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11.1 Is There Anything Special about Sex?

Learning Objectives

  1. Consider the ethics of using sex to promote products and services in the marketplace.
  2. Investigate the ethics of sleeping with the boss in exchange for professional advancement.

Sex in the Office

That subtitle got your attention. It gets everyone’s attention, which explains why there’s so much of it in the business world. Marketing efforts lead the way because people tend to pay attention to the TV when scantily clad people appear. More broadly, sex happens—either explicitly or just as a suggestion—almost everywhere business does. It’s exploited in the commercials, showing up on the office computer screens, joked about in the bathroom, discussed in the organizational code of conduct, and going on underneath cubicle desks. The economic world is charged with it. Some of the more intense questions about the ethics of sex in the workplace include:

  • What’s the ethics of using sex to sell products?
  • What’s the ethics of using sex to sell yourself?
  • What’s the ethics of looking for sex at work?

Sex Sells

The Russian anchorwoman Svetlana Pesotskaya caused a stir in international media circles when she started doing her reporting topless. Her news program—utterly conventional except for the clothing issue—is called The Naked Truth. One of the broadcast’s more entertaining aspects is watching male guests as they’re being interviewed in the studio heroically trying to keep their eyes above her neckline.

Regardless of the reason viewers tune in for sex-charged information, they certainly do tune in. That fact is not lost on a station closer to home, the CBS affiliate in Cleveland, Ohio: WOIO. In a segment heavily and provocatively advertised by the station beforehand, their news anchor Sharon Reed stripped on air before dashing off to join a throng of temporary nudists participating in an installation by photographer Spencer Tunick, who’s gained international fame by convincing multitudes of men and women to voluntarily pose naked for his fleshy panorama shots.

The reviews of Reed’s participative report were mixed. Don Shelby, an anchor at the CBS affiliate in St. Paul and Minneapolis said, “This threatens to turn us [news broadcasters] into something of a cartoon, if we weren’t already.”David Carr, “When a TV Talking Head Becomes a Talking Body,” New York Times, November 25, 2004, accessed June 1, 2011, Going further, the chairman of the Radio-Television News Directors Association in Washington, DC, complained, “I think the general reaction in the industry has been one of surprise and disgust. I don’t see how this can engender confidence in the quality of news we think we are doing, and it manages to justify the harsh criticism that we often face in our industry.”David Carr, “When a TV Talking Head Becomes a Talking Body,” New York Times, November 25, 2004, accessed June 1, 2011,

On the other side, neither WOIO nor Sharon Reed backed down. Station executives insisted that the core story—Tunick’s photography event—was legitimate local news, and the anchor’s participation was analogous to conveying the reality of a flash flood by reporting underneath an umbrella from beside a rushing stream. As for Reed personally, she made no apologies for using her assets to increase ratings for her station and, simultaneously, her own profile in her profession’s arena. “I’m in it to win,” she said. “When did that become a crime?”

That last quote came from the New York Times. The newspaper took advantage of the situation to run its own nude picture of Reed.David Carr, “When a TV Talking Head Becomes a Talking Body,” New York Times, November 25, 2004, accessed June 1, 2011,

Product Sincerity, Prurience, and Objectification

Ethical issues visible in the Sharon Reed broadcast include product sincerity, prurience, and objectification. Product sincerityOpenness and transparency about what’s being offered to consumers. measures openness and transparency about what’s being sold. In the case of Reed’s report, there are two front-running possibilities, two clearly distinct products being offered for viewers’ consumption:

  1. A news story about a flamboyant picture taker’s visit to Cleveland
  2. A video of a woman stripping

Here’s one way to sharpen the question about what’s really going on: Had federal broadcasting rules not allowed the unclothed images, would WOIO still have covered the event, would the station have broadcast a story more or less like the one it did but with the reporter clothed? For its part, the station insists it would have. Further, its basic argument for broadcasting the nude version is clearly reasonable. Both WOIO and Reed remind critics that participating in an event is an excellent way to understand and convey it. That’s why sports reporters pick up bats and try to hit pitched baseballs, and fashion reporters dress in the season’s hot shoes and exhibit them on camera, and war reporters visit the front lines. The fact, consequently, that Reed got involved with her story fits perfectly with the claim that she’s doing the best and most professional job possible of portraying what happened. Still, it’s also probably true that she could’ve uncovered herself without beaming the images across the airwaves. More, the way she took everything off wasn’t exactly discreet. In a moment reminding some viewers of the artistic and historical significance of the disrobed body, and others of a bar with poles, Reed stared intently at the camera as she slowly unsnapped her bra and slipped out of her final clothing layer.

Does it matter? Whether the station was trying to win over viewers with a news story that happened to include nudity, or with nudity that happened to include some news, is there a responsibility for the people at WOIO to be sincere about their strategy? There are solid reasons for affirming that the responsibility is limited.

  • Viewers aren’t morons; they know how to change channels. If they see something they don’t like on WOIO, they’re free to try another offering. As long as that’s true, as long as viewers can see for themselves what’s being offered and therefore make their own fully informed decisions, what the broadcaster is claiming diminishes in importance.
  • The fact that a product being offered for consumption isn’t what it claims to be is a perfectly understood part of our economic and business world. It goes on all the time and everywhere. Teenagers buying whipped cream chargers (whippets) don’t come to the grocery store because they expect to have pie that night at dinner. The cashier knows why they’re buying the canister, the store owner does too and the manufacturer. Everyone knows, which means there’s no attempt to deceive. It’s true that the canister packaging insists that the product is for use with whipped cream, but that’s not really a lie, just a formality.

Product sincerity, in conclusion, is relative. When people can see for themselves what’s being offered, or everyone knows what’s going on, a lie isn’t really a lie. Or at least the case can be made that it’s not.

Going back to Reed’s story, this much is clear: exactly how her report would be presented was well publicized. Through a massive promotional campaign leading up to the event, the station made sure everyone knew beforehand what was coming. Even accepting the informed consent of the viewers, however, a business ethics that sticks with firm duties—one that orients right and wrong with basic rules about always telling the whole truth—may disapprove of what happened on WOIO. This is the position anchorman Don Shelby took when asked about the infamous report. As Shelby put it, “This threatens to turn us into something of a cartoon.” He meant that Reed’s news broadcast was simply and factually insincere: it claimed to convey important events about the real world, but really offered viewers a piece of ratings-grubbing, skin-flashing entertainment.

In the end, the two guiding questions about product sincerity as they relate to Sharon Reed remain open: Was she telling the truth when asserting that hers was a legitimate news story that rightfully included sex (as opposed to a chance to use sex to boost ratings with the help of a dubious news event)? And does it matter whether she was telling the truth?

PrurienceAn immoderate and unwholesome interest or desire, especially one that’s related to sex. is an immoderate and unwholesome interest or desire, especially related to sex. On this front, the ethical question is simple: is there anything wrong with sitting in front of your TV and watching someone take their clothes off? Anyone who’s watched the Olympics has noticed that beach volleyball gets a little more coverage than the purely athletic competition seems to merit, and some viewers seem more interested in watching the male swimmers stretch on their blocks and prepare to fire into the water than they do in following the actual swimming. People like to look at nice bodies, but where does checking someone out cross into the objectionably unwholesome?

This question is especially well adapted to a community or a cultural ethics, which is a sense of right and wrong that’s not determined by preset rules or viewers’ free choices so much as community standards. What’s right or wrong, from this perspective, is set by a society’s customs and expectations. Swinging this viewpoint around to Sharon Reed’s report, one important aspect is that it was carefully set to air after 10 p.m. when, presumably, children would be tucked away in bed. The station didn’t have any choice in the matter (at least not if it wanted to keep its broadcasting license) because nudity simply isn’t allowed before that time. In the United States, these standards are usually set by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which is the national government’s regulatory commission for what can and can’t be shown on open airways. The members of that agency are chosen, ultimately, by elected officials, and those officials, presumably, are in touch with what the public feels is appropriate. The argument can be made here that because a democratically elected government drew the line between the acceptable and the unwholesome at 10 p.m., the line is there. Period.

Refining the point, certain depictions of nudity, degrees of it, and things that happen to go on while people aren’t wearing clothes are limited in similar ways by the FCC, and in all these areas, lines are getting drawn between healthy and immoderate viewer interest. The definition of what counts as prurience, finally, may find an ethical foundation on a community’s verdict about whether it’s happening.

ObjectificationThe reduction of a human being—his or her nobility and dignity—to nothing more than the object, which is his or her body. is dehumanization; it drains away the person inside a body. If you set the reporter Sharon Reed next to a blow-up doll of Sharon Reed, objectification is what happens when you go from the first to the second. The charge or accusation of objectification is that by volunteering to take her clothes off on TV, Reed is violating a moral duty to herself, the duty to protect her own dignity and humanity. As an experienced TV reporter, the professional skills Reed had developed involve the sophisticated ability to investigate, understand, and report on current affairs. There’s a nobility in those cultivated talents, and Reed has a responsibility to herself to promote them. When she takes her clothes off, though, everyone loses sight of what truly makes her an accomplished person. In the same way, those that participate in the nude spectacle—the TV station, the viewers—are violating a duty to her: by sending Reed out there to be ogled, or by doing the ogling, they’re violating their responsibility to see her as an accomplished reporter, and not an empty piece of eye candy. If that’s right, finally, then Reed shouldn’t have taken her clothes off, and viewers shouldn’t have watched if she did.

One strong argument against this duty-based reasoning is that respect for others can be condescending and patronizing. Who are we to tell Reed when she is and isn’t an object? It’s far better to let everyone make their own decisions and respect them for doing so. The case could even be made that Reed’s highest dignity as a human lies precisely in her ability to use and display her body as she chooses. If stripping moves Reed toward accomplishments that will make her happy—if it helps her achieve the success as in her profession—then she shouldn’t be obstructed. From this perspective, telling Reed to keep her clothes on isn’t a respectable ethical recommendation; it’s an insulting attack on her right to go out into the world and find what she wants. Listening to her, it sounds like she may have had this argument in mind when she asserted, “I’m in it to win. When did that become a crime?”

There’s at least one further route to follow in defense of Reed’s disrobing. In the twenty-nine-second advertising segments promoting her presentation, art is heavily featured. It’s steamy art, true, but nonetheless the kind of thing we’re used to seeing in museums. The first shot is a bronze sculpture of three female nudes knotted in a passionate embrace. Next comes a painting on the same subject. Both these shots apparently come from museums. Reed appears in the following scene; it’s a head shot balanced by a partially visible statue of a male nude just to her right. The statue’s visible section is its waist area. Similar juxtapositions lead to a climactic (and blurry) tease of men and women gathering without their clothes to pose for Spencer Tunick’s artistic photos.

Video Clip

Body of Art

Please view this video at

Art, the message is, includes bodies. Far from presenting a cheap thrill, Reed is participating in the illustrious history of high and noble aesthetic representation. Everyone will have to decide for themselves whether Spencer Tunick’s panorama shots of naked herds deserve to be called art. But the fact that they could be opens the way to claiming that those stripping down for him aren’t being reduced to pinups; they’re being elevated to one of the higher human callings, which is the thoughtful and provocative depiction of what it means to be human in all its dimensions.

Conclusion. Sex certainly sells. It’s also certain that sexual selling raises ethical questions: is it insincere, unwholesome, or exploitive of the person doing the selling?

Getting on Top to Get Ahead

Some people who are in it to win consider going further than taking their clothes off. “Based on the questions I receive from readers,” writes Huffington Post columnist Joy Chen, “there seems to be a substantial segment of charming, ambitious female blog readers among you who wonder: ‘Should I have sex with my boss to get ahead in my career?’ Perhaps there is an equally large number of good-looking male readers among you who are in the same predicament, but too shy to ask.”Joy Chen, “Should You Have Sex With Your Boss to Get Ahead?,” Huffington Post, May 18, 2010, accessed June 1, 2011, No, she answers, and runs through a list of practical reasons why the strategy is flawed.

Regardless of whether sleeping with the boss will help you up the career ladder, the ethics of the strategy divide along a number of lines. The arguments against even trying to convert sex into a promotion start with appeals to honesty and fairness. Granting special favors to a superior—no matter what they may be—almost inevitably requires lying if they’re to be repaid with a promotion or pay raise or some other professional compensation since most organizations require that some kind of internal evaluation justify the selection of one employee instead of others for a move up. The practical reality is that people involved in this kind of relationship are probably going to end up misleading others about what’s really going on. And even if no one asks, the equally fundamental value of fairness gets breached when promotions that supposedly are based on specific job-performance skills end up being distributed in accordance with different motives.

Another, though related, argument against what Chen calls the “sleep-up strategy” emerges from utilitarian theory. Starting with the premise that ethical good is just whatever heightens a society’s general welfare and happiness, it seems as though a world in which everyone is uniformly getting ahead by working hard will be less rancorous and angry than a world where some people are getting ahead through hard work, while others are flying under the radar, suddenly appearing in higher-level posts for reasons that others don’t understand or that don’t conform with expectations. Resentment can grow quickly, as well as charges of capriciousness and unfairness. If the boss happens to be a heterosexual woman, for example, with a taste for sinewy, dark men, and if promotions are doled out as part of pillow talk, then large numbers of workers aren’t even going to have the opportunity to ask just how far they’ll go to get that salary raise. It’s true, of course, that some individuals will benefit when sleeping up occurs. But for the general welfare to be favored, their pleasures are going to need to outweigh quite a bit of workplace frustration.

The third strong ethical argument against sleeping with the boss to get ahead relates to the earlier consideration of disrobing for the camera. If you can make an argument that a news reporter shouldn’t take off clothes to win more viewers because it’s dehumanizing and objectifying, the same reasoning may be transferred with even greater force to taking off the clothes and not stopping there. In both cases, individuals are drained of their professionalism. Within the business world, they sacrifice the judgment and skills that make them what they are as qualified supervisors and laboring employees. When the particular dignity that belongs to those who develop real skills in the economic world is stripped away, what’s left is nothing more than selfish individuals placating immediate and base desires.

One response to this last argument is to deny the premiseA kind of rational argument that questions another’s opinion by insisting that their basic assumptions are wrong., which means to dispute the basic assumptions. In this case, denying the premise could mean asserting that skills in the business world aren’t limited to the kinds of things that show up on paper: the number of tasks you’re able to complete each hour, the scores you receive in customer satisfaction surveys, and so on. Business is much broader than that. Like money, it’s everywhere, as broad as life itself. If this is the starting point, it follows that the notion of business skills must be taken to include all that.

Next, if that’s what business skills are, if they’re everything you can bring to bear on the economic world, then sex is going to factor into the mix. It’s going to be something employable just like any other ability. Some people are born with great mathematical minds, and they use the quality to get ahead by finding good engineering jobs guaranteeing high pay. Others are born with tremendous athletic skill. They may use that ability to win a college scholarship and so receive an education that the next person—who’s the same in every other way—won’t be able to access. There are people who have a natural talent for selling and leverage that; others put a sharp visual sense of balance and harmony to use in an interior design company. Sculptors and carpenters turn capable hands into money. If, finally, there’s someone out there with great sex appeal and the ability to use it, why shouldn’t they? Theirs is a talent just like everyone else’s.

Filling this out by reference to ethical theory, there are two kinds of foundations that may be laid underneath the assertion that using bedroom skills to get ahead isn’t any different from dressing for success or staying late at the office. The first is obvious: fairness. If one person can use their skills, then others should be able to use theirs. One response to this argument is that any talent may be used as long as it’s directly relevant to professional responsibilities. Letting people use their erotic skills is only fair, the argument goes, if you happen to be in Amsterdam, a few counties in Nevada, or some other place where prostitution is legal.

The second theoretical foundation for an ethics of sleeping up is the privileging of individual rights and human freedom as the highest values in the workplace. If freedom guides ethics, then constraining the talents that may be used to succeed becomes immoral because it’s a constraint on individual liberty. Freedom, the argument continues, is one of those things you can’t limit: either you let people make their own decisions about getting ahead or you don’t.

The Ethics of Individual Freedom and the Wide-Open Market Economy

The employment of an ethics of freedom to justify the bedroom strategy for career advancement illustrates one reason why proponents of freedom maximization in the economic world frequently set their view of individual rights in tandem with the ideal of an unobstructed market economy.

An unobstructed marketplace is sometimes called a laissez-faireFrench for “leave to do.” In the economic world it denotes an unobstructed marketplace where businesses compete with minimal regulation, oversight, and limitation. economy (laissez-faire is French for “leave to do”), and it’s one where individuals and organizations compete against each other with minimal regulation, oversight, and limitation. The purchase of trash bags is a decent example. If you buy Glad bags and find they rip when you’re taking the trash out and so leave your kitchen floor stained with coffee grounds, it doesn’t take much effort to go to the store and buy a different brand. On the other hand, trash collection is much less competitive. Especially in those cities where the local government runs the trash trucks, you’re going to find it difficult to change companies if you don’t like the service you’re getting. Now, with respect to the trash bag company, if all the design specialists got their jobs by getting it on with the CEO, no one will be surprised to discover that they don’t know too much about making good bags. This kind of company, therefore, one where professional excellence isn’t rewarded, is probably also one that’ll produce leaking bags and soon go out of business. The marketplace, consequently, does some of the work to professionalize the office that a freedom-based ethics can’t do. Of course, if the marketplace is obstructed—if consumers can’t easily switch from one provider to another, as in the trash collection case—then it’s less likely that experts in sleeping up will be weeded out.

A stronger point can be made. Practices many consider inappropriate, undignified, or reprehensible—like sleeping with the boss to get ahead—may surrender to economic reality more quickly and completely than they do to purely ethical arguments. It’s possible that the best way (the most efficient, practical, and certain) to cure behaviors many label egregious—everything from under-the-table bribes to racial discrimination—is to simply let market forces of competition do their job.

Key Takeaways

  • Using sexual images and suggestions for economic reasons raises ethical issues of sincerity, prurience, and objectification.
  • Sleeping with the boss for career advancement opens issues concerning the intrinsic nobility of the individual in a business setting and the limits of acceptable strategies for advancement.
  • The possibility of sleeping with the boss to advance professionally illustrates one reason rights theorists in the economic world tend to favor market-driven economies.

Review Questions

  1. What—if anything—is wrong with taking off your clothes to earn some money?
  2. Is there an ethical difference between stripping for Playboy or Playgirl magazine and Reed’s disrobing? If so, what is it? If not, why are they ethically the same? Use the concepts of prurience and objectification to answer.
  3. Your boss wants to sleep with you, and it’s clear that visiting a hotel will help your career. What are two arguments against? What’s an argument in favor?
  4. Some ethical theorists believe individual freedom and the pursuit of happiness are the highest ethical values. Why might this kind of theorist also favor wide-open market economies with competition among companies?