occasionally involved sexual relations--consensual, coerced or an ambiguous combination of the two--at work. Such was the story with Mechelle Vinson, the former assistant bank branch manager who scored a landmark victory in a 1986 sexual harassment ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court.

At trial, Vinson testified that she had about 50 unwelcome sexual contacts with her onetime supervisor over a two-year period--including being forced to have sex inside the bank vault. She said she submitted out of fear that, otherwise, she would lose her job.

The sordid side of sexual contact at work also includes, among other things, the employee who is raped by a co-worker and the patient who is sexually exploited on a visit to the psychiatrist.

Given the surge in the number of women in the labor force over the past few decades, most experts surmise that sex at work is far more common today than in the 1960s and 1970s. What's less certain is whether the increased attention to curbing sexual harassment in recent years has slowed, or reversed, sexual contact of all types on the job.

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Encounters Persist Despite Obstacles

Still, workplace sex has survived numerous challenges over the years, including the damper that the threat of AIDS has put on casual affairs. Workplace sex also has thrived despite the growing use of security cameras and open office designs that make finding a private place trickier than ever. (On the other hand, the growing popularity of telecommuting and home-based business has created new opportunities for sex during normal business hours.)

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