When A Manager Send You Pornographic Email

While debate rages over the “inappropriate email” scandal in Harrisburg, I am reminded of one much-overlooked fact: this happens to a lot of us in our workplaces. And it is not a pleasant experience, precisely because it typically reflects deeper things about the workplace culture rather than a one time “whoops” scenario. Here’s what’s happening in PA:

The Pennsylvania Capitol is gripped by a widening scandal over the exchange of emails containing pornography by former members of the attorney general’s office.

Gov. Tom Corbett was attorney general when the emails were exchanged by members of his staff, forcing him to defend his management as he campaigns for a second term. Pennsylvania’s state Supreme Court chief justice demanded information on whether any judges were part of the exchanges.

Last week, Attorney General Kathleen Kane’s office identified eight ex-employeeswho sent or received hundreds of pornographic images or videos in emails that were discovered during Kane’s review of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse prosecution.

Four of those officials followed Corbett from the attorney general’s office into his gubernatorial administration. On Thursday, two of them resigned. And Corbett said Friday that his review indicated that another of the four — state police Commissioner Frank Noonan — did not open, originate, forward or reply to any of the emails.

In a former workplace, I opened a group email originating from a member of senior management and found a pornographic meme using lesbian slurs and sexually derogatory language. Almost every other senior manager was on the distribution list. So were at least two other queer women, one in a very entry-level job. I myself was nowhere near that level of management – very, very low in the pecking order.

This was part of the jocular “in-crowd” mentality that treated company email like a coffee break room with all sorts of exchanges and jokes and jests. Two things stood out – the participants were mostly white and no one ever pushed back against the content. I had only recently been looped in to “the gang” myself after I made some spunky comments during pre-meeting chatter. Spunky as in witty and insightful, not pornographic or sexual. I may have been low on the food chain, but I know how to conduct myself in the workplace.

Being against porn in the workplace is not being anti-porn. It is being pro-respect. Distributing porn in the workplace is not being pro-sex, it is exerting power and influence.

I was pretty horrified by this message. I spoke to my immediate supervisor who was not “in the loop” which made it even more awkward, but they were understanding that my inclusion was not a choice. I had had previous issues with that supervisor’s supervisor who was in the loop so I didn’t think that would be a productive approach. They had warned me not to be such a tattle tale and just turn a blind eye to things that didn’t resonate. It was a survival tip, but not one I particularly appreciated. And, obviously, it wasn’t working right? Maybe for them, but not for those who didn’t want to receive porn in their work email.

I’ll skip ahead to how I responded and then explain what led to that decision.

So I went to Human Resources. I showed the image to the HR Director, only to find myself explaining “the jokes” as they were not fluent in lesbian slurs or some of the sexual content. Another awkward conversation. They had me submit a written report (again with the explanations), the Executive Director reviewed and the originator was confronted. That person eventually left the agency, very very soon afterwards.

And I was definitely out of the loop afterwards. Actually, the higher ups cracked down on using work email for personal banter which helped immensely. The loop was part of the problem – it was a modified version of an insider group of people with power and those in their private inner circles. It was supposed to be a mark of honor. All it did was reinforce the tremendous racial and economic divides in the workplace. Cronyism to the Nth degree. The email was just a manifestation of that jocular culture.

I wish I could say this was the extent of my stories. But … it happened everywhere. Just like queer bashing happened in every workplace I’ve been in.

  • There was the board member who leaned over during a holiday party to tell me that he wanted “to fuck this woman” referring to my coworker. He said this in front of her, an intern and myself. His wife wasn’t present. My coworker reported it. The board member remained on the board, but simply left the committees where he would have contact with the three of us. That’s a good solution to sexual harassment, right?
  • Another male colleague talked to me on the phone about wanting me to sit on his lap. I reported it and was told that without proof it was he said/she said. That’s one reason I can be very specific now about wanting to conduct exchanges via email rather than over the phone.
  • One supervisor slept with interns. So did another supervisor. Another person moved an intern into their spare bedroom when they lost housing, then slept with them but not “sexually.” And on and on and on.

The human services and non-profit sector is in no way exempt from this behavior.

So was this a big deal? Yes, it was a pretty crappy experience for me. I felt dehumanized and objectified. I was embarrassed to have to explain the sexual terms over and over. I was (rightfully) afraid of retaliation and it manifested in ways that were impossible for me to prove. I was frozen out of any upward mobility and encouraged to move on to another job. I had to engage that individual several times before they left which was awful. It tapped into earlier experiences of being powerless and helpless in the face of sexual overtures and assault.

And a supervisor I had trusted blamed me for rocking the boat. If I had just ignored it, it wasn’t a big deal, I didn’t understand how things worked, it wasn’t about me, etc. When I experienced several incidents of being queer bashed, I was ignored. My office was trashed. My mail was intercepted. Items were stolen. I had no recourse.

But I think worst of all, I had to wonder what else had gone on? What about the clients, especially those who were queer? What about employees I didn’t personally know? I doubt it was a one time thing, but I had no way to know and certainly no one was going to tell me.

The reason I suspect it had happened before it because another person even higher up the chain at that employer was notorious for objectifying women and most especially, for staring at our breasts. This person did that to me one time so I just suddenly started talking about my partner who was a lawyer and worked with the police. Out of nowhere, I played that card to see if they would get the message to stop fucking around with me.  I figured it was worth a shot.  Their head snapped back to make eye contact with me superfast. None of that happened again. To me. Just to other people. Who didn’t have that sort of privilege card to slap down on the table.

The culture perpetuated this behavior. Actually, that’s the worst thing – multiple members of senior management received that very same email and didn’t address it. I found out later that some just routinely deleted his email because they found it inappropriate. What? What about the rest of us lower down the food chain? The clients?  Who was looking out for us? Was the idea that “boys will be boys” so ingrained in our culture that no one else thought they *could* do something about it?

What’s going on in Harrisburg is obviously about politics and not about respecting human sexuality at all. It is a game, not a step toward justice. Women and people without power are objects and whether we are groped in real-time or via email, our lack of value to those who set the tone is obvious. I highly doubt any of these Harrisburg officials would take up the mantle to create and fund programs for people working in the sex entertainment industry. I know that they did cut funding for street outreach targeting individuals engaged in sex work.

So a few more people will resign and Corbett will probably lose the election. What will be telling is if Kathleen Kane finishes her purge once she helps elect Wolf as Governor – will she see it through or will it simply be left as weapon to defeat Corbett? Obviously, Democrats participated – will they be held accountable? I doubt it. Even if Kathleen Kane wanted to do that, I don’t think she could. Power corrupts no matter if you have a degree in social work or a membership in the Democratic party.

No one in their right mind thinks the only perpetrators here were Republicans, right?


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