Sexiness: The Unspoken (And Unfair) Advantage At School And Work

Part 1: Jerusalem Thirst And Its Aftermath

When someone expresses unwanted attraction to me in an overt way, I squelch it immediately. I’ve been extraordinarily lucky that nothing too severe has happened: no rape attempts or physical overpowering that I couldn’t escape. My worst experience along these lines had to be in Jerusalem — on Shabbat, the weekly Jewish day of rest, when virtually all stores in my neighborhood were closed in deference to the holiday. I was in my early 20s, on a summer program through the Orthodox Jewish organization Aish Hatorah. I’d been warned to carry water wherever I went, but I’ve never been a thirsty type. I drink when I eat and that’s about it. I figured I’d save my back the extra weight… and, if I happened to get thirsty, I’d duck into a store and buy some water. As Nana, my father’s mother, might have said, Jerusalem was not in a wilderness. Stores were everywhere.

But then Shabbat happened in this desert-like city. I started feeling thirst like I’d never known: a nagging need for water, like every pore of mine would shrivel up if I couldn’t get some into my body. This was way worse than any hunger I’d ever experienced: far more urgent and overpowering. I needed water. And I couldn’t find an open store.

At first I didn’t panic. Jerusalem is more diverse than many realize: there are plenty of non-Jews and non-religious Jews. Surely I’d find some shop that sold water before too long. It’s not like I was looking for some rare commodity; I simply wanted plain old water. Any store that sold any kind of food or drink should have had some.

But each door I tried was locked, each shop window dark. I began to feel weak. The usual energy I counted on was just not there: I could not roam around checking out stores for too much longer. I barely had enough strength to stand.

The streets were much quieter than usual on that Shabbat afternoon, but they were far from empty. I figured I’d start reaching out to people. Surely someone would have some water for me. A friendly-looking guy, maybe 25, was walking towards me. “Hey, do you speak English?” I asked. He stopped, smiled, and nodded. “I’m so thirsty, and I can’t find an open store to buy water. Do you know of a place right around here where I could buy water today? Or would you happen to have some?”

He stood still, thinking about it. Even in my weakened state, my anthropological mind was active. I noted that he was wearing a small, knitted yarmulke, and his hair was longish and neatly combed. Clean-shaven, with shorts, sandals, and a bright orange T-shirt, he looked like some form of modern Orthodox Jew: religious, but probably not super-strict by Jerusalem standards. Finally, he said: “You could come up to my apartment. I could give you some Coke.” He spoke English fluently, with an Israeli accent.

“That’s so nice, but it’s really not necessary. I could just hang out outside and you could bring me some water, if you don’t mind. Water is what I really want. I hope it’s not too much trouble.”

“Oh, come on, I don’t want to leave you outside. You’ll come on up.” We walked about a block to his apartment complex, which I remember as being low, spread out, and made of sand-colored bricks. Somehow, I perked up and was able to take the walk. The promise of water was here, if only I could drag myself towards it.

We headed up one flight of stairs and entered a small, clean apartment. I knew this was stupid. I vowed never to tell my parents I had done this — strange for me, since I told them practically everything — but this would make them lose trust in my ability to protect myself. I needed water, though. And he was a nice, friendly, Orthodox Jew. What could happen that would be so terrible?

“Should I get you a Coke?”

“Honestly, just plain water is fine. Even just from the sink.” I wanted pure water, nothing diluting it. Nothing else would do.

He headed to the refrigerator and brought back an adorable little bottle of Coke. “I invited you into my home. I can’t just give you water. Israeli Coke is better than American Coke. Try it! You’ll see.”

I tore off the cap, wishing it were water, but thrilled that at least I was going to get some liquid into my system. Maybe it was my extreme thirst, but the Coke was glorious: sweet, smooth, and tingly: a cross between caramel and some kind of liquid Tootsie Roll. My strength returned as it all went down. I wanted more. I needed more.

“I know this is going to sound totally demanding, but do you have another Coke? I’m so thirsty. That was so good.”

He laughed and returned with another of those adorable bottles. I drank it down, a bit more slowly this time. Now I was sated. I felt good, and strong, and ready to head back outside. Thinking back, I really should have asked him for a bottle of Coke for the road, in case that desperate thirst returned. But I didn’t want to seem greedy, and I sensed that I had to get out. That seemed more pressing than the possibility of more thirst.

“Thank you so, so much for the Coke. It was wonderful. You just might have saved my life. I need to get back to other stuff now, but have an amazing day.”

He walked towards me until his body was right up against me. Then he started rubbing his chest against mine. I jumped back, shocked. He reached his arms out and hugged me close to him, pulling my head into his chest. I lunged back and yelled, “Oh my God!” I couldn’t imagine what else to say.

I ran towards the door. Literally, I ran. I never, ever run, so this was serious stuff. I twisted the knob, but it was locked. He rushed over to me. My heart was beating even faster than its usual half-hysterical pace. His eyes met mine. “You mean you don’t want…” I could see an honest sadness in his expression.

“No, not at all. I was just thirsty. I was desperate for water.”

“OK. Sorry.” It dawned on me how lucky I was. This was not a bad person. I was dangerously thirsty, and he did offer help. He assumed I wanted something else too, but he took my answer of no without too much trouble. I felt relief and almost no anger as he unlatched the door and let me out.

Part 2: The Hidden Damage Of Subtle Sexuality

These days complaints about sexual harassment (usually, but far from always, men against women) are rampant. I don’t tend to bond much with celebrities I’ve never met, but I know many who have been devastated by news of various men they’ve admired from afar who have used their power and influence to touch, grope, and coerce sexual relations in situations that seem grossly inappropriate. Many express surprise again and again.

Meanwhile, I’ve known this sort of thing was widespread since my student days… and not because I was directly involved. I knew because I’ve observed, and felt alienated from it all. And I’m not just talking about overt situations where we can throw the law at someone and get them removed from their job or their former stature. I’m talking about a commonplace energy, a hotbed of sexual charge that shifts moods and interactions in ways we can’t quantify or specifically define. It’s in the classroom, the office, the parent-filled playground, even the lab filled with nerdy professional scientists. Since my level of sexual energy is very low, I can view it all from a place of separateness: like a visitor to a strange and surreal garden where mysterious leaves can leap out of nowhere and grab you, and the air can feel thick with a force you can’t control or understand.

Odd as it may sound, the more subtle sexual situations I’ve observed — specifically, the ones where I was close to the situation and the perks some of my peers received — stick in my blood as quiet, but festering traumas, while the Jerusalem memory just makes me laugh, and feel grateful that I escaped pretty much unscathed.

Take the religious studies professor who was affiliated with my program in graduate school. Though I remember that he was a skillful lecturer, I have no memory of anything I learned in the class I took with him. I recall feeling awkward while meeting with him about my dissertation topic: my work bored him, and he would often blink uncontrollably before saying anything at all to me. Since I was interested in religious experience — a specialty of his — those in the know would nearly always suggest that I cultivate a relationship with him. He could be very helpful with navigating relevant terrain throughout the university, especially with women. But his lack of interest in me was clear. I wasn’t his type.

At first I blamed the problem on my anxiety and lack of passion for academia. My dissertation idea was awfully close to creative nonfiction and involved hanging out in Brooklyn with Hasidic Jews. I spoke loudly and nervously and for sure did not exude an abundance of social polish.

I was a bit miffed that someone known to be so helpful for some was so dismissive of me, and I discussed the situation with several people. A pattern of responses emerged. “Oh, he likes a certain type of attractive woman. It helps if you flirt with him just a bit; that’s the best way to spark his interest. But he’s particularly into blonde, graceful types. You might not really have a chance.” My confidantes shrugged as they shared these impressions, as if it was perfectly reasonable for flirty attractiveness to help with someone’s academic career.

When I expressed my horror, people laughed. “It’s awful and ridiculous, but that’s how the world works,” I was told, again and again. People simply accepted this. This man was no rapist or breast-fondler. He was genteel and soft-spoken and followed all the rules. But he made his own erotic attraction an important criterion for a woman to receive his enthusiastic help. And no one complained to anyone in power. After all, he had power of his own — renown within his academic circles. And what would his accusers say: that he didn’t find them physically attractive enough to offer his support? It would be beyond mortifying and would surely lead nowhere productive. This was our world. We had to deal with it, just like we had to deal with harsh New England winters.

This infuriated me. Mr. Jerusalem Coke Connoisseur barely made me flinch by comparison. This professor was a symbol of much larger trends relating to the road to success and influence in academia, business, politics… pretty much any field where humans with sexual energy came together. He was a perfect example of this energy bubbling forth even among nerdy souls working away at prestigious universities, trying to achieve recognition for their ideas and their intellectual creativity.

Ironically, the project he was unwilling to support (to my ultimate benefit, as I found readers who wound up appreciating my work and my slant more than I imagined possible) involved studying a community that was — and is — very aware of the dangers and pitfalls of erotic energy, and tries to keep it in check by instituting strict laws regarding dress and interaction between the genders: the Lubavitcher Hasidim of Crown Heights, Brooklyn.

I surely did not resonate with many of these restrictions. For one thing, separate academic and social spheres for males and females would not eliminate erotic attraction; some are attracted to their own gender. For that matter, some don’t fit neatly into the male or female world prescribed by this group, and the decisive demarcation alienates some of the most intriguing souls born into the Hasidic universe.

But many of the goals and underlying impulses behind these community rules reach towards deep wisdom and gorgeous idealism, despite their shortcomings. What I find glorious, compared to the surrounding culture: this group wants to keep sexual energy in check, to contain it within the private spheres, never spilling beyond that domain in ways that could dominate professional, academic, or social pursuits. Their methods and assumptions may be misguided, but their ideals reach towards a purity of purpose that all groups would do well to emulate. To put it bluntly, they don’t find it OK when a genteel humanities professor uses his position to sweeten the academic paths of attractive young women, in return for a bit of flirting and erotically charged friendliness. Nor do I. And nor should anyone who believes that academia should be about the mind and not the sexy physique or even the kind of classy, controlled femininity my graduate school professor sought out.

Part 3: Suggestions For The Wider World

Clearly, most of the world is not going to abide by the restrictions of ultra-Orthodox Judaism. This is, on balance, a very good thing. Sensitivity to the full spectrum of humanity requires moving beyond ultra-Orthodox assumptions regarding gender, sexuality, and life’s ultimate purpose. Far be it from me to proclaim the ultimate wisdom of suggesting that every adult human should reproduce and raise a family if at all possible… or that segregating the genders will come close to eliminating sexual tension in classrooms or friendship groups. But we can learn and respect without undue valorization. We can extract wisdom when it’s valid, gleaning the gems and leaving the rest behind. And the gems in this case are real.

Above all, we should recognize that infusions of eroticism into arenas that most would agree have nothing to do with sex are dangerous at best… and very often devastating and deeply unfair. It is, plain and simple, wrong for a professor to favor those who suit his — or her — standards for physical attractiveness. It’s wrong to hire the person who is most adept at flirting in the way you enjoy over someone with more impressive skills and talents in domains relevant to the job. It’s wrong to promote someone because you’ll get to enjoy their flirty energy at more meetings if you do… while overlooking someone whose talents and drive are more suited to the position. I could go on and on. The basic theme is so common that many of us rarely think much about it. It’s like the air. We almost never question the air. And we should, when it gets as dirty as this.

I wonder if simply and clearly acknowledging these issues would bring some improvement. My graduate school classmates assumed that a professor had a right to bring his erotic preferences into the academic world and the classroom. What if teacher training workshops and orientation programs for professors mentioned that erotic attractions can skew professional relationships dramatically, undermining fairness and harmony? What if similar lessons became part of company orientation programs, and programs to train people in power at all kinds of professional organizations? Most important, what if the emphasis went beyond overt sexual harassment and relationships, and moved towards imparting a basic underlying assumption that many key environments should be as free as possible from the influence of erotic energy? Simply bringing up the issue would give it space in people’s minds, and push them to question the status quo.

Purity and perfection will never be possible in this arena. Humans are humans, and they have preferences and drives. But many institutions have at least tried to combat other harmful tendencies: like racism, cutthroat competition, and dishonesty. Yes, they’re dealing with human beings, and yes, human beings can be incorrigible, but, very often, we humans have great potential for growth and progress. Schools have successfully reduced insidious competition by emphasizing team work and such. Appropriate readings, talks, and activities have helped people question assumptions that many might consider bigoted against certain groups. Likewise, the simple act of considering harmful levels of eroticism in various environments might well improve that situation somewhat. We won’t change what we accept as being an inevitable part of the atmosphere. To face is to acknowledge; to acknowledge, sometimes, is to realize that a difficulty exists. I’m guessing that at least some readers out there find the story about my professor unpleasant or even quietly chilling. Sharing this kind of story and inspiring deep, honest discussion about the issues that come up could be key in combating this problem.

Obviously, it’s horrific that my search for water while physically weak and desperate led to unwanted sexual advances. I don’t mean to minimize that disaster. But, lately, most thinking people seem to agree with me easily, and plenty have discussed similar (and often much more brutal) experiences. Subtle eroticism’s tendency to taint and even destroy social and professional atmospheres is a much less popular topic. May that change. Our minds and social worlds could use a dramatic shift in this domain.

I guess the issue, at bottom, is that both undesired advances and getting branded as sexually undesirable when others around you are reaping professional or educational benefits from their sexual wiles are bad, bad, bad. But few are willing to come out and say that they were deemed un-hot or erotically powerless. For many, that seems to hit the core of fundamental self-worth, even if they had no sexual interest in those who dubbed them unworthy of attention. Many more seem fine with sharing that they just couldn’t fend off those admirers, or some such.

So let’s somehow band together around sharing, telling the truth, and dismantling yet another casually accepted, yet deeply flawed construct. Nothing should be about sexual desirableness… except sex. Surely someone out there will claim that everything is about sex when you’re talking about humans. And I say, very confidently, that I disagree. Sometimes it really is about working with someone whose body does not charm you, but whose mind is wrestling with all the big questions… or something similar. I deeply hope that this possibility is not hard to understand. We can and should think beyond the box… especially when the box becomes a cage.

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