Monday, October 18, 2004

Harrassment, Common Sense and Empathy

"Hey Carrie, wanna get all hot and bothered?"

As soon as my younger, male co-worker asked me this, I knew that whatever was being viewed on the computer screen by him and another male co-worker was decidedly not something of the work variety. Knowing these two chuckleheads, it was probably something funny, so I wandered over to see what he thought was so very enticing that I would become a writhing, salivating horndogette.

On the computer screen was a photo of the co-worker himself, lying across a car hood, his shirt purposely raised to show off his abs. Abs, it must be added, which he apparently thinks are something special, and which were supposed to induce immediate female frothing at the mouth. The way he turned and looked at me with an expectant puppy dog grin was sort of cute, but was also kind of pathetic in its neediness. "Tell me I'm hot, please!" was what his face seemed to say.

I just didn't know what to say. Not that I was offended or even particularly affected by the photo, except in the sense that I was then expected to offer up some kind of response, and none of the ones I had in mind were what he seemed to be expecting.

First of all, the way he was positioned in the photo, in somewhat of a half sit-up, sort of bunched up the skin on his stomach and did nothing to enhance what I'm guessing was supposed to be a wicked six-pack. Instead, I saw an awkwardly posed workmate, showing off what looked like a Sharpei puppy tummy. It was not the stuff of pin-ups. Not that I'm throwing stones at peoples' physiques, oh hell no, because I know that I live in a glass house as far as that's concerned. But if you are going to put your body on display and ask for comments, er, don't expect them to all be flattering, if you actually want to hear the truth. That's just a good rule to follow in general.

Secondly, it was clear that there was no good way to respond to this. If I responded in the way he so obviously expected, even in jest, I was going to come off looking like the desperate office nympho who is hot for his bod. After all these years working here, that is just not the kind of office credentials I was hoping to cultivate, especially not with this really young guy. But if I responded negatively, I ran the risk of having crushed his feelings, because if you knew this guy, you'd know as I do that so much of his ego is tied up in his physical appearance.

Thirdly, I actually didn't find the photo attractive at all, and I spent a second wondering why that was. Was there something wrong with me, that I don't feel the least bit inclined towards lustful feelings right now? Would any other red-blooded American woman be pulling off her suit jacket and throwing herself on the mercy of the beautiful manbeast before her? Uh, no, I quickly summed up.

I realized years ago that as far as my taste goes, the least attractive quality a person can have is to think themselves very attractive. When someone gets by on their looks for years on end, they tend not to develop their personalities, simply because there is no need. One manly pose complete with bedroom eyes, or one bat of the lashes and flip of the hair, and they get whatever they want. Why try to cultivate manners, a sense of humor, or develop a hobby or passion, when your mere physical presense causes others to swoon?

Also, the law of supply and demand comes into play, and ruins any good innate qualities the "beautiful people" may have. Since they are so in demand due to their attractive shell, there is no need to be polite or kind to others that one deems inferior. Many other, more attractive people will follow in their wake, so there is no need to consider the feelings of the aesthetically less-pleasing, or to treat them with respect. To the self-appointed beauties, those of lesser attractiveness are a nuisance, a fly to be shooed away or swatted at.

Just to be clear, I'm not speaking about all attractive people. I'm talking about those who KNOW that they are attractive, and expect special treatment because of it. Huge difference. And I'm afraid that this young co-worker falls into the category I'm railing against.

So, I did what a friend of mine so helpfully taught me years ago - When asked a question that places you between Scylla and Charybdis, one should attempt to baffle 'em with bullshit. In this case, I gently laughed, as if in on the joke, but not laughing AT him, and asked a question, rather than committing to an answer. I don't specifically recall what I asked, but it was something along the line of, "Oh, is this from your vacation?", and then babbled something about how he had a nice tan. And then I did the only smart thing, and walked away.

Later, relating the story to a co-worker friend, she jokingly responded, "Oh, you were sexually harrassed!" Now, I know that according to the mind-numbingly rigid definitions of sexual harrassment, perhaps I was. But people, PLEASE. Whatever happened to banter? To common sense? To taking responsibility for your own actions? To having a gentleman and gentlewoman's agreement that I'll let you know when something makes me uncomfortable, and you acknowledge and respect that boundary. Could we just agree to do that?

I am by no means saying that I don't believe that sexual harrassment goes on in the workplace. When I was very young and still pretty naive, I was on the receiving end of some rather extreme sexual harrassment, years before the term was coined, and it was painful and embarrassing. I have nothing but sympathy for those who have experienced this at work.
What I am saying is that there has to be a grey area, a place where reasonably, consenting adults can share a sexually tinged joke or two. Where flirting is permitted, within reason. Where humanity is allowed in the workplace, and sexuality is embraced as part of humanity. Not the bad old days of secretaries getting chased around the desk, and worse - just a loosening of the workplace puritanism that takes hold for a few stifling months after each sexual harrassment seminar or story on the news.

Common sense and personal responsibility have seemingly gone out the window, to the extent that our coffee cups are legal bound to tell us that the contents might be "real hot!" (don't get me started on the grammar of that one), and that anything that used to be fun is now frowned upon as a potential insurance liability. AAAAAAHHHHH! The world has gone mad! We've gone over to the other extreme, and extremism in ANY form is dangerous.

Can we just say that my co-worker showed me a picture of himself, which he thought was flattering, and I demurely avoided making a judgement about it, because I didn't agree and wished to spare his feelings? Is that so crazy?

This site is certified 38% EVIL by the Gematriculator