I recently began a Facebook discussion about the merits of using sex for professional and financial gain. My hypothesis was — and remains — that one should use any tools at his or her disposal to move ahead in a world where success is largely dependent on who you know and how much they like you. Appealing to the sexuality in another person is simply one of many methods to endear yourself to someone.
People of all genders do this. Whether power begets sex or sex begets power, it’s hard to say, but there seems to be a clear positive correlation between the two. Confidence and charisma go a long way toward convincing others to give you professional opportunities, as well as toward making them want to see you naked. Taking advantage of this — capitalizing on a flirtatious dynamic, creating an illusion of hope, impressing others with your sexual prowess, etc. — seems to be a natural part of the business world, unrelated to gender. Where sex and power are so closely linked, it’s difficult to discern where one ends and the other begins.
Much to my dismay, the Facebook discussion went off the rails when men started claiming that unlike women, men are unable to use sex to get ahead, that sex doesn’t belong in the workplace, and that if women want to do things like show cleavage to get favors, they shouldn’t have a reasonable expectation of equal pay.
I was shocked and disheartened by the claims because they stem from the pervasive belief that men are in power because they are more deserving of power. Here’s the logic behind it:
- Because most power belongs to men, other men cannot use sex to get ahead.
- If a woman uses sex to get ahead, she is using an advantage men don’t have.
- Using sex to get ahead is cheating the system.
- The system is a meritocracy.
- If a man gets ahead in the system, it’s because he has merit, not because he’s a man.
- More men are in power because they have more merit.
Even if you truly believe men cannot use sexuality to get ahead, this line of reasoning hinges on the flawed belief that we live in a meritocracy. I’m pretty sure anyone who’s not a cis-white male will have something to say about that. From where I’m standing, it sure looks like we live in a good ol’ boys club.
When you live within a system that runs on politics, charm and likeability are valid currency. Likeability is easier when the person you’re endearing yourself to sees himself in you. That’s how homogeneity perpetrates. It’s not necessarily intentional — people simply like people who are like themselves. It’s comfortable and familiar. Sexuality, on the other hand, is titillating. If you can’t get someone to like you because you’re familiar, you have a chance at getting them to like you because you’re exciting.
People who take advantage of this, who excite others, are often extended favors and courtesies that many competent but uninspiring people are not. But even when expertly wielded, sexuality is no replacement for merit. It is, at best, a power-up. It can give someone a boost, but it won’t win the race.
Here’s a story about local charmer Chris Kallal, who connived his way into financial and professional success, even after he was revealed as a fraud in 2010. People were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, to trust him again, because he’s expertly endearing. I met him once, and his magnetic draw is undeniable (the man is dripping with sex). He possesses the rare and enviable ability to make you feel like you’re the only person in the world. But he offered nothing beyond seduction, and it caught up to him. People figured out he was a snake, despite all his alluring qualities, and his legacy now is not power but a mug shot. While the system isn’t perfect, it does have checks and balances to keep the truly worthless out.
When men like my Facebook friend who thinks cleavage-sporting women are undeserving of equal pay cry out against sexuality in the workplace, they’re not talking about charming fellows like Chris Kallal. They’re talking about short skirts and breasts. They’re pointing specifically to female sexuality and calling it manipulative, inappropriate, and unfair. I have difficulty believing this comes from a lack of faith in the system itself — a genuine fear that it can be so easily gamed — but rather a fundamental belief that female sexuality is different than male sexuality.
In men, sexuality is viewed as inherent. It’s about charisma, confidence, and power. It’s a nebulous thing that’s difficult to point to, and that’s okay because no one is trying to define it. The intentional things men do to make themselves attractive, like styling their hair, shaving, smelling good, dressing nicely, and other upkeep, are considered more about being normal, hygienic members of society than about making themselves sexually appealing. Instead of being called out and criticized, their behaviors and motives are left unquestioned. Men are allowed to be whole humans without having to draw lines between where their sexuality begins and their personhood ends.
Women, on the other hand, have been so ruthlessly sexualized by media that they are seen as two distinct entities: person, sexuality. We can point to female sexuality as its own, separate thing because it’s been visualized, advertised, and idealized. It looks like cleavage. It looks like short skirts. It looks like long, flowing hair and pumps and red lipstick.
Men have created an ideal sex doll image and broadcast it as a prototype for women to emulate, yet they want to punish women in professional settings for adhering to it. Professional settings are no place for sexuality, they say, as they recline, muscular forearms emerging from rolled-up sleeves. You can’t expect anyone to take you seriously with your tits in view, they say, as they leer over drinks at pretty young things across the bar.
By making female sexuality a distinct thing, differentiated from the humanity of a person, they can address it and pretend they are not addressing the whole person. It allows these men to further compartmentalize their sexual fantasies from their day-to-day lives while convincing themselves that they do care about women. When they speak out against cleavage, they believe they are doing women a service by encouraging them to get by on merit, not sex. In reality, they are drawing lines around female sexuality, trivializing it, and telling us not to take advantage of it. They are separating us from a fundamental element of our personhood.
If the patriarchy fears anything, it’s that one day we’ll all figure out its rules are arbitrary and can be broken at any time. The constant refrain that (female) sexuality doesn’t belong in the workplace is nothing more than the patriarchy fearing its own destruction.
As a woman with sufficient competence, talent, and savvy, I have absolutely no qualms about using sexuality to get a foot in the door. I flirt, I wear low-cut shirts and short skirts because I like to do so, I touch arms, and I look men in the eye with a raised eyebrow and a smile that says, “Anything could happen.” And then you know what I do? I carry on intelligent conversations and work my butt off to prove my worth.
Even with those tools at my disposal, the playing field is nowhere near level. Not even close. So if I can gain the tiniest sliver of an edge by showing a little skin, I will absolutely take it. Cowing to men who belittle female sexuality is cowing to the rules of the patriarchy, and I refuse to play by the rules of a system designed to keep me down.