AFTER the office escapades for which Congress of South African Trade Union general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi profusely apologised last week here in Port Elizabeth, a few people asked me to write a short “sexual ethics for the office”.
This is not as easy as it sounds. The issue at stake is not merely what the staff code of conduct says: “No staff member shall involve in sexual activities during office hours at company premises, especially in relations between supervisors and supervised”.
What makes this so complex, is that underlying anybody’s sexual actions is a view of sexuality that would under normal circumstances determine what a person does and how that is viewed by others. It requires little elaboration that matters of culture and religion play quite important roles here. Just look at the difference in reaction between the British and the French when it comes to extramarital affairs of public officials or public persons.
There are broadly three dominant models in terms of which sexuality is judged.
The first is the relatively “conservative” covenantal model, which operates in most religious systems. What it says, is that sex between a man and a woman is a serious matter. (In most religious traditions and cultures, gay and lesbian relations are frowned upon.) Sexuality is not merely a physical interaction or fleeting communication: it is the giving of each other in a formalised relation of trust.
This formalisation takes many forms, but it must be public — like in engagement or marriage — and it requires long-term commitment. To involve in sexual interaction outside of such a relationship of trust, is seen as isolating sex from a richer and deeper interaction. And, as sex is the path to procreation, children should ideally find trust and caring and emotional security. To take sex out of the covenantal realm could — in this view — be personally demeaning and socially destructive.
Sex between consenting adults is therefore wrong unless those adults are partners in a marriage or covenant.
The second is the communicative model, in which sex is viewed as a form of human communication. When we communicate with each other, many layers of interaction happen: we not only listen to words and grammar in the context of the conversation, we also look at eyes and hands and body posture. So, when a man and women communicate with each other, there is potentially also a sexual dimension present.
In most professional situations, this dimension is overshadowed by the business matters at hand and it does not enter the consciousness of the communicators. But in some cases, flirting may go further, to more overt forms of sexual communication. It can reach the point where the topic of conversation is itself sexual in nature and both partners can then decide to engage in direct physical contact, which may or may not include “sex in the office”.
Sex between consulting adults is right as long as this is embedded in meaningful communication of which sexuality is an expression. (A one-night stand would therefore not qualify as morally right.)
The third is the biological model, in which humans are deemed to have certain basic biological needs that developed through a long pre-history of genetic and physical evolution. Thirst, hunger, bodily security and sexuality all fall into the same category — they are basic physical needs that require fulfilment to ensure the prolongation of life and the survival of the species.
A crude biological model would see sexual interaction at the same level as “eating when you are hungry”. There should be no complicated social and psychological strings superimposed on sexuality — it is basic human need satisfaction now devoid of the third-party responsibilities (a possible child) that in the past (before contraception) acted as a moral restraint.
Sex between consenting adults is therefore always right.
What all three models hopefully would agree is that sex through force, as in the rape of either a man or a woman, is always wrong.
What common sense and good professional conduct would prescribe is that sexual relations — however perceived — should be kept out of the office. Such conduct constitutes serious conflicts of interest, may represent misuse of institutional power, and might have negative effects on relations and productivity.
Most people, and society at large, somewhat hypocritically proclaim the covenantal model. But the “mistakes” of people in high places are probably the tip of the iceberg. As we grow in secularisation, as the social restraints of traditions lose their power and as either patriarchy flourishes or women become socially more assertive, so we shift our views on sexuality.
And what has been confined to your mind might eventually find expression in the office.
• Naudé is the former head of the business school and currently deputy vice-chancellor: academic at the Nelson Mandela Metro University in Port Elizabeth. He writes in his personal capacity. This article is to inform and educate, not to advise.