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Sexy, or Sexual Harassment?

Is there such a thing as sexual harassment when your job is reviewing vibrators?

- September 10, 2003

I was typing up my review of the Cliterrific Complete—a mildly disappointing waterproof vibrator—when my boss slapped a strap-on onto my desk.

I jumped. I studied it. Long and rubber-smelling, with awkward-looking black straps and a remote control to make it vibrate, this device lay next to my keyboard like some obscene insect. I raised my eyebrows.

"Some of the guys upstairs had this," explained Carl, which is not his real name. "I told them I knew just the girl for it. I knew you'd appreciate this." He smiled that slow smile of his. He raised his eyebrows suggestively.

I smiled back, tentatively. Perhaps I added a sassy comeback—my exact words escape me now. But if I said something clever, it was only because I knew I was supposed to. In truth, I had no idea how to respond to something like that. Should I have felt flattered? Empowered? Disgusted? Resigned that this was just the nature of the job?

There were always these mixed feelings, a shuffling back and forth between pleased and disturbed. I hadn't expected to feel such a range of emotions about my job. But, of course, this wasn't your average college internship.

* * *

Two months earlier I had shuffled in for the first time, coming to meet the new-media director for an interview. It was for an editorial internship at the web operation of my favorite local publication, a weekly entertainment newspaper. When I'd sent in my resume, I had envisioned free concert tickets, in-depth interviews, and scads of jealous friends.

Jealous friends, at least, I got in droves.

During the interview, I'd sat primly on the edge of my seat as Carl, the boss man, critiqued my writing samples and prodded me for background information. In my head, I went over all the things I'd read the night before in Interviewing for Dummies. I was trying to think of something intelligent to say. I was trying not to feel insulted by his style critiques. It took an extreme act of willpower not to start twirling my hair with nervousness.

At some point it became clear that I'd passed the test. Carl sighed and relaxed into his chair. "Are you comfortable with adult content?" he asked me.

It was a curious question, but, sure, why not?

"Oh good," he said. "Then come around over here and let me show you some of what you'd be working on."

I edged around the desk as he brought a personals site up on his computer screen. There was an ad displaying a bare cartoon butt. When Carl touched his mouse to the butt, it made a slapping sound. He did this about five times and chuckled. "That gets me every time," he said.

Carl offered me the internship on the spot—writing online adult content for a very adult personals site owned by the company. It wasn't exactly what I'd had in mind when I sent out that resume, but at least it was a writing job. After a fleeting thought as to what my mother would think, I accepted.

* * *

On my first day, I met Michael, the stuttering young intern I would be working under. He showed me the Drawer of Goodies, filled with massage oils and erotic literature, vibrating nipple clamps and sizzling body candy. This was the raw material for our book and product reviews.

Always the bookworm, I immediately grabbed Carol Queen's Exhibitionism for the Shy, because I am—shy, that is. And then I looked at all the toys sitting there, toys the other interns were too embarrassed to take.

I had never owned a sex toy in my life. Hell, I didn't even kiss my first boy until I was 17, or lose my virginity till I was 19, and I was scandalized when, at the age of 20, my boyfriend wanted to buy me a vibrator. But I was eager to impress, so I dove in. I was drawn to the Tantus Silicone Feeldoe because of its extreme purpleness. It was also large and extremely daunting. I picked it up and studied it, and then I said, as nonchalantly as I could manage, "I've always wanted a vibrator, but maybe I'll try this instead."

The other interns stared at me. Michael wheeled his chair over to me and then commenced the most embarrassing conversation I would ever have with someone I'd just met. As he explained the type of lube I should use (water-based rather than silicone-based), I tried not to look horrified.

It was my first toy, and it would definitely not be the last.

* * *

I quickly became acclimated to the odd climate at the office, where, like at every other newsroom in existence, we talked about what we covered. At this company, that involved reading aloud outrageous erotica passages, discussing bondage, and snickering over naughty online pictures and hardcore-porn plots. Things that once had seemed shocking to me soon ceased being even vaguely risqué.

Every aspiring writer needs a niche, and soon enough I was known as the intern willing to try anything, from a wide-tip riding crop to chocolate body frosting. It seemed to work: Carl became impressed with my open-mindedness, and he seemed to enjoy my tongue-in-cheek commentaries. It became my number one goal to keep him impressed.

I started getting first dibs on the best articles. I was sent off to Crunch Gym so I could write a feature on their cardio striptease class. I was given the first vibrator that came in: the Rabbit Pearl, featured on Sex and the City. I was able to put in orders for new toys I wanted to try and books I wanted to read. And when Carl wanted a makeover story, he came to me with the assignment.

But was it just because he thought I was talented? After $500 worth of treatments (gratis, of course) at the swankiest spa around, I returned to the office feeling like a movie star. Carl looked me up and down. "You look smokin'," he said, that sly smile spreading over his face. Then he said it again—and again and again—shaking his head in disbelief. I went from pleased to uncomfortable in a matter of moments. I smiled tentatively as he walked away, still shaking his head, stealing looks back at me.

* * *

I didn't let moments like that bother me. I was enjoying my job far too much.

I had my own byline on a site that thousands of people read every month, a dream come true for any wannabe writer. I was taken seriously when I pitched story ideas and then given free reign to write them. And I wasn't writing dry, passionless straight news articles. It was fabulous to be writing my own goofy, sarcastic, scandalous humor pieces.

And so when Carl made off-the-cuff comments about me while joking around with Michael and the other interns, when he snuck up behind me and placed his hands on my shoulders, leaning over me to see what I was working on, I wrote it off as the nature of the beast. In an atmosphere as open and laidback as this one, why should I be bothered by such insignificant things?

Halfway through the semester, Carl invited me into his office for a chat. I sat down across from him, and he closed the door and asked me if I'd like to make some extra money. Of course I would. That's when I started writing online marketing content for a web company he worked for on the side. Like what I'd been writing for Carl, these articles were also adult in nature. But now I was making as much as $1 per word.

And when Carl left the newspaper, I went along with him, now working fulltime at the web company. Michael and Katharine, the other interns, moved over, too. We discovered an atmosphere at this new company even more casual than the one at the paper. And by casual, I mean raunchy.

Which meant Carl was in his element, always explaining the logistics of anal beads or discussing the virtues of building a Russian mail-order bride site. He also became more candid about his high regard for me. He announced to the office how much he admired me. He introduced me to prospective employees and clients as The Vibrator Queen. I laughed it all off. I always tried to uphold a wry sense of humor about these things, and instead of allowing myself to feel uncomfortable, I would take his comments as compliments.

But at the same time, I started to wonder: Can sexual harassment exist when you review vibrators? In an environment like that, what exactly crosses the line? How do you decipher the differences between good, clean fun and down and dirty sleaze? When do you stop playing along?

Maybe this should have been a time to stop playing: Stephen, one of the salesmen, cruder even than Carl, was joking around with me and Katharine, teasing Carl about his penchant for younger women. "You girls should hear what he told me he wants to do to the both of you," Stephen said, leering. Katharine shrieked that horrified shriek of hers, and I just told Stephen I'd rather not know. Katherine continued to shriek, and Carl swiveled in his chair and rolled his eyes. "Don't worry Katharine," he said. "I wasn't talking about you."

Finally, a different line was crossed, one much easier to discern: I graduated from college and needed to start paying back loans. I was forced to move back home for a while, which would have meant a four-hour commute to Carl's company. I quit.

And now, three months later, I've traded in my dotcom tank tops and knee-high boots for the pinstripe suits and leather handbags of Wall Street. Compared to the rowdy, entertaining days working for Carl, it's a little dull. In fact, I often miss my old job in adult content.

I guess I just miss the creative freedom I had. But I've also realized that Carl probably never did cross that fine line from rowdy banter to sexual harassment—if only I knew where that line lies.

Stephanie Pekarsky is an editor for The Louis Berger Group, an engineering firm in New York City.

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