Book Review: Sex and the Office

A detail from the cover of “Sex and the Office:
A History of Gender, Power, and Desire”

If you find it hard to believe that not so long ago, male employers advertised for “pretty blonde” secretaries and office “temptresses” made scandalous news headlines, just consider the Petraeus affair, which has seen Paula Broadwell labeled a femme fatale, a homewrecker, and all else in the media. It’s clear that we still have a long way to go to make sense of gender and sexuality in the workplace, and Julie Berebitsky’s book, “Sex and the Office: A History of Gender, Power, and Desire” (Yale University Press, 2012), reviewed by Raina Brands of the University of Cambridge in the latest issue of Administrative Science Quarterly, aims to do just that:

To many readers, the idea that women should be legally protected from unwanted sexual advances in the workplace will be taken for granted. Despite a large and burgeoning literature on sexual harassment, however, researchers have been relatively quiet on the role of sexuality in the workplace. Yet men’s and women’s sexual dependence on each other is thought to be the defining characteristic of gender relations, and contemporary theories of sexism and gender discrimination rarely leave sexual relations untouched. It seems a remarkable oversight, then, that the topic of sexuality is so absent from research on gender relations in the workplace.

This ambitious book aims to rectify this oversight by providing a historical context for the sexual culture of contemporary white-collar workplaces. The book’s account focuses on professional environments that are characterized by bureaucratic ideals that seek to remove sexuality from the workplace. Beginning at the end of the Victorian era, the book proceeds chronologically, detailing shifts in cultural, legislative, and societal characterizations of sex in the office, ending at the introduction of sexual harassment laws. Although primarily aimed at macro-oriented scholars, the book provides an illuminating read for any researcher in the domain of gender studies.

Click here to read the review, then head over to asq.sagepub.com for free access to two years of ASQ book reviews.

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