Phoebe Maltz Bovy is a contributing columnist for the Globe and Mail.
Shortly after news broke of his extramarital dalliance with a one-time staffer in his office, John Tory announced that he would resign as mayor of Toronto. He had done nothing illegal, it would seem, but had made, by his own admission, “a serious error of judgment.”
Whether Mr. Tory did something unethical is a complicated question, and at least one aspect is none of my business; I am not owed information about the inner workings of his marriage. But there are, of course, reasonable questions that spring from a 68-year-old big-city mayor’s affair with a 31-year-old subordinate. And if any of his cavorting got in the way of his fixing public transit, for instance – more specifically, if his thirst somehow prevented him from reinstituting the streetcar up and down Roncesvalles Avenue – then I’m angry.
But if the reporting to come doesn’t bear that out, we should ask: should we really care, if this was otherwise a fairly standard office romance?
People continue to fall in love at work: a 2022 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management found that a third of U.S. workers are or have been involved in a workplace romance – a number that’s actually higher than it was before the pandemic. Yet such relationships have a sullied reputation these days. Once the stuff of sitcoms like The Office, workplace liaisons are now, in the post-#MeToo era, understood as unethical by default, often because of what is perceived as a power imbalance between two workers.
If the new development were simply about bosses not lunging at their employees, then that’s fantastic. But instead, the parameters keep shifting, such that more and more consensual relationships are getting cast as questionable.
The right-thinking approach these days is to look elsewhere than the office for love, because we live in a connected world with billions of people in it. This notion of an endless elsewhere in which to search for potential mates comes from the prevalence of dating apps. It can at least feel as though technology has eliminated the need to date someone you have any pre-existing connection with whatsoever, and it creates the impression of infinite options. This is an appealing idea, but a false one.
Something is lost when the possibilities for forming a relationship get too restrictive. If #MeToo shed light on the dangers of unchecked sexual proclivities, the sex panics of earlier eras (and, perhaps, our own) illustrated that it is also a risk to classify behaviours of consenting adults as verboten. Love is always rare and real attraction can be a scarce thing, and when people find them, they reject them at their own peril.
Sex and relationships are not merely a means by which powerful men exploit underlings. They’re crucial to the fulfilment of women and those elsewhere on the gender spectrum. And while the image of workplace romance is one involving lawsuits, its reality is usually the reality of romance more generally, which is one of happiness, boredom, potential heartbreak and every other possible emotion in between. And you don’t get to the happiness part in a society where it is always too problematic to consider one’s romantic options from a relatively large group of people in your life. After all, it’s exploitation that’s the problem, not sex itself.
And indeed, there are so many utterly normal and healthy people who were in, or the result of, these now-taboo relationships. The number of middle-aged or elderly couplings of bosses and former secretaries, or of people from across the org chart, serve as inconvenient reminders that office romances can have good outcomes as well.
When creating new ethical rules, the goal should not be to invent a secular religion, but to look into why we even have these rules to begin with. For workplace relationships, the big reason is consent. If an employee feels pressed to “consent” to a sexual relationship or risk losing their job, then this negates consent. This is the territory of Harvey Weinstein and the notorious casting couch.
If, however, colleagues have a fling – that’s life, and remains thus even if one or both of them was cheating on a partner when doing so. It might be messy, but it’s not a crime. And there will always be some discernible power imbalance between any two people; it just doesn’t make sense to automatically categorize all work relationships as a sin.
So while it’s certainly unusual for a 31-year-old woman to romantically entangle with a man more than twice her age, it is not actually a boon to feminism to infantilize women in their 30s. As more details surely emerge about Mr. Tory’s self-professed “error,” let’s avoid leaping to judgment just yet.