[Book Review] Sex and the Office: A History of Gender, Power, and Desire / Julie Berebitsky

 Sex and the Office: A History of Gender, Power, and Desire / Julie Berebitsky (Yale University Press, Powell's Books)
"In this engaging book—the first to historicize our understanding of sexual harassment in the workplace—Julie Berebitsky explores how Americans’ attitudes toward sexuality and gender in the office have changed since the 1860s, when women first took jobs as clerks in the U.S. Treasury office.

Berebitsky recounts the actual experiences of female and male office workers; draws on archival sources ranging from the records of investigators looking for waste in government offices during World War II to the personal papers of Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown and Ms. magazine founder Gloria Steinem; and explores how popular sources—including cartoons, advertisements, advice guides, and a wide array of fictional accounts—have represented wanted and unwelcome romantic and sexual advances. This range of evidence and the study’s long scope expose both notable transformations and startling continuities in the interplay of gender, power and desire at work."
Reading this book makes what feels like an upsurge in rape-blaming and slut-shaming both more understandable and more frustrating.  Understandable because it helps contextualize the cultural roots of the past 100 years in a concrete way.  My grade school education avoided any in-depth look at the more licentious aspects of various industries (though thankfully my school district believed in comprehensive Sex Ed. that covered the importance of consent).  Frustrating because it is hard to believe we are still repeating these same fights again and again.  These battles are what finally forced "sexual harassment" to be a recognized phrase and issue in the early 1970s.  40 years later a high school student passed out at a party is treated like she was "asking for it" when she was raped by multiple classmates.

In the recounting of workplace gender politics over the past 100 years Sex and the office also reveals and contextualizes many of the tropes still present in our culture.  I know many fantastic women employed as receptionists/secretaries/administrative assistants, but none of them are from the pages of Hustler (that I know of) and historically most of the women similarly employed are also not working behind a desk as part of a greater plan of seduction.  Yes, it happens for various reason, but somehow the sexual (be it enthusiastic or repressed) secretary became ingrained as a cultural image.  Where did this, and many other ideas come from, what is their history?  How do they reflect other aspects of gender politics of the time?  I found Berebitsky's dissection of these questions fascinating.

This book also made me think about consent, and how if you're not informed you're not really able to consent because you don't understand what you are consenting too.  It made me think of myself as a teen or in my very early twenties.  I had a decent academic knowledge of sex and relationships, but there was so much I just didn't comprehend until years (and many mistakes) later.  To an extent, regardless of how informed I thought I was, there were things that I didn't know not to consent to.  The whole concept of age of consent makes more sense to me just looking back on my own life than it did when I was 16.  And through all of this I had a better knowledge base than many of the girls and young women who encountered the assumption and treatment that they were sexually available upon entering the office workforce.  I knew the mechanics, I knew about birth control, I knew about sexually transmitted diseases and infections, and thanks to the effort of women before me I know that if someone propositions me in a way that I'm not comfortable I can say "no" without it automatically costing my job (or that there is legal action if it did cost me my job).

Reading Sex and the office has changed how I look and debate gender issues in a historical context by giving me a fuller knowledge base and concept of what exactly were issues. It is often easy to forget how much (and sometimes how little) has changed over the years.  I can't say that something would be drastically different if women were involved in some way that they weren't before when looking how something has developed.  It is not a simple of issue of say women being involved in writing comics in 1930, it's all of the reasons they were not involved in writing comics then.  None of the issues that carry over today would be solved by one change in the past, they're more complex than that.

Additional reading:
Sex and the office : why little has changed in 150 years (Forbes), an interview with Julie Berbitsky on sexual harassment in the workplace.

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