And Just Like That, Sex Talk Comes to Work
Younger workers have less sex, but they talk about it at the office PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY ELENA SCOTTI/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, ISTOCK (3) PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY ELENA SCOTTI/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, ISTOCK (3) By Rachel Feintzeig July 2, 2023 9:00 pm ET When Vanessa Van Edwards told a group of workers to ask their colleagues about the most exciting thing they did over the weekend, the communication trainer wanted to spark chitchat and collegial bonding. She didn’t expect that one co-worker would be treated to details of a colleague’s Saturday-night sexual escapades in response. Maybe it’s our newly casual attitudes after the pandemic, maybe
When Vanessa Van Edwards told a group of workers to ask their colleagues about the most exciting thing they did over the weekend, the communication trainer wanted to spark chitchat and collegial bonding.
She didn’t expect that one co-worker would be treated to details of a colleague’s Saturday-night sexual escapades in response.
Workers accustomed to posting secrets on Instagram and TikTok, or who just have lower personal filters, are dropping risqué emojis in team Slack channels, asking bosses for advice on condoms and detailing the rules they use for “swinging” with other couples, unprompted in the hallway, according to employees and managers I talked to.
Some say sharing about, say, a polyamorous relationship, is less about sex than defining their identity and being fully themselves—whether others want to hear about it or not.
With more Americans single than in past decades, conversations about dating apps and first nights with new partners are happening in the office, says Justin Garcia, executive director of Indiana University’s Kinsey Institute, which studies sexuality. Young people feel especially comfortable sharing, he adds.
“We’re all trying to figure out, where are the lines?” he says.
“Should we be talking about this at the workplace?” one manager in her late 30s told me she thought when a conversation in a meeting turned to birth-control methods. Others said the chatter makes them uneasy about whether a dirty joke or explicit anecdote could tip into sexual harassment.
“I would just rather not know,” says Anthony Zambataro, a marketing consultant who said he was taken aback by a colleague’s talk about their extramarital affair at a prior job.
Freeing and fun
Van Edwards, the communication trainer and author, recommends workers respond with, “Wow, this is a lot,” or “I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that,” when conversations turn too R-rated for comfort. Keep the tone playful and casual, she advises.
Frank sexual conversations at work, just a few years after the #MeToo movement, give many workers whiplash. Some employees counter that view: Listening to the juicy parts of co-workers’ lives makes workdays more fun, they say, and helps them feel like flesh-and-blood humans, not corporate robots.
“You feel like you have a friend over and you’re having a coffee,” one remote sales professional told me of company online and video chats where colleagues trade spicy memes and, on occasion, share how many times they had sex on vacation.
Some admissions can be freeing, says Jasper Prince, a 27-year-old graphic designer, who is based in Oklahoma and uses the pronouns they and them.
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Prince has told co-workers and bosses they are polyamorous, which flusters some but has elicited support from others.
“I don’t have to think as much about putting on the facade,” Prince says, noting that two bosses have been among the most supportive people in their life.
Prince says they try not to share too many details, but they’ve also seen that talk of sex and relationships just comes up at work sometimes. “It’s such a big part of our lives,” they say.
Less sex, more talk
Members of Generation Z, born from 1995 to 2012, are more open to discussing sex, even if they aren’t having that much of it, says Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University and author of the recently released “Generations.”
Some 30% of 18- to 25-year-old men and 25% of 18- to 25-year-old women reported they hadn’t had sex in the past year, according to recent data analyzed by Twenge. Rewind to when millennials were the youngest cohort and about 15% said the same, she says.
Gen Zers are comfortable with evolving language around gender and sexuality, she adds, accepting and using labels such as enby, short for nonbinary, and ace, slang for asexual. Growing up in a world where everyone has always had a smartphone video camera in their pocket, they have few expectations of privacy, Twenge says.
In the workplace, she recommends younger workers pause before opening up. Ask yourself, has the person you’re about to share with ever shared anything personal with you?
Fair or not, opening up at work has the potential to earn you a reputation as the office oversharer, or even harm your career.
“We infer things about people’s personalities and lives based on what we hear from their relationships,” Garcia, of the Kinsey Institute, says.
Cory Werkheiser, who helps run the career-services program at College of Charleston’s business school, says he counsels students to fashion personal and professional sides of themselves.
“You’re going to have to be careful that the two don’t mix,” he tells them.
Change the topic
During her years in the army, Roxanne Petraeus heard plenty about sex and relationships from her fellow soldiers and officers, mostly men. A well-timed joke or snarky comment would usually snap them out of, say, discussing the finer points of a woman’s anatomy.
“You know what I’d like to talk about— Ryan Reynolds, ” the 36-year-old would interject. “It would cause them to realize the absurdity of the situation,” she says.
Now the CEO of Ethena, a maker of compliance-training software, Petraeus has been open with colleagues and LinkedIn followers about everything from her miscarriages to potty-training her son. The idea of talking about sex at work makes her worry about sexual harassment, and cringe.
“I might find some Gen Z stuff,” she says, “a bridge too far.”
Write to Rachel Feintzeig at [email protected]
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