Has #MeToo Killed The Office Romance?
WARNING: Discusses sexual assault and child abuse.
“You can’t ask a girl for a drink after work,” my male friend moaned, “without worrying about the possible ‘#MeToo’ blowback.”
There’s too much grey area now, he complained. Men can’t flirt, or offer a compliment, without worrying that they might be stepping out of bounds.
“It’s confusing,” he said honestly.
I tried, somewhat unsuccessfully, to sympathise.
Then this week, his comments were echoed in a column by political commentator Ella Whelan, who believes it’s time to “rebel against these attacks on workplace romance”.
READ MORE: What The #MeToo Movement Has Done To Dating
READ MORE: Would You Report Sexual Harassment At Work?
“Women will drape ourselves over the printer, wear our best dresses to the Christmas party and talk loudly about the imaginary man texting us, all to subtly signal to our target that he should make a move,” Whelan writes for Spiked.
“But in the post-#MeToo office, unless you send a memo to the guy you fancy, signed with your consent at the bottom, it is understandable that he wouldn’t want to make the first move for fear of being hauled before human resources.”
Christ on a cracker.
Whelan has been able to expertly boil an incredibly complex, highly nuanced and constantly evolving issue down to its most basic form, I’ll give her that. But in doing so, she’s missed the point entirely.
For all of us, but particularly for men, to navigate modern romance post-#MeToo, we need a conversation rooted in context -- and since Whelan offers precisely none, I’ll dig in.
Fact: every single woman you know has their own #MeToo story.
Every. Single. One.
Your mother. Your aunties. Your girlfriend, or wife. Your work colleagues, your friends, your boss, your neighbour.
If you don’t believe me, ask them.
READ MORE: Sean Penn Says #MeToo Divides Men And Women
There are literally no women on this planet who have been spared some sort of sexual harassment, coercion, assault or otherwise unwanted sexual experience. The harrowing reality of this hits home for me when I realise my daughters will almost definitely experience this in some form, too.
My first #MeToo experience happened when I was eight. At a sleepover at a friend’s house, I woke up with that prickly feeling of someone watching me. My friend’s dad hovered over my bed. When he put his hands under the sheets and molested me, I had no comprehension of what was going on. Why would my friend’s dad want to touch me there?
I was so confused. Three hours earlier, this man had cut up my sausages and served me an extra helping of mashed potato -- my favourite -- with a wink. He was a grown-up, in a trusted position of authority, and although I was feeling extremely uncomfortable and scared, I had no concept that I could ask him to stop.
My mum had warned me about Stranger Danger, but we'd never talked about the dangers of men we know.
I went back to my friend’s house only twice after that. Two more times, he molested me. Two more times, I left confused and disoriented. Trauma manifests in unusual ways: months later I was drawing a picture of a family and realised I’d given a moustache to the dad -- one just like my friend's dad had. In my mixed-up, little girl mind, I thought that meant I must like him, must have liked what happened. I burst into tears, ripped up the drawing, and never drew moustaches in my pictures ever again.
That was my first experience of a man deciding his feelings towards my body trumped my own, but it certainly wasn’t the last.
When I was 13, at a friend’s house, her mum’s flatmate told me I had “stacked on the weight”. I was skinny as a rake, but I was developing. His eyes raked me up and down and I squirmed as his gaze lingered on my newly curved hips and breasts.
Aged 14, at a party, a boy pretended to hug me but instead used the opportunity to grope my chest. His mates laughed.
Aged 15, at another party, I was a little tipsy. A male ‘friend’ chatted with me on a couch. Thankfully, I was sober enough to continually remove his octopus hand from my underwear. (For the record: the correct response to this scenario is not “she shouldn’t have been drinking”. It is, “he shouldn’t use her lack of full comprehension and inability to consent to try and touch her body”.)
At 17, I arrived to work one morning at a makeup store; a beautiful but tiny glass-walled treasure trove of lipsticks and blushes, located in an outdoor mall. I’d just opened for business when the phone rang. “I just walked passed your shop and my God, you’re gorgeous,” the caller said. “I’d do anything to see your bush. I just had to tell you. I’m going to have to walk past again to get another glimpse of that face.”
My cheeks burned bright red with shame. I hung up on him and instantly tied my hair back -- why did I wear my hair out that day; why was I trying to look pretty, anyway? -- then spent the rest of the day gawking at every man who walked past, feeling like I was trapped in a fishbowl.
These are just a few incidents… and I wasn't even 18 yet.
My stories are not all that shocking; my experiences mild. But as women, these interactions are woven into the fabric of our sense of self from a very young age. So when the conversation turns to consent and harassment, the shades of grey are immense.
I understand that this can be confusing for men to navigate, so here’s my advice: consider your intent. The truth is, many women love a bit of flirting and witty banter. But what are your intentions with your words, actions or behaviour? Are you genuinely trying to connect and engage with a woman in a fun way -- or is it an ego trip, a chance to show off in front of the boys, or an expedition to see how far you can push the envelope?
The former is welcome. The latter? Not so much.
Whelan suggests the answer to all of this is for women to “wear your lowest top to your next board meeting and linger too long by your colleague’s desk” to “make the workplace a humane environment where sparks can once again fly”.
I counter that we respectfully take whatever women choose to wear out of the equation completely, and instead, I offer this piece of advice to the men of the world; try this as the ‘rule of thumb’, guiding your interactions with women: imagine you have a sister. Think about a comment or behaviour that you’re concerned could be #MeToo (or #MeToo adjacent). If your sister told you this story happened to her, what would you think?
If it sounds like friendly banter, something that leaves her feeling uplifted and pleased, then it’s fair game.
If not? Hold your fire, lest you become yet another story she files under ‘jerks who just don’t get it’.