Top (as I’ll refer to him for the purposes of this story) and I had met a few months prior at an industry event in New York City.
“This guy can make things happen,” said the mutual acquaintance who introduced us. Top’s firm-but-warm handshake came immediately, tailed by smiling eyes, which, I surmised, had welcomed scores of personal confessions and declarations of loyalty in their forty or so year history. With every back slap and bear hug I watched Top dole out to professionals representing various corners of the media world that night, my certainty that I had to work with him grew stronger. Top was the key to expanding my careers as a writer across different mediums. Did I mention he was handsomer than he was charming?
I eventually agreed to travel thousands of miles at Top’s company’s expense for a meeting because we had genuinely clicked on a creative level, and I was genuinely interested in collaborating. I was also genuinely — maybe dangerously — attracted to him. I was not naïve enough to believe that Top was purely interested in my capacity to brainstorm (I did have Skype), but I had no idea what to expect, exactly. Not knowing was part of the adventure, I told myself.
The thing is, I know I’m more than a bit of a Work Flirt — a role that maybe comes naturally to me, given that I exploit my body for a living. As an immersive journalist, I pride myself on being carefree and possessing the moxie to get the inside scoop on everything from naked body sushi modeling to plastic surgery to “sugar daddy” dating. I rarely hesitate to strip for the sake of a story, so why not flirt it means building a relationship or landing a gig? Even as a bond trader on Wall Street from 2003-2006, I found room to flirt pretty shamelessly within that rigid corporate atmosphere. In retrospect, I didn’t sleep with my boss back then because I wasn’t attracted to him, plain and simple. (I wrote about that experience for Elle.) I’ve always believed in a wink and a carefully timed lip bite, whether they lead to a free ice cream or to a job opportunity.
From the outset, I reveled in feeling Top’s eyes on me as I flounced about his office, posing somewhat thoughtful questions about the decorative accents representing his various career achievements. So you spent time in Africa? What was it like shaking hands with the President? How the hell did you find time to train for a marathon?
A good Work Flirt can feign sincere interest in even the most mundane miniature wooden statue. A good Work Flirt constantly gathers intelligence so she can summon relevant details later, showcasing that she bothered to remember them. Wasn’t that the takeaway from Groundhog Day? A good Work Flirt is agreeable and energetic and does whatever it takes to project ease and to foster comfort.
I was in control, right?
It didn’t unnerve me at all when Top locked the door behind us earlier that day. If anything, I was exhilarated by what my sixth sense told me to expect after so many carefully crafted sexts and so much playful banter.
I certainly didn’t intend to go from gratuitous complimenting to doing it with clothes on, but I did nothing to stop that progression either. I was focused on pleasing, you see. And I was actually enjoying myself for the most part. When Top gently patted his lap and invited me to sit on his crotch, I did acquiesce. I’m no prude, and I figured I had nothing to lose.
Now, hands beneath blouse, I readjust my bra while assessing the task of reviving the dismembered couch before me. The powerful media executive I just dry-humped on plush suede fumbles about his expansive, neutral-toned office.
“If I don’t find a tissue to wipe the cum off my dick fast –”
“You’ll have to order a cream-based soup for lunch and accidentally spill it on those perfectly pressed flat front khakis to explain away the stains?”
Amused by my sass, Top pauses to shake his head before resuming his search.
Tissue finally in hand, he drops his pants at his desk, on which piles of books and documents rest between framed photographs of vacation conquests (fish, not women).
“You know,” he says, fidgeting with his belt buckle post cleanup, “we’ve really got to make an honest woman out of you, Mélanie.”
Stunned into silence, I wait one prolonged moment for a punch line that doesn’t exist, then collect my belongings with zombie-like efficiency. If only I weren’t too flustered not to thank Top for his time while saying good-bye.
For the next several hours, I ping pong between feeling completely responsible and being enraged by Top’s special brand of hypocrisy. Nothing changes the fact that Top is a professional with whom I want to work, right? I still respect and admire him, don’t I? From the confines of my hotel room, which suddenly seems way more mediocre than glamorous, I relive the experience. Was I fearless, or just plain reckless?
Eventually, I realize that if Top hadn’t made his laughably offensive remark, I probably wouldn’t feel a modicum of residual emotional guilt.
Rather than wallow in self-loathing, I decide to take ownership of my behavior — and to refrain from sending Top a dictionary flagged at the entry for “honest.” If anything, I feel bad for Top. How sad for a man to be so disillusioned — to have to dodge guilt by unjustly casting blame on another.
It would be totally disingenuous to tie this story up with a metaphorical bow by saying that I was inspired to abandon my Work Flirt ways from this point forth. It’s way too fun to eye fuck, for one. Plus, Top did end up hiring me.
Whether we can have it all, or not, I believe that sexuality is a tool, and that it’s up to an individual to use it, or not. Be the geisha who can topple a cyclist by staring him in the eyes if you can — and want to — be. In my view, it’s as unreasonable to expect no one to flirt in the workplace as it is to expect that doing so won’t complicate things occasionally. It’s obviously important to set one’s boundaries, and to respect those of others’.
But I see no reason to deny myself entry through the professional gateways I might unlock with my feminine wiles. Some might argue that there’s no place for sexuality in the workplace. As a card-carrying human, I’d argue that there’s no way to separate our sexuality from who we are entirely, whether at home, at the grocery store, or at work. I, for one, am uninterested in playing robot. Plus, haven’t men been bro-ing their way into promotions, exclusive memberships and deals for centuries? How many times a day do guys congregate by the water cooler or at a bar after work to bond over how hot they find certain women (colleagues, famous actresses, passersby, etc.), or to exchange stories about the chicks they’re banging?
The way I see it, women are sexualized day-in and day-out no matter what, whether they like it or not. Why let men monopolize The Department of Human Carnal Desire? If you can harness that power to advance your own aims, it might just be worthwhile. Sure, my opportunistic coquetry backfired a bit, but I refused to let it make me a reserved young professional because that’s not my style.
But I did learn from that dud of an experience. When it comes to being a Work Flirt, I now know, there’s something to be said about being a little more careful than carefree.
My new rule? Nurture the hope, but never follow through.