Sexual Behavior at Work: A Justified Taboo?

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.orgSexual activities at work have become a modern taboo. Everything from sexual jokes and innuendo to overt touching and sex acts have become absolutely forbidden in the workplace. Some sexual behaviors (jokes, banter, flirting) might be seen as innocent and a natural part of being human, but the current trend is one of zero tolerance justified by a perceived need to protect everyone, most especially women. A recent study by Jennifer Berdahl (U Toronto) and Karl Aquino (U British Columbia) asked employees what they thought about sexual behaviors at work to see if they really are offensive and harmful, or if the negative side has been exaggerated. Berdahl and Aquino surveyed over 1200 people working in manufacturing plants, community service centers, and a large university.

In a study reported in a recent issue of the Journal of Applied Psychology, the researchers measured the frequency that workers experienced various kinds of sexual behaviors, how they were perceived (on scales ranging from very negative to very positive), and who were the actors (men or women). They also measured various aspects of happiness and well-being, including feelings of hope, anxiety, and depression, feeling valued at work, tendencies to withdraw from work (avoiding tasks, thinking of quitting), and self-reported use of alcohol and drugs.

The results showed that exposure to sexual activities at work was common, with ambient behaviors (sexual materials, jokes, discussions) being more frequent than direct behaviors (sexual attention or advances, touching, exposure of private body parts). In the first study 58% of the employees reported experiencing some kind of sexual behavior at work in the past two years, while a second study found that 40% of those workers reported experiencing sexual behavior in the past year. Some of the workers (mostly men) enjoyed the sexual behavior, and about 25% of the workers describing it as fun and harmless, while many others found the activities to be benign. Perhaps not surprisingly, men gave strong positive ratings to direct sexual behaviors conducted by women, and negative ratings when they came from other men. Women gave negative ratings to direct sexual behaviors originating from men or women. Taken together, the results show that sexual behaviors at work may not always be perceived as offensive and harmful.

When looking at measures of psychological and workplace well-being, however, there was consistent evidence of harmful effects of sexual behaviors at work. The more frequently an employee experienced sexual behaviors, the more often they reported being withdrawn from work, regardless of whether they reported positive or negative attitudes towards such behavior. Also, the more frequently workers experienced sexual behaviors at work, the worse off they were on measures of psychological well-being and depression, the less they felt valued at work, and the more frequently they reported using drugs and alcohol. There was no evidence of any positive effects of sexual behavior at work on individual workers’ happiness, well-being, or a happy work life.

The authors draw the following conclusions:

“Our results show that sexual behavior at work is enjoyed by some women and by many men but that it is generally associated with negative work-related and psychological outcomes, regardless of whether it is enjoyed or disliked.”

“Despite the pleasure it brings to some, these data suggest it is wise to avoid sharing sexual jokes and materials and engaging in sexual discussions and interactions with coworkers, lest these behaviors offer no pleasure to many and work and psychological harm to all.”

There are problems with this study, of course. There may have been a perceived desirability biases when the questions were answered, with men exaggerating their enjoyment of sexual behaviors and women exaggerating their dislike. It is also possible that another factor, such as professionalism at work, could be affecting these results – sexual behavior at work may be related to unprofessionalism, and this is real cause of the poor personal and work-related outcomes. And, as always, correlations do not prove causation: we cannot be sure if the sexual behaviors cause the negative personal and work outcomes, of if these factors cause the sexual behaviors. It is possible that people in certain work environments engage in more sexual behaviors because they tend to be withdrawn, depressed, and feel under-valued.
Berdahl, J., & Aquino, K. (2009). Sexual behavior at work: Fun or folly? Journal of Applied Psychology, 94 (1), 34-47 DOI: 10.1037/a0012981 Available from

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