This week’s much discussed Four Corners program examining the extra-marital sexual relationships with staff of two Australian cabinet ministers had a giant blind spot.
Relationships between people who work together have always been extremely common. While social media are today the most common way that couples in long term relationships meet, hooking up with someone you meet at work remains one of the most common replies we get when we ask a couple “so how did you two meet?”
Sometimes workplace relationships are between those with equal or similar employment status. And here, in discussions I’ve had with several groups of friends this week, there seems to be consensus that this is acceptable. Yes, things can get awkward when the relationship fails and you have to continue working with a former lover. Those wisdoms in hindsight power age-old sexist axioms like “don’t dip your pen in the company ink” and the more gender neutral “don’t get your meat where you get your bread”.
But workplace affairs and later permanent couplings also often involve asymmetrical power and status. In four couples I’ve discussed this with since Monday’s program, three started their relationships at work. One was between two who worked in the same small business in a county town, in different roles, with no line authority over each other, and on similar pay. Another was a male boss of a very small company who started having a relationship with a female employee which led to them now living together for several years, very happily.
The third was me and my wife. Trish was my son’s teacher in primary school. I was separated, she married. A casual remark I made to one of her colleagues who asked if I was seeing anyone, about how attracted I was to her was passed on the same day. Trish cornered me the next morning saying “I hear you’ve been saying nice things about me”. We got together that weekend and have been a couple for 30 years.
At the time there were several pinch-faced parents in the school who found all this outrageously salacious and improper. I was, of course, apparently only trying to get my son higher marks by having it on with his teacher. When he was made school captain five years later, Trish had obviously arranged that and rigged the voting with the full collusion of all the staff and students.
I’d not be surprised if there is a formal HR policy in the school system that makes it clear that teachers must not have sexual relationships with parents in their school. Perhaps Trish could have been transferred or sacked had any of the tongue-waggers taken it upstairs. But even if that was the case, should we feel guilty and unethical about our relationship today? Should I have “kept it in my pants” and she have “kept her knickers on”, in the parlance of the morally virtuous that got a spirited airing on the ABC’s Q&A panel program after Four Corners screened? Should we be perpetually yoked by the weight of an understanding that our coming together was “wrong” and that we were entitled to no ethical agency in navigating how we decided to conduct ourselves?
The bitter feelings of the ex-lover of Alan Tudge were framed by the program as a woman humiliated and hurt by the ways she perceived she had been treated as someone with far less power than her ministerial lover. The sub-text waving a very big flag was “it is always unethical for people with different levels of power in a workplace to have sex.” As neither Tudge nor Porter were interviewed, we had no opportunity to contextualise her account with his.
But given the countless numbers of couples over time who have met at work and begun affairs that didn’t end badly, this doctrinaire framing of office sex as almost always wrong doesn’t pass my pub test. There will be as many reading this who have lived that experience positively as those for whom lived to regret it.
I was left feeling that here was yet another chapter in the endless morality tale of public virtues vs private vices. If you make a virtue out of family values with your political megaphone, but are living your life rather differently, that’s fair and important game. And I’m also sympathetic to the view that honey or stud muffin traps which might compromise national security are a proper focus for elected officials to give very serious consideration. So Malcolm Turnbull’s bonk ban was understandable, if wildly optimistic.