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December 2, 2009

Sleeping with the Boss

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Photo Credit: H. Weis/Getty Image

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Scovell's assessment of the Late Night milieu during her tenure there reveals another dirty little secret about office romances: They are rarely ever secret. When then-20-something British newspaper editor Danielle Janson was introduced to her boss, a married man with kids, the mutual attraction was palpable. "It was one of those things that just seemed inevitable," she recalls now, some 20 years later. The grinding deadlines and late nights fueled the relationship, which quickly became intimate. "I was just at the beginning of my career, and it was all so exciting," Janson says. Both went to great lengths to maintain discretion, always careful never to leave the office at the same time. Yet both were oblivious to the fact that their newsroom cronies were in on the secret — they intuited it — and routinely placed bets on how long it would take for the other to leave once one had packed up for the night. At the time, Janson says she didn't think the affair had any negative impact on her standing in the office. But years later, it still comes up in conversation with former colleagues. "Looking back, I suppose some people in the office took me less seriously because of it," she concedes.

At the time, Janson was in her 20s and five years younger than her lover. That's worth noting because, let's face it, it's usually the young ones who are especially receptive to the charms of a powerful boss and who often underestimate the professional and emotional fallout when these hush-hush romances go south. Jessica Wakeman, a 25-year-old Manhattan-based blogger, says that while she interned at a prominent magazine, she struck up a friendship with one of its editors. For over a year, she was his special project. He pored over her writing, spent precious time giving her detailed feedback. "When you're young, you don't know that many successful people in your field, so when someone older starts paying attention to you, it makes you feel special," Wakeman says. She knew he liked her, and she enjoyed the bragging rights. "It felt great to name-drop with my friends that I was hanging out with this editor at a big magazine." One night, after her internship had ended, he invited her over to watch movies. By the end of the night, they were in bed. Pretty soon, she was smitten and regularly sleeping at his place.

When she scored a full-time gig working in a different department at the magazine, Wakeman says she was ecstatic. But her mentor-turned-lover chafed at the idea. Usually warm and friendly, he barely acknowledged her presence during the day. When she confessed that she was in love with him, he promptly broke things off. Wakeman was devastated. "I thought I was adult enough to handle it, but all he saw in me was a younger woman who graduated from NYU a year earlier," she says. "If I was delusional about anything, it was that we were peers." Wakeman took a job at another publication a short time later.

Did her editor take advantage of Wakeman's naïveté? Perhaps, but officially it doesn't count as sexual harassment. Current law bans sex-for-favors and behavior that creates an "intimidating" workplace. (In other words, you can't promise your assistant a raise for a little boardroom nookie or plaster your cube walls with naked pictures of Robert Pattinson.) But the law is decidedly murky when it comes to likelier scenarios these days, like the fresh-out-of-college office naïf who welcomes the advances of an older, horny boss. Take 23-year-old Ava Smith, who began working at a small New York nonprofit shortly after graduation. At first, she was grateful for the attention lavished upon her by her boss. Though he was 20 years older, they clicked instantly. Smith wasn't troubled by his frequent invitations to grab beers after work, nor was she suspicious when he invited her out for the occasional dinner. It was on one of these outings that he confessed to being infatuated with her. "I guess I was flattered," she recalls. "But I was also really scared because I didn't know how to respond." Though she had reservations, she nonetheless went along with an affair. He was a big shot at work, smart and worldly, and he was interested in her.

But things quickly got weird. Soon, he was furtively grabbing her ass in the office. Sometimes he'd pull her into the back room and coax her into having sex with him. Then he began taking her to hotels in the middle of the day. She knew their relationship had become unhealthy — a distraction for her, a near-obsession for him — but says she didn't want to compromise her job by putting an end to things. "I just felt that I couldn't get out of it because he was my boss. He was like a puppeteer and I was the puppet, and he was just pulling the strings. I felt like I didn't have a say in anything," Smith says. Beset by anxiety, she began seeing a therapist who helped her realize she was being sexually harassed. Though she never filed a complaint, she left the job soon after and now works at a different nonprofit.

Still, despite the outcome — her former boss still texts and e-mails her — Smith accepts some responsibility for the role she played in the relationship. She relished the attention and enjoyed an "adrenaline rush" from their secret outings, she admits. "I'm not going to act like I was a helpless victim, although a part of me thinks I was," she explains, then pauses for a bit. "It didn't hurt me professionally. But I guess I was lucky."


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