Sex at Work: The Office Affair

It's dangerous, often dirty, and everybody's doing it. MC looks at the state of the office affair.

woman in short dress tights and high heels with man in a suit crouching behind her
(Image credit: Valentin Casarsa)

The office is officially the new singles bar. Americans spend 164 more hours at work than we did 20 years ago. One in three of us always eats lunch at our desks, and a third don't use up our vacation days. Much of a working woman's life is spent elbow-to-elbow with the opposite sex, men who see us at our most competent, smart, and creative (while we're seeing them at their least lame as well). So is it any wonder that the daily grind often leads to a different kind of grind altogether?

According to one survey, 47 percent of workers have had an office affair; another found that only 34 percent of them felt it necessary to keep their relationship a secret. And while the threat of sexual harassment remains a clear and present buzz kill — and sleeping your way to the top will often land you on the jump page of The Wall Street Journal — the commingling of lateral associates, Jim-and-Pam style, has become standard business practice. With nothing less than our careers and love lives at stake, we thought it high time to assess the steep risks and heady rewards of love among the cubicles.

The Safest Way to Be Dangerous at Work

On behalf of personnel honchos everywhere, if you can find your action someplace else, please do. The hunting may take more effort, but the kill and cleanup will be so much easier. Can't resist temptation? A few rules on mixing office with orifice:

Rule #1: Choose your partner wisely. If he's above you, then he can't be above you. If he's under you, then he's not under you. If you're on the same level, then give it a go. Although sideways is complicated in so many ways, it's the best way to avoid popping up on HR's radar and becoming another casualty — like former Red Cross president (and subordinate-shtupper) Mark Everson. After six months on the job, he was very publicly axed. Gruesome.

Rule #2: Have the talk early. Right after you've endured those key conversations about protection, sexual history, one pillow or two, no pulp or some pulp, discuss worst-case work scenarios and establish rules for downshifting back to platonic colleagues, if that becomes a necessity — i.e., no tears, no anger, and no loose talk in the break room about how his stuff bends to the right.

Rule #3: Play it cool. No physical contact, no telling glances. First of all, offices tend to have cameras in every corner these days. Secondly, while most people never pick up on the cues we give off, the smart ones do: They can tell when you're pregnant, shifting alliances, or looking for another job. And they can certainly spot the way you sweetly finger his tie, or suddenly snipe with a fury that sounds more like "What the fuck am I doing fucking a married guy?" than "You forgot to put the 11-by-17 in the copier!"

Rule #4: Confide in no one. Not even your closest officemate, who held your hair while you repurposed that unfortunate fourth Appletini at the quarterly sales conference. Because no one can be trusted to hang tight to this secret. And when she does tell all, everyone will assume the plum projects and promotions that come your way have nothing to do with your unparalleled brand-marketing skills and everything to do with those liaisons at the Marriott downtown.

Rule #5: Deny, deny, deny. If there's no e-mail trail and nothing on the cameras, how are they absolutely sure you two have hooked up? They're not going to dust him for prints. Then again, best to keep your resume up-to-date and know that one or both of you may have to move on. Most importantly, do your job really, really well. Most places hate to lose great people, even if they exhibit — all together now — really poor judgment.


It starts simply enough. You zap a purely professional IM to a coworker: "Let's meet about those profit-and-loss reports." Three days later, you're zinging racy notes back and forth about threesomes. That's what IM makes people do. "It's a fast technology, and things can escalate quickly," says Stephanie Losee, coauthor of the new book Office Mate: The Employee Handbook for Finding — and Managing — Romance on the Job."It's the virtual hookup of the workplace." The horror stories abound: "One woman was called into her boss's office, where printouts of her entire relationship were presented to her, with a stern warning," says Helaine Olen, the other coauthor of Office Mate.

There are personal stakes, too. Says Olen, "Some people break up over IM — by no longer responding to the other person's messages. It's even lower than a breakup by Post-it." And think of your coworkers. Ever sit next to someone thwacking out furious replies on a keyboard? Or giggling every time they get a note? Not fun. Bottom line: It's easy to get carried away, so think before you tap out those saucy little couplets.

60% OF MC READERS have Slept with a coworker





Want to read personal stories about Sex at Work? Try these:

10 Signs That Sue and Bob Are Having an Office Affair

1. Bob's business trip to Paris coincides with Sue's emergency gall-bladder surgery.

2. Like Bennifer and Brangelina, Sue and Bob are now known as "Su-ob."

3. They're spotted entering the supply closet with massage oil and a Barry White CD.

4. Bob installs a mirror on the ceiling above his desk.

5. Mutual sick day. Every other Thursday.

6. Sign on Sue's door: "Getting freak on — back in 5."

7. Office Depot guy wants Sue or Bob to sign for copy toner, fax paper, and a case of K-Y.

8. Both have same coffee mug: "I love nooners."

9. At Christmas party, they tongue-kiss under mistletoe.

10. Sue's review of bob includes complain that he "hogs the covers."

The Disclosure Question

Do women actually get sued for sexual harassment? Hell, yeah. According to a study by the Equal Employment Opportunity Council, 11 percent of complaints are filed by men against their female supervisors. "Women and men are equally at risk to have charges brought against them," says Rhoma Young of Rhoma Young and Associates, a human-resources group that consults on workplace relationships. "But realistically, due to cultural pressures like fear about being made fun of, men are much less likely to report it against women." That may be changing — between 1990 and 2006, the percentage of sexual-harassment charges filed by men nearly doubled. The lesson? Don't be a Demi.



"Do a bunch of bored geeks, with the know-how to access your e-mail and nothing to do but wait for an assignment, read your messages? Um, yes. All of us. First, you copy someone's e-mail database to your terminal. Then you do a word search for whatever you're looking for and pass the racy stuff around. We used to follow a very senior woman and her low-level hump of a boyfriend. They weren't so raunchy, but we're easily amused. Mostly, though, we use it to find out where the very attractive girl on our floor will be going out on Friday night."



"During the discovery phase of sexual-harassment suits, you see it all, from e-mails with 'How about a nooner?' in the subject line to photo attachments that I wouldn't want my kids or my wife or even my pets to see. Though most people realize we can access it, they get so brazen — especially via text message or BlackBerry. Away from their desks, people are less reserved — but those remote devices are just as incriminating as your PC. We don't record the content of Hotmail messages, though we can tell that you were on the site — or or Nerve — for 52 minutes."

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Abigail Pesta is an award-winning investigative journalist who writes for major publications around the world. She is the author of The Girls: An All-American Town, a Predatory Doctor, and the Untold Story of the Gymnasts Who Brought Him Down.