Malcolm Turnbull’s ‘bonking ban’ is a misplaced attack on consensual sex

Malcolm Turnbull’s proposed “bonking ban”, preventing ministers from having sex with their staff, is a panicked and irresponsible reaction to the scandal that has engulfed Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce. And it is part of a broader and misplaced crackdown on sex in workplaces that must be checked.

The insanity of puritanical attacks on consensual sex is underlined by a range of workplace data that shows many of us (me included) met our partners at work. A Relationships Australia survey last year found that 40 per cent of people aged 35-50 met their partner in the workplace. Barack and Michelle Obama met at a Chicago law firm where they were both employed and Bill and Melinda Gates met at Microsoft. It is possible that in 10 years’ time, Barnaby Joyce and Vikki Campion will be living happily together with multiple children.

People spend more time at work than they do at home. Relationships of every conceivable kind are forged in the workplace. Friendships are made. Friendships are broken. Whether sex is involved or not, sometimes it gets messy. Affairs of all descriptions occur. Sometimes they evolve into marriage and babies. Sometimes they end badly.

When employees sign an employment contract, they should not be asked to relinquish their humanity. The critical line that must not be crossed is consent. It is imperative that employers not only prohibit sexual harassment in the workplace but police that prohibition forcefully. The fact that workplace sexual harassment claims are increasing means that true gender equality is a long way off.

But where a relationship between adults is clearly consensual, as was the relationship between Joyce and Campion, extreme caution is required. Certainly, a consensual relationship between an employee supervising another can raise conflict of interest issues. But this can be managed by sensible policy requiring disclosure and alternative supervision arrangements to be put in place.

One of the largest sources of information on the topic is the Vault Office Romance Survey, compiled by a US-based careers and jobs intelligence company that offers rankings of business organisations. In their latest poll, 57 per cent of respondents said that they had had a personal relationship with a workmate – ranging from a quick fling to an ongoing long-term relationship – and 60 per cent of them said they would be happy to do it again.

The reason workplaces are cracking down on consensual sex has little to do with the welfare of their workers, it’s all to do with their own brand – and Turnbull is no different. His response must be seen as a reaction to the media pile-on and moral panic that ensued after Joyce’s relationship with Campion was made public. It also serves a blatantly political purpose – as a distraction from real the issues of financial probity surrounding Joyce’s actions.

In the last decade, the brand protection industry along with risk-averse managers have produced an exponential increase in workplace policies seeking to regulate the activities of employees both at work and outside work. Since then, many employees have lost their jobs for “damaging the brand”.

In July last year, sporting behemoth the AFL effectively sacked two of its managers because each had engaged in consensual sex with female employees. The managers were both male and older than the women involved, who held more junior roles.

At a press conference conducted by chief executive Gillon McLachlan to announce the departure of the two men, everyone was publicly shamed: the men, their families and the women with whom they had consensual sex. Invoking the lamentable language of public relations advisers, McLachlan made clear that the relationships were “inappropriate” and the two managers duly released carefully curated statements of mea culpa and “key learnings”.

In sacking the men, the AFL flagrantly broke the law. Under Victorian anti-discrimination legislation it is illegal for an employer to discriminate against an employee on the grounds of “lawful sexual activity”. Consensual sex between a man and a woman is lawful, whether or not one or both is married or in a de facto relationship. Both men did not challenge the legality of the AFL’s actions but the option remains for other employees in a similar situation in future.

The AFL only acted when its brand was threatened by adverse media coverage of the consensual affairs. Employers are now asserting the right to fire anyone who expresses a controversial opinion because of “brand damage”.

A clear line needs to be drawn against draconian and puritanical control of employees. Market values and the brand management industry should not be allowed to subjugate all other interests.

This article originally appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald.