My evening with Marta

sexuality in the workplaceA few notes on sexuality in the workplace



How many hours of my life have I spent in offices? Roughly 2,000 a year times more than 30 rough years. That’s not only a lot of empty or trivial hours, but also a lot of collegial relationships with women to whom I have been sexually attracted. And at times it seems these women are attracted to me, too. And there are also women who seem attracted to me although I am not attracted to them, and women to whom I am attracted, but who seem to have no interest in me. And there are parallel worlds, or corridors, in which my gay and lesbian colleagues are enjoying, wrestling with and ignoring their erotic feelings.

In recent months I have at times found myself discussing various technical matters with one “Marta,” and during these discussions there has been an excitement in her eyes and her voice, an openness to her posture (to her legs), that have seemed to have little to do with the enervatingly dry and disconnected subjects that we are paid to discuss. (Or you might say that we are involved in a complex charade; we are paid to unwittingly disguise the neo-colonial objectives of our organization, and one of the ways we do this is by taking seriously matters that are not really serious at all.)

Marta seems to be developing a habit of coming by my office when her work day is done, exchanging a few light-hearted, not work-related words before she goes home to her husband, who is in some way debilitated, and to her son, now old enough to look out for himself. I appreciate Marta’s visits, and I should also say that, while I have considered the possibility that she and I might have an affair, this has not seemed like something I want to do. And, as far as I know, Marta, consciously or unconsciously, agrees with me. There are aspects of me and my company that she likes, and I can well imagine she likes the fact that my eyes, voice and posture reveal that I find her attractive and engaging. She may well like the fact that I, a senior colleague, have complimented her on aspects of her work, but affair may well not be on her list.

So why I am dragging readers through all this? Well, for one, my sense is that I am describing a not-untypical work relationship; many of us these days have these kinds of relationships. Secondly—and this is what led me to begin work on this piece—the other evening when Marta came to my office and was leaning against the windowsill talking to me over my computer monitor, I was quite conscious of my erotic response to her. Not that I was thinking of sex; it was simply a tangible, physical feeling, a magnetism, a feeling between my legs of the force of erotic connection and desire. I wished I could in some way express what I was feeling. Not in some ancient way of grunts and pawing, but in some deft, witty, modern (French?) way or with a simple statement—with a compliment or statement of fact. When Marta had gotten her hair cut, I had remarked on the attractiveness of the cut, and I suppose that on this particular evening I could have reiterated: “You know, your new haircut really does look good on you.” This would hardly have expressed the nature or strength of my feelings, but it would have, let’s say, allowed tectonic plates to shift ever so slightly. Alternatively, I might have said that I enjoyed her end-of-the-day visits, but this would have been a kind of putting the cards, or a few of them, on the table, making the subconscious conscious, and thus it could have led either to Marta’s not coming anymore or to her coming more often.

Note that I do not want Marta to come to my office more often, and this because, since I cannot or will not fully express my erotic feelings for her, there is a frustration in her visits, a tension that makes the conversation stiff and dry. What do you talk about when what you’re not talking about what you really want to talk about? Writing a few months ago on a similar subject, I quoted from A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

A play there is, my lord, some ten words long,
Which is as brief as I have known a play;
But by ten words, my lord, it is too long

There comes a point in some conversations when one may feel that the volume of words is like a wall, being built higher or thicker, chinks filled and fissures repaired, and all this with words and to block sexual desire and to divert it to wall building. And one may feel, too, in one’s loins, that a kiss or embrace would eliminate the need for speech. And then later, upon reflection, one may appreciate the sexual aspect of human conversation more generally.

With such delight in her eyes and voice, and such an openness in her posture, Marta leaned on my windowsill next to the tropical plants, my gym clothes, piles of pages, laser printer and recycling bucket. Unable to find a way to express to her what I was feeling, I was tongue-tied and our evening conversation was at once stiff and short. When Marta left I had the sense that my tacit message had been something like “I do not have much to say to you, and there’s not much pleasure to be had in stopping by to see me.” Hardly an expression of my feelings! The present text is, among other things, an attempt at sublimation, at replacing love-making with a discussion of love-making that has not taken place.


It has been explained to me that in German there are two distinct words for “woman”—Weib and Frau—and that the difference between these two words is not the same as that in French between mademoiselle and madame, or as the differences in English between “young woman,” “woman,” “lady,” “housewife,” etc. My understanding is that Weib implies that the woman is sexually active or has erotic desires and interests, while eine Frau is often desexualized, for example by domestic responsibilities or her role in the workforce. (Or, nowadays, desexualized by the hormonal effects of birth-control pills?)

This phenomenon is not unique to German (nor to women working in Germany). Sticking just with language for the moment, I note that the Spanish word “maya” may be used similarly to Weib. “Broad” is a vulgar word that English-speakers might use as a substitute; another: “female.” Interestingly, etymologically Frau has been traced back to a Proto-Indo-European word prow, which is translated as “master” or “judge.” I will not be the first to note that a woman who takes on the role of master, either in a family or for an employer, may be desexualized or appear desexualized as a result.

The purpose of these notes is not to discuss German or language or the difficulties of playing multiple roles, but to propose more simply that in our work relationships, at least in the United States, men and women, straight, gay and otherwise, are often made into some version of Frauen. Or, if you prefer, we are ever at risk of being made, or making ourselves, into Frauen. (Although we are more often mastered and judged than masters and judges!)

One might be tempted to follow this linguistic excursus with a discussion of sexual harassment. We could discuss how laws, regulations and their enforcement have sought to remove sexuality from the workplace and from collegial relations, and this for a number of reasons to include because sexuality complicates relations between people and can make it harder for workers to work together “successfully.” The quote marks are to call attention to the fact that in a different universe a rich and fulfilling erotic life (which is not to say one including sexual harassment) could be a key part of success, whereas organizations and legal regimes in our twenty-first century are more focused on goals like selling more cellphones, taking care of more hospital patients, or extracting other countries’ natural resources and exploiting as cheaply as possible their citizens’ labor. Let us note, too, that workplaces and collegial relationships have also become principal sources of erotic partners, of people to marry or to have sex or other kinds of intimate relations with. Although the erotics of the workplace have been forced into the closet, this closet is a busy and sought after location.


My evening with Marta came right on the heels of another, similar workplace interaction. I had been at a meeting with another woman I find quite attractive; but with “Rosemarie” I have tried quite a different approach, not demanding or even quite proposing that we enter into intimate relations, but telling her directly what a fan I was of hers and how, if she were single, I would be asking her to go out with me. While I had been pleased with the honesty of my confession, I had also felt that, understandably (!), it had complicated my working relationship with Rosemarie. We still worked well together, but perhaps not as well as previously. (And I need to say that while my direct telling may have made Rosemarie uncomfortable, it did not stop her from proposing subsequently that we start playing tennis together, though this proposal has not led her to finding any time to play tennis with me. It has been something she wanted to propose but not do.)

So now I was at a meeting with Rosemarie and several other people, and the event was such that it was only at the very end, when the meeting was breaking up, that I had an opportunity to appreciate that my colleague was wearing a silky black dress that made her look quite stunning. The next day she sent me the usual follow-up e-mail, and I set to work drafting my follow-up to her follow-up. My first draft began something like, “Good to see you yesterday, and may I say that your dress was really quite stunning.”

No, I decided, this would not do. All the business notes I wrote subsequently would be colored or discolored by this personal remark, and it might seem that I did not take her work seriously; what came first was her physical appearance or my erotic interest.

So then I thought I would put the compliment at the very end of my e-mail, after the business remarks, but this did not seem right either. It seemed that in order to have a good working relationship, the personal and the erotic had to be left out. (It also occurred to me that in the past when I had suppressed my feelings—when I had said absolutely nothing—this had created space for Rosemarie to be more forthcoming. Once we had gone to the theater with another colleague and his wife, and I had not written Rosemarie immediately afterward to tell her (yet again) how much I enjoyed her company. And, in the absence of any response from me, had she felt a need to be more forward, to preserve or assure herself of my ongoing interest? It was shortly thereafter that, in an e-mail, she proposed tennis.)

Meanwhile, after the meeting and the stunning dress—the top of which not only matched Rosemarie’s long black hair, but was transparent, revealing beneath a black silk camisole, which in some parallel universe was itself transparent . . .

I ended up writing Rosemarie a purely business e-mail, and feeling disappointed in this. This was hardly living life to the fullest. This was hardly being myself with this other person. This was hardly a reflection of what I would like to think are my priorities, in which not only erotic life but also frank conversation are supposed to rank higher than repression and behaving in a conventional manner.

Moreover, over the several years we have worked together in close, if mostly electronic partnership, Rosemarie and I have become, in some twenty-first-century way, close friends. Although we live in the same city, we have only seen one another once a month or so, mostly at group meetings, but have been e-mailing once a day or more. We often discuss, electronically, quite personal aspects of our current lives and relationships, our families and childhoods. Even with our most pedestrian business communications we have made it a point to begin on a personal note. “Have you gotten out at all today? I had a great run in the park this morning.” Things like that.


I am sure that there are men and women who have found better ways than I have to relate to colleagues they have found attractive, and to bring more of themselves, including their erotic desires (their desires to be close to other people) into the workplace. I can also imagine people coming up with lots of advice and solutions that would prove to be “bad,” not likely to lead to “good” relationships with colleagues. (These days other aspects of my work life often remind me of a line from the literary critic I.A. Richards: “It’s very hard to overcome professional expertise. People’s careers depend upon their having a say-so in matters about which they haven’t thought at all.” Plato’s Socrates kept making a similar point about and to well-bred Athenians. And so I would say as regards basic words such as “bad,” “good” and “successful”—we use them with a doubtlessness that is born of thoughtlessness.)

Decades ago I worked with an organizational development consultant, and though I had hired her to help with quite a different kind of team-building, at some point she commented to me that, in her opinion, sexuality did belong in the workplace. That is, she (an African-American) felt that in a successful workplace people should not be robots or shadows of themselves, but their full selves, sexual desires (or lack of sexual desires) included.

I would take this one step further. In almost every case—including writing essays or symphonies or making paintings—the work itself is not enough; it is part of being a social animal in dialogue with others (to include with others within one’s self). If this dialogue is pinched or limited, if speech is blocked and communications are distorted or incomplete, this is a loss, this is less.

William Eaton


Image was found on sociologist Tristan Bridges’s blog.

Certainly the title of this short essay owes something to Eric Rohmer’s film Ma nuit chez Maude in which, instead of having sex, the main characters talk philosophy and religion, the heat of their feelings well expressed by the tremendous number of cigarettes they light, smoke and stub out. The film, released in 1969, forms part of Rohmer’s series of “moral tales” in each of which a man, while ostensibly in love with some other woman, spends time with a second (or first) woman who he finds supremely attractive, and yet, or for this reason, he does not consummate the affair.

The previous post in which I quoted the lines from A Midsummer Night’s Dream was called, fittingly, “A play there is, my lord, some ten words long.” It was a short post, and I am more or less reprising it entirely here, with the quote above and these next two. The first of these latter is from Shakespeare’s work, from Pyramus and Thisbe, the too-long play within the play. In this playlet, I am proposing, the lovers may be thought of as trying, unsuccessfully and bawdily, to find one another through a wall of words:

Pyramus: O kiss me through the hole of this vile wall!
Thisbe: I kiss the wall’s hole, not your lips at all.

To this I appended, and append again, one of Ian Craib’s observations in The Importance of Disappointment:

I suspect indeed that the best adult friendships—with members of the opposite sex or members of the same sex—involve precisely these desires which are not acted upon. In this sense all our important relationships will be sexual relationships.

This might be thought of as a challenge to what my words above, about work relationships, are proposing. And so I, in my turn, would ask: If many of our best friendships and collegial relationships are born of not doing what we would like, if they are born of repression, frustration and disappointment, what sort of life is this?


This essay appears in Art, Sex, Politics (order from Amazon or Barnes & Noble).

Art, Sex, Politics cover from AmazonIn a new, provocative collection of essays, William Eaton, the author of Surviving the Twenty-First Century, shares the pleasures of questions, tastes, reading and more visual arts. “That we are animals, that is as sure as ever. How savagely we behave! And how affectionately rub up against one another. How, desperately, make love?”

Kind words about Surviving: “Entertaining, yet packs a quiet intellectual wallop. . . . so thought-provoking and poetic I didn’t want it to end . . . beautiful and wise and moving . . . engaged, non-doctrinaire, well-read, independent-minded. . . . William Eaton finds arresting themes in unusual places. . . . The writing is masterful and wonderfully absorbing.”


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My evening with Marta: A few notes on sexuality in the workplace


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