‘The Mindy Project’

Two-thirds of Americans think it’s wrong to be alone with an opposite-sex coworker. Do you?

I trained journalists in Baghdad during Gulf War II. Over long hours, we Americans worked closely with Iraqi reporters, both male and female. We often worked alone with women?—?some of whom were married?—?but if the office door was ever closed, our male Iraqi colleagues (and some of the women) would assume we were having sex. Even if the door was open, or if we regularly worked with these women, or had a coffee in a hotel restaurant, observant Iraqis might assume we were fucking. And then the gossiping would start.

In a city where religious law was rapidly overtaking a formerly secular society, this wasn’t harmless, idle gossip. If the woman’s brother or father thought she’d had sex out of wedlock, it was socially acceptable for him to murder her in an “honor killing.” One security guard for a news channel was caught in flagrante delicto with an Iraqi woman. He ended up shot dead, his hands and feet cut off.

In America, the consequences of meeting with an opposite-sex colleague are far less dire, but many people take the issue quite seriously. Including our vice president, who never eats alone with any woman who isn’t his wife Karen. In fact, he won’t even go to an event where alcohol is served if she doesn’t go with him. And many male members of Congress refuse to be alone with women, which may be illegal.

After the Pence disclosure, Mother Jones editor Clara Jeffrey pointed out that such rules could be keeping women out of many political posts. Legal or not, such thinking may be more common than you think.

A New York Times poll found more than half of US women, and almost half of men, think it’s inappropriate to have drinks or dinner alone with someone of the opposite sex who is not your spouse.

Almost half of women and a third of men think lunch is not okay, and about a third of both genders say riding in a car together is also taboo.

Finally, a quarter of people say meeting privately with colleagues of the opposite sex is inappropriate.

This sentiment is echoed in Quartz’s poll, in which 38% of respondents said being alone with any member of the opposite sex is inappropriate, under certain conditions.

But why?

Marriage counselor and author Debra MacLeod advises that platonic friendships?—?even in work life—can destroy relationships.

“The vast majority of infidelities I see nowadays follow a similar pattern,” MacLeod writes in HuffPost. “They start with an opposite-sex friendship that quickly becomes intense and emotional due to the false sense of intimacy involved with text messaging. They then escalate into a full-blown emotional or sexual affair.”

As someone who’s worked with women for decades and not had sex with them, I felt MacLeod’s take was alarmist. Did I just practice more self-control than most people? I asked my friends what they thought.

Blaine, an actor in Delaware, asked sarcastically, “What kind of marriage could possibly withstand the temptations of…friendship?” Of MacLeod and people who agree with her, he said, “These people are fools.”

“It would never occur to me to think about this,” says Katrina, a TV producer in New York. “How would I even do my job? Certainly there are times when I show up and it turns out the guy I’m meeting has ulterior motives. But I find it’s pretty easy to set him straight.”

“Can work colleagues NOT just be people?” asks Bill, an Australian producer and DJ in Thailand. “Are we so scared of the effect the opposite sex may have on us that we cannot behave in a civilized manner?”

Pretty much the responses I expected.

But as I dug deeper, I found that what people say doesn’t always reflect what they do. My sister-in-law Anna is a very liberal university administrator. She rails against any kind of labeling or prejudice, and is a strong supporter of gender rights and equality. Initially, she and her husband Josh had a good chuckle at the survey results. How silly.

But as we talked, Anna’s viewpoint began to change. She told me about a male colleague who invited her over for dinner when she and her husband Josh were dating. Her friend thoughtfully asked her if she liked fish, and then, what her favorite cocktail was. Looking forward to a pleasant evening of food, drinks and conversation, Anna accepted. Upon arrival, a perfect cocktail was waiting for her. Dinner was delicious, and the conversation sparkled. When it was time for Anna to leave?—?yup!—he tried to kiss her.

Josh told a similar story from his days of dating Anna. A female colleague asked him to go out for dinner and drinks. He demurred, saying he had a girlfriend. His friend reacted with disappointment, and he knew he’d made the “right call.”

So despite their initial responses, after considering their experiences, Josh and Anna now avoid seeking friendships and being alone with friends or colleagues of the gender they prefer sexually.

Elizabeth, an American artist and writer who lives in Hong Kong, says whether or not she avoids spending time alone with a man depends on the situation: “At work? No,” she doesn’t avoid men.

“Socially? Kinda. Especially if I’m in a relationship.”

Interestingly, Elizabeth also admits she’s thought less about the issue the longer she’s been abroad: “Living outside the US, I’ve adopted different habits than when I lived in it.”

That made me wonder: Is there a national morality at play here?

Claire, a French-Australian historian who lived in the US for more than a decade, thinks there is.

“Europeans would be so flummoxed by this over-sexualization of relations between men and women,” she says, adding, “I am.”

She offers a historical-religious take on VP Pence’s code:

“It rests on a specifically American notion of relations between the sexes, harking back to the Christianity of the 3rd century ,” Claire says. “That is, that carnal desire is ever-present, inescapable,…bad and evil, and that it governs the way men and women relate. So in this view, men and women can never be just friends?—?there’s always the sin of temptation, or some such.”

She adds, “It’s total shit, and rests on a total fallacy.”

Rowan, a Scottish business educator in Hong Kong, says there are only two reasons to avoid socializing with a member of the sex you’re attracted to while you’re in a relationship: “Either you think you can’t control yourself or you’re frightened about what people might say. In either case you have the option of just growing up.”

After all, America isn’t wartime Baghdad, and hanging out with someone of the opposite sex won’t put lives at stake. As our country matures, hopefully such attitudes will come to be viewed as outdated, unhelpful and sexist.