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lucy kellaway

Author and professor Julie Berebitsky's history of hanky-panky in U.S. offices over the past 150 years is an extraordinary achievement. To write about so much bottom-pinching, ogling and scandal without a single double entendre or levity of any sort must have taken considerable restraint.

Instead, the professor has chosen to present her treasure trove of saucy examples in such a relentlessly flat way that Sex and the Office:A History of Gender, Power, and Desire is an effort to get through. However, for those who manage it, a substantial reward awaits: a realization that both everything and nothing has changed in the bottom-pinching department.

When women first started working in offices after the U.S. civil war, the main worry was that the experience would weaken their morals. An evangelical pastor in Atlanta described a stenographer's diploma as a "licence to a life of lewdness." In Oregon, women were forbidden by law from working for more than 10 hours a day for fear that a longer day might lead them into temptation. There was even a proposal for female stenographers to work in cages to save them from roving hands.

Almost as alien as these fears was the idea in the 1960s – promoted by Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown – that sexiness in offices was all good, clean fun. "Offices are sexier than Turkish harems, fraternity house weekends or the Playboy centrefold," she wrote.

Even more interesting than these tales from another world are examples of things that have not changed. A story from 1861 – in which a boss at the U.S. Treasury was investigated for running "orgies and bacchanals" in his office but who got off when it emerged one of the defendants had lied – reminded me of a case from 2011: that of Dominique Strauss-Kahn.

Even though we have had a century and a half to get used to the idea of men and women working side-by-side in offices, and even though they now do so as equals, we are as at sea with the sexual tension as we always were. We still don't know if women are victims or vamps. We still don't know if it's acceptable for women to flaunt it for advantage; there are still stories about women sleeping their way to the top. The image of a boss screwing his secretary is as alive today as ever: modern college kids cheerfully traipse off to fancy-dress parties with the theme: "CEOs and Office Hos."

Neither have the advice columns written for office workers changed much in the past century. One agony aunt cautioned against "inappropriate garments" while another warned that "a sensible man keeps his business and his social recreations separated" – two pieces of advice I have recently handed out myself.

The corporate response to office affairs hasn't improved much either. In 1958 a secretary at drugs company Eli Lilly shot her boss in his white Cadillac when she found him carrying on with a newer, younger assistant. The company's response: ban white Cadillacs for senior staff. Fifty years later, managers are still fumbling hopelessly when it comes to policies dealing with sex and love at work.

While Ms. Berebitsky's prose is sometimes a bit heavy, the illustrations are a delight. An advertisement for Acme from 1969 shows a picture of a pretty secretary in various poses with the caption: "This one handles paper, and is fun to watch, talk to, kid with and tease." Below is a picture of a photocopier with the text: "This one just handles paper."

The lesson is clear: what actually goes on between men and women at work may have changed little. Yet what is acceptable to say about it has changed a great deal.

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