“Yo, I don’t think we should talk about this
(Come on, why not?)
People might misunderstand what we’re tryin’ to say, you know?
(No, but that’s a part of life)”
The rash of sexual harassment accusations and related resignations and firings of high profile people (and, we can presume, lower profile people) raises yet again the question of when and whether people can talk about sex or engage in other raunchy talk in the workplace.
Should you talk about sex in the workplace? Of course!*
If you work for a company that sells sex, go right ahead and talk about sex in the workplace. Provided, of course, that you are talking about your company’s business, or its products, or otherwise doing something that’s required by your job.
Some years ago, I did work for a men’s magazine that featured articles and photographs that were sexually charged. (Sex sells, after all.) The photo editor told me, “I yell down the hall, ‘I need more boobs!'” She wanted to know if that was ok, or if she was engaging in sexual harassment.
I told her that, if she was saying she needed more cleavage in the photos, this was ok. If, however, she was talking about herself or something personal, it was not.
Here in Los Angeles, there is a company (actually there are a few) that produces print and video featuring naked women. The walls of the company’s office are adorned with photos from the magazines. The magazines themselves are in the lobby waiting area and in employees’ offices. Does the presence of that many pictures of nude women create a unlawfully hostile work environment? My answer to that question is no. The photos on the walls and the magazines on tables and desks are the company’s product. Conversations about the photos and magazines that are limited to work topics also would be ok. But the moment that an employee starts to talk about their personal sexual attraction to one of the models, or what they might hope to do with that model, the conversation crosses the line to one the creates an unlawful hostile environment based on sex.
The California Supreme Court decided this issue eleven years ago, in Lyle v. Warner Brothers Television Prods. Lyle was a writers’ assistant on the show “Friends.” The Court held that, the “Friends” writers’ room was a workplace where writers were paid to create adult-themed sexual humor and jokes. The court characterized the “Friends” writers’ room as a “creative workplace focused on generating scripts for an adult-oriented comedy show featuring sexual themes.” Therefore, the Court held that sexual talk in the context of brainstorming about and writing scripts — i.e., in the work done in the writers’ room — did not amount to unlawful sexual harassment.
So, if you write for a show that has sexual themes, or if you work for a magazine that features naked women (or men), if you work on the set of a movie with sexual content, go ahead and talk about sex if, and only, if you are talking about it in the context of your job.
But if you work at a bank, or a law firm**, or an energy company, or a hospital, or a restaurant (and so on and so on), there probably is not a situation where you can talk about sex without risking creating an unlawfully hostile environment.
*This blog is for entertainment purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice or offering a legal conclusion.
**Employment lawyers and HR people get to talk about sex every day. So, if you have an overwhelming desire to talk about sex, those are the careers for you.