Monday, December 7, 2015

When Life Is Work, Who Can You Flirt With?

With whom is it appropriate to pursue a sexualized or even just flirty relationship? Who is in and out of bounds for hooking up, asking out, and so on?

We know from sexual harassment law and from intuitive reflection on sexual autonomy that there are some obvious guidelines. Don't do it with the people you supervise at work. Don't ask anyone over and over, because that is harassment.

There are, however, more complicated cases. Recently MathBabe had a very interesting discussion about "Romance and math meetings," prompted by a question about asking people out on dates at math conferences. A woman was at a math conference talking to a fellow mathematician, a guy, about math. The guy mathematician asked her out. She was upset, because she'd hoped to be regarded in the light of a mathematician instead of possible date material, and hoped to be able to collaborate with him in the future -- something she felt was off the table if she turned him down.

MathBabe initially said she didn't think the issue was so serious. Why can't you collaborate with people who've turned you down? And given that many couples meet under similar circumstances and live happily ever after, wouldn't it be a shame to put the kibosh on such activities?

This, of course, generated a lively discussion, which you can read all about here. People pointed out that if you're one of a few women at a conference with a lot of heterosexual men, then even if no one asks you out twice, you might get asked out a zillion times. You feel like you're at a bar, not a conference, and you feel like you're of interest only for your potential as a romantic partner. Plus, in that case have to micro-navigate every situation to avoid giving someone the wrong idea-- added to all the other burdens of being a woman in a professional and guy-centered environment. Bad.

Other cases, including colleagues who aren't in direct power-relations, can also be complicated. Some times people who work at the same kind of thing you do can seem like equals one minute and gate-keepers the next. Suppose A and B flirt or have sex and then A gets a prestigious job while B remains under-employed. Now A is, in a sense, in a position of power with respect to B. What if A starts rewarding the people who continue to respond sexually and shunning people who reject their advances?

What if, as happens so often in the modern world, there happen to be a bunch of hetero male As and a bunch of female Bs? You know what happens. Women don't get hired unless they're willing to play along, flirt when they don't feel like it, or worse. Indeed, MathBabe ends her discussion with just such a warning: it's not OK to be sexual with someone "whose career you influence."

But here's the thing: in the modern world of 24-7 work and the "entrepreneur of the self," the people who work in your area or who could influence your career somehow ... well, isn't that almost everyone you ever meet? I don't know how your life works, but I feel like unless I went way out of my way to take a flower-arranging class or something like that, I would seldom meet people who are neither "colleagues" in the broad sense of doing what I do nor people who could in some way "influence" my career.

It's like there's a collision course between some sensible-sounding restriction on who you flirt, date, and hook up with, and the culture of modern life in which every relationship is kind of a work relationship. Put the two together and BOOM: there really isn't anyone in the green light category.

What's the answer? I don't know, but like MathBabe, I have a pro-love, pro-flirting, and pro-sex personal orientation, and from a larger perspective, wouldn't it be sad and bizarre if no one could ever flirt or hook up with or find true love with someone who shares their professional interests just because they do, in fact, share professional interests?

It's like, given the omnipresent nature of work in so many people's lives, a broad interpretation of the out-of-bounds rules would come down to no flirting ever. 

I don't know what to say except maybe, like so many things in modern life, it's not the sort of thing you can figure out by looking for general principles you can apply across the board. Maybe it depends on context, and tone, and particulars. We humans aren't always so good at deploying contextual and variable norms. tending as we do toward a love of commandments and categorical imperatives. But maybe with the nature of modernity, we're going to have to evolve into the next level.

1 comment:

Sara said...

As time goes on, I realize how lucky I was that I hooked up with that cute guy who shared my academic interests at a time when it was appropriate for us to do so -- when we were both grad students together. 13 years (and 11 years of marriage, 4 degrees, three new cats, 1 kid, 1 move across the ocean, three foreign countries, three temporary jobs, and three permanent jobs) later, I have basically "grown up" as an academic in a context where not only do most of the people I meet at conferences know I'm married, they probably know my husband in academic contexts (we were in similar fields for some time, in addition to doing our degrees in the same institution). Those rings around my finger make a difference.