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Power and Professionalism

To celebrate the release of the KLE Collective’s latest office-themed group photoshoot, I wrote something about why the workplace is such an erotically charged space, and so many of us love office role-play. You can read it over on the KLE blog, but I decided it was too good not to share here as well.

There’s a scene in Mad Men which has always stuck with me. In order to come up with a new pitch for a lipstick company client, the women of Sterling Cooper are allowed to try a few products in a focus group setting, whilst the male employees watch behind a two way mirror. The atmosphere on the men’s side is one of lighthearted misogyny, as if they’re watching a television show – they make crude comments on the women’s appearances and laugh about their vapid conversation.

And then, Joan Holloway appears, in a figure hugging red pencil dress. With a knowing glance over her shoulder through the mirror to where her lover, Roger Sterling, is watching, she slowly and deliberately bends over to stub out her cigarette. She adjusts her dress over her curves, turns around and lets her gaze linger for a few seconds on the invisible but mesmerised audience, before walking out again.

This thirty second scene is at once both subtle and restrained, and achingly sexy – and it encapsulates a lot of why office spaces are sites of such keen erotic interest, and why we have such an enduring love of office role-play. Eroticism is born of tension and contrast, and the sharp definition between work and play, between public and private, between the boardroom and the bedroom, provides fertile ground for some of the richest fantasies. Joan is performing her role as a worker, but she is also performing sexually for Sterling, and the other men, at the same time – these contrasting impulses to be both professional and desirable create a sense of deep eroticism for the viewer.

Jennifer Doyle explores this tension, writing that within modern social structures, sex is not only administered as that which “happens” outside the sphere of work; it is positioned as “the opposite” of work”. It’s unsurprising then, that we frequently sexualise the power dynamics that occur in the office. As a society, we are obsessed with both work and sex, and it feels taboo – in the best way – to blur those lines. To imagine the office as a site of sex, rather than a site of work, feels transgressive, as only the best BDSM scenes can be.

The connection between how we work and how we fuck (especially the erotic fixations we develop) is well charted. Indeed, as Foucault writes, BDSM and power play “appeared precisely at the end of the eighteenth century”, in line with the birth of the modern industrial developments. In a post-industrial society, the mimicking of work during play time, goes some way to signposting new formulations of labour. Office roleplays allow us to both reinforce and restage the familiar power dynamics between boss and junior. We can give into our desires to submit to the all powerful CEO, to fully embrace the idea of being a ‘good’ employee in service of senior management; but we can also upend this, destabilising these dynamics. Think of the junior employee dominating her boss, catching him staring as she bends over seductively, à la Joan Holloway – where does the power lie?

Fantasies of the office also provide us with space to explore the taboos associated with being a ‘bad’ worker, something which – now more than ever – feels particularly taboo. We are a generation obsessed with professional productivity and success, and so having an outlet to explore what this means for our erotic selves is vital. Office role-play scenes habitually collapse sexual transgression with professional failings and emphasise a wider sense of shame or unproductivity. These scenarios fixate on the PA who is not only bad at her job but also secretly a nympho: caught out performing sex in the work environment, stealing or pleasuing herself. Office role-play scenes such as these fetishise the way in which the immoral worker destabilizes not only the office, but our wider understanding of what it is to be ‘good’.

Finally, I’d be remiss not to mention that the aesthetics of the office are also undeniably sexy – or at least, the aesthetics of the fantasy office role-play are. Pencil skirts, sharp suits, stiletto heels, crisp white shirts – they all hint at a buttoned up eroticism, waiting to be released by a firm hand. No-one, regardless of gender, looks bad in a well cut suit.

It is with these thoughts on the office as a site of erotic interest in mind that the theme for our most recent KLE photoshoot was chosen – and looking through the final creations shot by Valerie August, which you can find on the KLE Twitter, I feel these tensions between work and play are beautifully evident. And if you disagree? Well, I’ll see you in my office for a firm discussion about your workplace attitude.