Book review: Sex and the Office, by Julie Berebitsky

From the Victorians to Lewinsky and Clinton, relationships at work have been intimately linked with power. 'Mrs Moneypenny' enjoys a history of office affairs.

by Heather McGregor
Last Updated: 01 May 2012

Sex and the Office: A history of gender, power and desire, by Julie Berebitsky

Sex and the Office is not an original title, but it is a very original book. I am always nervous about misinterpreting any mention of sex and the office. When the FT called me out of the blue in 1999 and asked me to write a column about sex in the office, I explained that I was woefully unsuited to the task, as the bank I then worked for had 70,000 staff and as far as I knew I had not had sex with any of them.

After further discussion it emerged that what they were really after was a column about gender in the workplace. That was what I expected this book to be about. I was partially correct, but there was a great deal of sex as well.

This is not a manual or a reissue of Helen Gurley Brown's work of the same title. It is quite simply a history book. I read the whole thing before looking up anything about the author, Julie Berebitsky, but it came as no surprise to me to discover that she is a professor of history and director of a women's studies programme in the US.

The book reviews the history of women in the white-collar workplace in the US since they first appeared there in the second half of the 19th century and, through a mixture of anecdotes and archive research, shows how the relationships that develop between men and women at work can both aid and restrict the advancement of women's careers.

Berebitsky is to be praised for her very wide range of contemporary sources, including humorous postcards (many of which are from her own collection), films, newspaper articles, agony aunt columns and even trashy fiction. In her acknowledgements she thanks all the people who were so patient with her, as the book took a long time to write. I am not surprised it took so long, she has done a very thorough job.

The book makes for quite dense reading, but, despite this, I was enthralled with some of the anecdotes and was left thinking from time to time that in nearly 30 years of working in offices my sex life has not been nearly interesting enough.

Berebitsky depicts the constant struggle between gender, power and sexual attraction at work in the US (not to say that this doesn't happen elsewhere, but the US is the author's chosen area), although rather surprisingly gives more attention in its more recent historical discussion to the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas events than to Monica Lewinsky/Bill Clinton.

In my experience of dealing with very senior and successful men, the columnist quoted in the book by Berebitsky got it spot on when she said that Lewinsky offered Clinton the eternal allure of youth that made men feel as if they could 'go out and kill animals or build nations'. You could add 'build companies' to that list. He, on the other hand, offered her 'the ultimate aphrodisiac of unlimited power'. This still sweeps women off their feet in corporate UK.

Berebitsky documents how similar the challenges are today for women in offices to those faced by them over the past 100 years or so - for instance, how to dress attractively and professionally without being 'too sexy or too manly'. This despite how much has changed in terms of what is legally allowed to be said and done by men to women and vice versa in the office. Fans of Mad Men will apparently already be familiar with the game of scuttle, first described in print by Helen Gurley Brown, where on slow afternoons in the office an attractive woman is chased by a group of men until they catch her and remove her underwear. I clearly missed that episode, and was rather startled to find that this had been acceptable behaviour for men, however bored they were, in my lifetime.

The Sex and the Office by Helen Gurley Brown was published in 1964, two years after I was born and I confess that I have never read it. A 2008 reader review of the Gurley Brown book says that the title does not describe the contents, which it says are mostly anecdotes and some very jumbled advice.

In this namesake book, sex features heavily in the title (lots of raised eyebrows while I was carrying it around on holiday) and there is plenty of anecdotal sex but no advice, jumbled or otherwise. This is not a book for managers or even for managers in the making. It is one of the most interesting history books I have read for a while and especially striking in its lack of opinion. While it will be a must-read for students of gender studies, it leaves me wondering what Professor Berebitsky, clearly a scholar and a fascinating teacher, really thinks about how women should behave in the white-collar workplace.

Sex and the Office: A history of gender, power and desire

Julie Berebitsky

Yale University Press, £28.00

- Heather McGregor is a director of Taylor Bennett and author of Mrs Moneypenny's Career Advice for Ambitious Women (Penguin Portfolio, £16.99).

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