Saturday, May 26, 2007

Guest post by Hybrid: Medicinal Cybersex?

You may have already heard something about this lawsuit in the United States, in which a former IBM employee is suing IBM for wrongful dismissal, on the grounds that they neglected to provide adequate support for his cybersex addicition.

And I quote:
In his legal action against IBM, James Pacenza admits that he spent time in chat rooms during work hours, but claims his behavior is the result of an addiction and that IBM should have offered him counseling instead of firing him. Employees "with much more severe psychological problems, in the form of drug or alcohol problems ... are allowed treatment programs" at IBM, Pacenza argues in his lawsuit.


In his suit, Pacenza says his use of Internet chat rooms is a form of "self medication" he uses to treat post-traumatic stress disorder suffered as a result of combat experience in Vietnam. On the day before he was fired, Pacenza says he wrote a letter to a fallen Vietnam comrade lamenting his death. Afterward, he ventured into an Internet chat room "as a brief diversion from work," according to court papers.
Presumably, IBM does not allow someone to drink on the job, and presumably, you could be fired if you just smoked a little pot "'as a brief diversion from work,'" even if you have PTSD. I have yet to work at a company that did not similarly prohibit adult material of any kind on its networks, systems, and computers.

Here is where the only grey area seems to exist for me: I would wager that with the exception of some corporate events, IBM does not provide its employees with alcohol at work, and hopefully never provides them with illegal substances. Pacenza had a computer on his desk, though, and access to the internet, as so many of us corporate shills do these days.

It's a false distinction. Computers and internet access are as neutral as any other piece of office equipment. If someone looks at the work-provided fridge and sees a place to store their beer, or sees a lock on their desk drawer and sees it as a perfect spot for the stash, or sees their desk phone and thinks about calling their dealer, then they have a problem. If someone looks at a computer and internet access as chat rooms and pron, then they also have a problem. At the point at which the abuse of the work-provided tools becomes extreme, I think employers are justified in taking action.

Incidentally, I could probably fill a whole separate post on how the internet becoming synonymous with pron is problematic to begin with, but I'll resist the urge and just note in passing that this case appears to be predicated on the notion that pron and cybersex are simply harmless and normal parts of the internet experience that can become addictive for some people.

My feminist objections to this notion in general, and this kind of lawsuit in particular, are fairly standard: I worry about whether or not any harm is coming to women through the chats, or pron being created or exchanged, or if any harm is being done to minor children. (How this passes for "sex" is still a bit unclear to me. I can chat with someone online about going out for pizza, but it wouldn't occur to me to think that I ate in doing so.) I worry about how the pronification of this man's reality affects the women who have to work with him.

The objections that I have to this kind of thing as an IT worker are perhaps obvious as well. In my experience, people aren't all that careful about hiding their pron. So the moment I arrive to fix your computer, there is a good chance that I or one of my coworkers will see it, grossing us out and spoiling our day. Congratulations! You have exposed the company to a sexual harassment lawsuit!

Not to mention that this behavior hits me where it hurts - in the IT budget. If you are transmitting huge files and sucking up bandwidth, IT has to cover that cost. If you break your computer through spyware infections and virus infestation, it puts legitimate data at risk and costs the company time and money to repair the damage. If we are asked by HR to monitor your internet activities, that takes time and money away from getting other work done. Which is all fine if you are the size of IBM and have one employee like Pacenza, but this is a problem that doesn't scale. IT departments already cost companies a lot of money. Companies have no interest in increasing their IT costs to cope with a workforce who cannot or will not refrain from excessive personal use of their work computers and the consequences arising from such use.

It pains me to come down on the side of Big Blue instead of the little guy. But I have to admit that while I hope that Pacenza gets the help that he needs for his addiction and his PTSD, I hope on behalf of IT workers everywhere that this lawsuit is dismissed. As a feminist, I will continue to see harm to women as the elephant in the room of this discussion. And as a feminist working in IT, I think about how a positive outcome for Pacenza in this case could affect my future in an already sexist industry.