Freud once famously searched for an answer to one of mankind’s most complex conundrums: “The great question that has never been answered, and which I have not yet been able to answer, despite my thirty years of research into the feminine soul, is ‘What does a woman want?’” What Freud and the men before failed to understand is that there is no one thing that every woman wants, no more than there is one thing all men exclusively desire. Every woman and every man envision a romantic life unique from every other — a utopic concept of the perfect relationship with a perfect partner that suits them. Asking what women, as a monolithic entity, want from a romantic partner is like asking what the entire human race’s favorite food is. In the wake of the “Weinstein Effect,” as more powerful men are accused of inappropriate sexual behavior at work, some men have begun to panic that these allegations represent a “sex panic.” A new think piece pops up every day by a man concerned that his innocent behavior will be misunderstand by a prudish culture that just doesn’t know how to have fun anymore. So allow me to assuage their fears, and offer a few examples of what women definitely don’t want.
First of all, these panicking men are missing an important element — the element that separates harassment from flirtation. Flirtation is a question, a request for consent. Harassment is a statement. No answer is required, nor will it be respected. Harassment is a refusal to accept a no. It is making a person feel that any professional interest you had in them was a lie to cover your purely sexual interest. It is dehumanizing and painful to be treated solely as an object of sexual desire. It isn’t necessarily harassment to ask a coworker out for a drink, especially if neither party is the others’ supervisor — but if the answer is no, it’s no. Repeatedly asking and refusing to take no for an answer makes a clumsy attempt at courtship cross the line into harassment.
For those that are still confused, let’s start with some of the most obvious misbehavior. Do not expose your genitals to your coworkers unless it is explicitly part of the job (e.g., porn). Do not rub your genitals on your coworkers. Do not masturbate in front of your coworkers. Notice to all men: No one finds your dick as intrinsically interesting as you do. I know, I know… you think it’s fascinating. Others may find it interesting at a later point if they are interested in the body, mind, ideas and interests attached to your genitalia. But until that interest has been established, do not send women pictures of your penis or expose yourself to them.
Do not touch your coworkers unless their consent is explicit. You may think that a hug or a pat on the back is innocent and friendly, but some people — regardless of your sexual intent — simply do not like to be touched. As the kindergarten adage goes, keep your hands, feet, and objects to yourself. This applies to all genders and sexualities. Touching people, or invading their personal space in any form or fashion, is rude and boorish behavior. There is a reason everyone hates a close talker.
Speaking of talking, it is not okay to make any comment whatsoever about someone else’s body at work. This also extends beyond whether your intent is sexual or not. Clearly “nice ass” is a good way to get reported to HR, but comments about people’s bodies are a minefield regardless. Asking a female coworker when she is due is a really bad idea unless she just told you that she was pregnant. Telling someone they’ve lost weight may seem like a compliment, but they could have lost weight due to an illness or some other unpleasant circumstance that they would rather avoid discussing with you. There is no need to risk offending someone because you don’t have all of the information. Additionally, do not comment on anyone’s body to another coworker. You may think that your other male co-worker’s awkward silence when you make an explicitly sexual comment about someone else is his tacit approval. It isn’t. They’re just trying to be more polite than you have been. Just because your coworker is also a man doesn’t mean he’s also a creep. Keep it to yourself.
Most of us are sexual beings with desires, and there is nothing wrong with that. Where people, mostly men (sorry, but it’s true) seem to go wrong is assuming that work is an appropriate place to be a sexual being. In most industries it just isn’t. We spend a majority of our time at work, around people who share our interests and often impress us. We try to be our best selves at work, and that can be alluring. It’s natural and okay to have a crush. Many happy marriages began with a workplace flirtation. No one wants to end that possibility. Generally speaking, however, you’re being paid to do your job — not to speed date.
So what is appropriate if you’re interested in a coworker? First, check your company policies — of course lawyers and managers both override my casual advice. If it’s alright with your company, your next step is to be as certain as possible that your interest is reciprocated. I’m told this can be difficult for some to interpret, but if the object of your affection seems to enjoy spending time with you, shares your interests, and you would consider them a friend, you’re probably safe to ask.
When you do ask, take the advice of venerated sex advice columnist Dan Savage: When you approach your coworker, begin with a simple statement, “I wanted to ask you something, and I want you to know it’s totally okay for you to say no. I’ll never bring it up again if you do.” Then you can ask them for a drink or coffee, or something else, so long as it’s not a direct sexual proposition. If they say no, keep your promise. Never ask again. If they change their mind, they know where to find you.
Follow these simple rules and you have no fear of misunderstanding. Treat the person you’re interested in with respect and consideration for their interiority, personhood and talent. Ask yourself: If someone made a pass at you at work, how would you want them to treat you? Understand that if the person is a woman, she is not different from you, not some inferior adult in some strange personhood limbo between man and child. There is no magic password you can use that will make all women interested in you. Some will be, some won’t — just like you aren’t interested in every woman. It’s alright to be a sexual being, a person desiring of romantic connection. But it isn’t okay to be a creep, a harasser, an abuser, or to punish the object of your affection for not returning your feelings. Be polite, be professional, and treat people with respect — regardless of your sexual feelings or desires. In short, act like an adult.