Sexual harassment is like jazz — complex and hard to explain. You feel it before you understand everything that’s going on. What may have started as chivalry or even affection curdles into torture. The goal isn’t seduction but rather making the subordinate squirm.
As the only heterosexual male at RMP (for Rolf’s Media Plaything, a fictitious name), an S/M video production studio, Juan fit in where women often do in male-dominated workplaces — he was more object of desire than one of the guys. At the same time, his technological prowess made him indispensable, and the combination brought out the worst in his co-workers and his boss, Rolf — all gay men. “Because the porn people couldn’t be bothered with technology,” he explains, “I had to be exposed to everything. They treated me like a tool; they’d talk about anal sex in front of me just to make me uncomfortable, like they were trying to crack me.”
At first Angelika seemed like the antidote to Juan’s sick work life. Before they took up, he’d spend 12 hours a day editing S/M videotapes, then go home to an empty bed. Now he was sharing the bed and his stories about the goings-on at work. Angelika soon figured out, long before Juan did, that he was being abused at RMP.
Rolf was the master mind-fucker. Though he didn’t really understand how it worked, he loved high tech and displayed computers to would-be lovers like a peacock’s tail. Rolf was constantly interrupting Juan at his terminal so he could show some young beefcake the system. “I’d tell him, ‘But I have work to do,’” Juan recounts, “and he’d hand me money and send me around the corner to the bar for an hour.”
Rolf also kept Juan off balance with the classic harassment combo of innuendo and attack. After Angelika began coming to Juan’s office to pick him up, Rolf “made passing comments about my penis size, like, ‘I wonder why she likes you.’” Rolf also noticed Juan withdrawing from discussions about the company’s future and confronted him about it in front of everyone. At one staff meeting, Rolf pointed at Juan and imperiously demanded, “He has to say something. He can’t just sit there.”
Rolf began to assume mythic monster proportions in Juan’s mind. After Juan had been working at RMP almost a year, he says, “Out of the blue, [Rolf] wanted my Social Security number. I gave it to him, but then I started to worry, so I went into the system and changed it — so if he tried to come after me, he couldn’t get me.” RMP is still in business, and Juan speculates darkly that “it’s because everyone’s in bondage.” The night before our interview, Juan had the classic nightmare of trying to run through tar while Rolf chased him.
Angelika was the first person in months to whom Juan could talk about RMP. He’d stopped complaining to his former colleagues Julie and Richard because they’d say, “The guy’s a fucking nut — quit now.” His guy friends just made fun of his line of work, he says ruefully. “They’d all be like, ‘Hey, Juan, how was work? See any good dick today?’”
Angelika would drop by the office several times a week, so she met the people in the stories. She reacted to the scene at RMP as any friend would — by advising Juan to quit and reminding him that a computer geek could write his own ticket. (This was 1998.) But he could only hear criticism. “She was very confident and positive about what she was doing, and she would question me and put me down and correct me,” he says. Juan has since decided that Angelika was “topping” him; he seems to have blurred her sensible advice early on with her crummy treatment of him later.
Juan speaks about his desire to tie up women with refreshing un-self-consciousness and a certain cluelessness. “I’d explored bondage with a previous girlfriend, and she liked it for a while but then she didn’t. She tied me up and that was very arousing, but I like being the ‘tie-er’ better than being the ‘tie-ee.’ I’m not sure why.” He seems unable to imagine why anyone wouldn’t like being bound. He was hurt that Angelika called him a pervert whenever he suggested trying something he’d seen at work. “I just wanted to tie her up and see if she could enjoy it. I tried to be nice about it.”
A few months into Juan’s relationship with Angelika, Rolf told Juan about a mathematician who was also an S/M master — let’s call him “Thomas.” Juan had studied Thomas’ work in college and considered him a genius. Spotting a way to get Juan more involved in RMP, Rolf sent Juan over to Thomas’ house for expert feedback on a flogging CD-ROM. “You two can talk about equations!” Rolf enthused.
Sure enough, Juan and Thomas bonded while talking math. Looking at the CD-ROM, Juan felt comfortable enough to exclaim, “How could that be enjoyable?” Thomas said, “Let me show you,” and chained Juan to his wall. Thomas spent an hour using cat-o’-nine-tails and other whips on Juan’s back and butt, occasionally reaching up between his legs with gloves. He brushed the gloves across his dick, Juan says, “but he didn’t grab it. He didn’t possess it.”
Juan loved the experience, though he has never repeated it. “I felt restrained but free,” Juan says. “I could feel I was tied up, but at the same time I felt like I was flying.” They had agreed beforehand on a signal to stop, but Juan never used it and stayed silent except to moan. After about an hour, Juan had a profound orgasm, brought on by “a combination of everything, like a ball of energy in my body. I felt enlightened.”
But this bottoming epiphany didn’t improve things at the office or at home. The gay guys were still picking on him, Rolf was still screwing him over financially and Angelika was criticizing him more and more for staying at RMP. She’d run into financial difficulty and moved in with Juan and his roommate. “I was working way too many hours, getting into relationships I wasn’t sure about; I was losing myself, losing my perspective,” says Juan.
Then, to his horror, he couldn’t get it up anymore. Angelika’s patience didn’t last long; she continued to sleep in Juan’s bed but rebuffed his sexual advances, suggesting they be “friends.” Juan replied in panic, “How am I going to know when it’s over? I need to get practice in!” He was so freaked out about his member’s retirement that he asked Rolf for advice. “I thought because he was a doctor, he might have information. What a dumb fucking move — I just gave him more fuel.”
Two months into the three-month bout of impotence, Angelika’s work visa ran out and she asked Juan to marry her — while keeping their chaste “friends” arrangement. A few days later, Juan came home from a long day at the porn factory and couldn’t find her. He cooked himself dinner, then headed to the roof to look at the stars. “And she was up there with some guy, making out!” he exclaims.
He declined Angelika’s marriage proposal, and she went back to Sweden. After a few days, Rolf asked Juan, “So where’s the girl?” Juan told him the finale, and Rolf offered his barbed comfort. “He told me it was better for me to let her go because she was a selfish bitch,” Juan says. “I told him to mind his own business.”
Three months later, Juan finally quit RMP when Rolf tried to cheat him out of a few days’ pay. He immediately landed a high-paying job at a Web development firm whose clients include the world’s biggest, stodgiest corporations. I wondered if he was worried about his porn past haunting him in the high-tech world, and Juan told me he showed the S/M CD-ROMs to his current bosses on the second interview. “It was really cutting-edge stuff,” he enthuses. “Before, porn CD-ROMs could only hold five- or six-minute scenes, and I figured out a way to get an hour on there.”
Though it hasn’t hurt his career, the S/M stint may have oversimplified Juan’s perspective. His explanation for his miserable year at RMP: “I must be a bottom. I was afraid of [Rolf], but I kept going back. I was torturing myself. I don’t know why. I’m submissive in relationships, too.”
Juan calls everyone in his story either a “top” or a “bottom,” as if they’re all doomed to their fates as bullies and doormats — no compromise, no growth, no change ahead. While domination and submission can resonate powerfully in sex, they don’t contain all of human interaction, any more than Christian duality or social Darwinism does. Juan enjoyed a flogging, stayed in a bad job too long and got jerked around by a girlfriend. I think those are chapters, not the book, on him.
Virginia Vitzthum is a writer living in New York.More Virginia Vitzthum.