Has #MeToo killed the office romance?

Has #MeToo killed the office romance? thumbnail

“It’s all gone too far.” It’s a comment I’ve been hearing a lot lately.

It was easy to be collectively outraged at Harvey Weinstein. As a mega-rich sleazeball who allegedly sexually assaulted and raped young actresses on the other side of the world, there was enough distance between his case and our lives.

But as the #MeToo accusations mounted and fingers were pointed at politicians, comedians, judges, personalities in Australia’s TV industry, corporate bosses, and the sort of men we might actually know, it all got a bit… awkward.

If a “regular” woman could accuse a “regular” man of sexual harassment, and be believed, then maybe the Weinstein Effect could happen to anybody.

Next we started hearing about “witch hunts”. Apparently calling out sexual predators is fine if they’re a rapist, but when you start objecting to arse grabbers and knee fondlers well, then apparently “it’s all gone too far”.

But “minor” harassers do not deserve a free pass just because other men have done worse.

As Jo Brand had to explain to her male colleagues making light of sexual harassment on the BBC comedy panel show Have I Got News for You, “if you’re constantly being harassed, even in a small way, that builds up and that wears you down”.

And we’re now hearing that there are calls to cancel office Christmas parties – thanks a lot kill-joy feminists! – along with suggestions Mike Pence’s rule of never eating alone with a woman (other than his wife) isn’t so nutty after all, and fretting that office romance and flirting is now dead.

This speaks volumes about the prevailing ideas about romance and dating. Do we really expect meaningful relationships to start with a man unzipping his fly and coercing an unwilling female colleague to give him oral sex? And do we really think a creep who trades sexual favours for job security will turn out to be your soulmate?

The narrative that has emerged is a pervasive concern for the poor men who are now confused, bewildered, and simply don’t know how to act around female colleagues anymore.

That people appear less concerned about the challenge of not harassing women shows just how normalised sexual harassment and assault have become for some men.

It’s not as if what constitutes sexual harassment is some deep, dark secret. There is no shortage of information explaining and defining sexual harassment and assault.

Most workplaces have very specific corporate policies about sexual harassment. Many companies require all staff to complete some kind of training on these policies as part of their induction programs. In fact, many of these men who now find themselves befuddled probably signed a code of conduct document during their on-boarding process.

I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that many of the claims of confusion are merely an excuse – a cynical attempt to dismiss men’s own past behaviour and drag us back to the good old days when men were free to feel up whoever they wanted with impunity.

It’s the classic bait and switch routine of turning powerful men into victims so we don’t have to think too much about the awfulness of their behaviour.

If the real tragedy of the #MeToo movement is men feeling uncomfortable, then the perpetrators are magically turned into victims who have been made to feel bad.

For any men who are genuinely confused about how not to sexually harass their female colleagues (if they exist), I’m going to help you out by sharing a little observation: Men rarely sexually harass their boss.

Think about it: of all sexual harassment and assault stories we have heard and read about recently, it’s a struggle to think of an example where the male harasser is less powerful that the woman he’s harassing.

The lesson here is that if you do have romantic feelings about a female colleague at a Christmas function – or in any work context, for that matter – imagine she’s the CEO of your company. She has the power to fire you and blacklist you in the industry.

Are you still willing to do what you’re about to do?

If the answer is yes, then it’s probably fine. If the answer is no, then shut your mouth, keep your hands to yourself and walk away.

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