Power Dynamics and Informed Consent

Beware the office relationship

Man and Woman Sitting in Front of Table With Books and Cup of Coffee Facing Each Other

In February this year, Monica Lewinsky spoke about her #MeToo moment, regarding her relationship with then-president Bill Clinton. She views the dynamics of that relationship in a different light now, both in terms of how in control she felt of her actions and participation, and in how it was perceived by the outside world. Before the media picked up on it, before she told a colleague what had happened, she saw the relationship as consensual even though her boss took advantage of her.

With hindsight, she says:

“I’m beginning (just beginning) to consider the implications of the power differentials that were so vast between a president and a White House intern. I’m beginning to entertain the notion that in such a circumstance the idea of consent might well be rendered moot.”

I remember the media frenzy and the portrayal of Lewinsky as a slut, homewrecker and gold-digger, and Bill Clinton’s reputation smeared as untrustworthy due to his infidelity, raising questions over his suitability to hold public office.

But in the aftermath of the Lewinsky-Clinton affair, the narrative changed. Monica Lewinsky was nowhere to be seen, ostracised, talked about yet never talked to. Bill Clinton was cleared of perjury, obstruction of justice and abuse of power. He got to serve out his full term in office. He still holds a place on the world stage, as former US Presidents generally do, and the scandal seems to hardly affect him now.

When Lewinsky told the story from her point of view, there were predictable comments still shaming and blaming her for the whole thing — and some saying that her story had no place in the #MeToo movement. But her story is relatable and something that many young women have experienced (although probably not with the US President). Now that so many powerful men are outed as serial harassers and abusers, we cannot rely on the old stereotypes anymore.

A short while before things really snowballed, various lists were circulating such as “The Shitty Media Men” list, and the spreadsheet of sexual misdemeanours committed by Conservative MPs. This second list was not all it seemed, with some allegations that shouldn’t be on the list. I found this hard to swallow at first, assuming that there must be some context for the inclusion of mere sexual preferences and consensual relationships. Turns out I was right — the list had likely been compiled to use as blackmail material should any of those named not toe the party line.

I suppose that list is of little consequence now, given that everyone with an internet connection has access to Tory MPs dirty laundry. But yes, consensual relationships between equals should not be conflated with sexual harassment — it was mostly the media that encouraged this by labelling it as a list of “Tory Sex Pests”, rather than identifying the potentially worse scandal of influencing votes in Parliament by blackmail.

I felt uncomfortable about the inclusion of ordinary relationships on the same list as an MP asking a junior member of staff to buy sex toys for them, but I also struggled to pinpoint why I also thought the list-maker might have a point. And then I had to reconcile both these things with the disgust I feel at the Conservative government. Like, I want them to be held to account in the press, but not by dragging people’s sex lives into it when they’ve done nothing wrong (I’m not really bothered by MPs being into “odd sexual acts” or if there is a UK version of the “pee tape”).

I suppose this was all happening before women felt they had a voice, and that they didn’t have to put up with lecherous behaviour in the workplace anymore. Because there was something among the “banter”, the lewd emails, the way we were treated “different but supposedly equal”, that we didn’t like but knew we couldn’t do anything about. In principle, I supported my colleagues’ rights to get up to whatever debauchery they wanted, as long as it wasn’t happening next to my cubicle. But it always seemed to be the women who ended up worse off, and there was this feeling that they “should have known better” and that they’d better keep their pretty little mouths shut unless they were really fucking stupid.

Some of the allegations on that list of MPs indiscretions are very serious indeed. And some of those serious allegations involve presumably consensual relationships — as well as ordinary workplace trysts, we find “impregnated former researcher + made her have abortion”. There are so many issues of power and control in this one instance that I don’t even know where to begin. Yet it is examples like this that blur the line between criminality and not-technically-illegal-but-still-awful, a line that some men have spent a lot of time on.

There are numerous cases of “inappropriate” behaviour with male and/or female staff, of being “handsy with women” and one case of having “paid a female to be quiet”. There seem to be several varying shades of sexual impropriety here, but one thread connects virtually all of them: an imbalance of power. There’s a huge difference between sexual activity that takes place between informed and equal individuals, and having it forced upon oneself by a person who holds a lot of power.

The only entries that we can reasonably say do not involve such an asymmetry are those consenting affairs between fellow MPs. Even sexual behaviour that seems consensual between boss and employee — or any manifestation of unequal power — can be problematic. Like Monica Lewinsky, I have been romantically involved with powerful men, and wrongly assumed that I was in control, that our relationships were reciprocal, and that I was an equal party in the relationship. It was all an illusion.

Relationships that begin at work are a part of life. Most situations that bring humans together for extended periods of time are going to generate some type of bond between some of those people. We can’t do anything to change this — we’re attracted to who we’re attracted to, and no rules or contractual clauses are going to make any difference — and nor should they. People have a right to a private life, and it’s their responsibility to ensure that it doesn’t become an issue at work. If it does, then that’s a problem to be dealt with when it arises.

But we need to use some discernment here. That is often the last thing one thinks about if they’re involved in an office romance, and it’s an easy way to get caught up in a potentially abusive situation. A power imbalance is necessary for abusive relationships and behaviour to occur, and while not all power corrupts, it’s a lot more common than we’d like. I don’t know what the appropriate intervention is — I hate the idea of management wading in to other people’s business, yet I’d like to think an employer should look out for their employees safety. It can’t hurt for us to all be aware of the signs that someone might be a creeper.

Let’s take a look at the type of men that get involved in toxic relationships with subordinates. We already know that men who hold traditional beliefs about gender roles are more likely to accelerate up the career ladder and earn more. Male-dominated workplaces are an incubator for all manner of sexist beliefs and discriminatory practices. The attitudes are rewarded with power, and the power drives the attitudes. And it’s in workplaces like this where I’ve seen the worst harassment of women by men.

In traditionally male environments, there’s an underlying assumption that women are not only less competent than men, but that they are untrustworthy and devious — as shown by the #MeToo backlash. The idea that women would complain about harassment for fame, money and attention is borne out of this prejudice. It’s a ridiculous thing to believe, given how victims of such behaviour are treated, but it’s also a compelling argument that speaks to men’s insecurity. I have heard this idea trotted out frequently by men who either didn’t know or care that I was listening, or thought I was “one of the guys”.

The trouble is, it’s not just male-dominated workplaces where this happens. It’s part of a wider system of male entitlement and unchecked power.

These men’s mindset says that women are of lower status than men, and that they are all lying snakes. Women in male-dominated fields (in particular) tend to believe strongly in the idea of meritocracy, because to believe otherwise might indicate that they are not there on merit. Yet it is this belief of a meritocracy that does not exist that contributes to the problem.

It’s very easy for a strong and capable woman to get involved with a powerful man and believe she is his equal, blind to the power imbalance that she does not believe in. It would be patronising to consider herself as a submissive party, so she rejects the possibility. The more powerful party is aware of this, and combined with the institutional beliefs about women, doesn’t value her or the relationship. She’s just a bit of fun, there to pass the time, a perk of the job.

There might be some odd things happening that the less-powerful party queries, but they’ll be explained or threatened away. You need to keep things quiet, to avoid office gossip. You need to sneak around, to avoid being seen by colleagues. You can’t tell your friends, because they wouldn’t understand.

It all seems reasonable, and there’s a good explanation for everything. But maybe something doesn’t feel right, or you know it’s not right but you’re enjoying the attention and proximity to power and don’t want it to end. But things do go awry, and it all feels out of your control. It’s over, on his terms, and you’re discarded.

You feel used, humiliated, and powerless; yet life goes on as normal for him. You want to do something, say something, but going to HR won’t help you — it’s your word against his, he’s got a good reputation, and the whole system has been designed to suit men — because until recently it was only men that worked there.

And then you discover that it’s not just women that have whisper networks. The Boys Club takes over, and suddenly you are the threat. HR and the other powerful men will do everything they can to minimise, deny and disparage the allegations and anything else you say. It gets brushed under the carpet, you are marked out as trouble — which will have an effect on your career prospects, never mind your mental health.

The Boys Club will double-down on the matter, perhaps even accusing you of harassment if you dare to speak up. They want your silence, and they’ll do whatever’s necessary to get it. A man’s reputation is at stake, and yours can be sacrificed to ensure his. You are a gossip, a tart and a threat, and it’s just your word against his. If you don’t shut up you’ll get forced out, while he gets a promotion.

The Boys Club is rarely threatened, and when it is, it’s dangerous. Women are relative newcomers to many areas of work, and men have had to adapt to this. But some sectors lag behind, resisting change, and expecting women to conform to stereotypes and impossible standards of behaviour. The sexist attitudes that hold women back in male-dominated fields are the same sexist attitudes that give men permission to abuse their power and get away with it. And that power has remained unchallenged until recently.

If you meet a new partner at work, be sure you know what you’re getting into. If you’re worried that a colleague is being harassed, check in with them — but don’t expect them to change their feelings in an instant. The dynamics of abuse are complicated, and they may not see it for what it is. It’s never nice to put the brakes on at the start of an exciting new love affair, but if he’s one of these men, he will be calculating his every move. Whether it’s comments, groping, or a relationship you were coerced into, it’s all abuse. They know what they’re doing, and they know how to get away with it. Bill Clinton did it, Harvey Weinstein did it, thousands more powerful men have done it.

Now that society is finally addressing the issue, it should be more difficult for predatory men to get away with their crimes. But we’ve not solved the problem yet. Until we do, we’ll have to remain vigilant, think honestly about the relationships we may be getting into, and keep those whisper networks alive. Because the Boys Club is still watching.