Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Julie Berebitsky's "Sex and the Office"

Julie Berebitsky is professor of history and director of the Women’s Studies Program at Sewanee: The University of the South. She is the author of Like Our Very Own: Adoption and the Changing Culture of Motherhood.

Berebitsky applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Sex and the Office: A History of Gender, Power, and Desire, and reported the following:
The question behind my book was, initially, pretty simple: how did Americans understand behaviors that we would now define as “sexual harassment” before that term existed (feminists first used it in 1975). That question quickly became much more complicated. Americans always understood unwelcome, even coercive, sexual advances as just one part of the sexual culture of the office. To understand unwanted actions, then, I needed to examine all types of workplace relationships, from happily-ever after romances, to adulterous affairs, to women using their sexual attractiveness for personal gain, to the corporate use of prostitutes to close business deals.

What I found was that Americans’ understanding of these behaviors changed as cultural understandings of masculinity and femininity changed—which they did a lot over the course of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries! These changes were apparent in archival sources, such as employment records, as well as in Hollywood films, pulp novels, and women’s magazines.

Page 99 provides background on how things changed in the 1930s. At this moment, two important transformations had taken place that altered the way Americans thought about workplace relationships. First, the notion that women were largely without sexual desire had been abandoned. In the early twentieth century, when this perspective was still dominant, some reformers believed that women office workers should work in cages to keep them safe from lecherous employers. By the 1930s, that view was dead, and experts expected “modern” women to know how to handle any “Felix the Feeler.” For many women, this proved easier said than done, and most women, it seems, ultimately quit rather than submit. Second, a variety of experts applied a psychological lens to workplace and sexual relationships. Psychologists believed that “harassers” were just suffering from a temporary mid-life crisis. And, despite the changed attitude towards female sexuality, which would suggest a lessening of gender difference, psychologists actually emphasized male-female difference, as we can see in the passage below. This view established a dominant-submissive relationship between men and women in all areas. Overall, the changes associated with this period made it more difficult for working women to respond to unwanted or hostile come-ons and sexual coercion.

From page 99:
Psychologists emphasized that “womankind is emotion kind,” and employment guide authors used this assessment as evidence that women found it more difficult than men to become “unconscious” of their coworkers’ sex. This idea was not new, of course, but it seemed to have diminished by the 1910s, contradicted by the success of thousands of women in the very jobs they supposedly sabotaged with their excessive feelings. Developments in psychology in the 1920s and 1930s, however, renewed the discussion. Psychologists set out to prove that masculinity and femininity were real (not culturally created) and matched to biological sex; empirical studies would show indisputably that men and women had dramatically different psychological temperaments. The influential Terman-Miles personality test, for example, gave masculinity points to those who said they did not enjoy listening to other people’s troubles; femininity marks went to everyone who disliked playing with snakes…

Sex also upheld gender roles… In 1928, the marital adviser Theodoor Van de Velde warned against the woman-astride position in intercourse because of its psychological risks: the “complete passivity of the man and the exclusive activity of his partner is directly contrary to the natural relationship of the sexes and must bring unfavorable consequences if it becomes habitual.”
Learn more about Sex and the Office: A History of Gender, Power, and Desire at the Yale University Press website.

Writers Read: Julie Berebitsky.

--Marshal Zeringue