Prince Albert, Canned
William Draheim doesn't remember exactly how or when the topic arose. It was several months ago, in the break room at work, he thinks. Maybe he and some colleagues were having lunch, talking about body piercings. And suddenly Prince Albert just popped up.
At the time it didn't seem like that big a deal to talk about the genital piercing Draheim was planning to get. The popular Prince Albert variety, which dates back to the Victorian era, is typically a ring with a bead on it that goes in through the urethra and comes out just below the head of the penis. His colleagues seemed genuinely curious about it.
Draheim says his co-workers--some of whom jokingly dubbed him "penis boy" after he mentioned his plans--had asked him about the piercing before he got it, and again after he had the procedure done a couple of months ago. They showed him a magazine with a picture of one in it. Did it hurt? Had he had sex yet? What did it feel like? What did it look like? Thus pestered, Draheim offered to show them his piercing if they really wanted to see it.
But apparently not all of Draheim's colleagues cared to know about his new accessory. He doesn't know who, and he doesn't know when, but someone complained about the conversations. And on May 15, as he was nearing his one-year anniversary at Video Age, Draheim was fired for sexual harassment.
On the surface the situation seems quite clear. But here's the wrinkle: Draheim's place of employment, St. Louis Park-based Video Age Inc. is in the business of distributing hardcore porn videos and sex toys. So his firing raises an interesting question: What constitutes harassment in a workplace that's constantly permeated by explicit sexual content?
Video Age phone reps, whose job it is to take orders from clients who receive the company's catalogs, must routinely deal with masturbating customers who proposition them over the phone. At any given time, raunchy movies are being displayed on a dozen-plus TV monitors, as videos are being duplicated to fill orders. The shipping department is full of shrink-wrapped videos, latex penises, molded vaginas, and brightly colored plastic toys with vibrating tips. New movies are left in a pile in the company break room for employees to add to their home collections--a perk of the job. And one of the firm's own catalogs shows pictures of Prince Albert piercings.
"It's a fairly sexual environment," sums up Draheim, a video camera operator who aspires to one day direct porn films. "If you don't want to talk about it, get the hell out of the job."
A 29-year-old who looks like he'd be more comfortable hanging out at First Avenue (where he used to be a bouncer) than climbing the rungs of the porn industry ladder, Draheim has no qualms about sharing the details of his sex life, clearly fancying himself on the cutting edge compared to co-workers who have a "very limited lifestyle." He doesn't deny that he spoke about his pierced penis in the workplace. But he stresses that if he'd been warned that his candid style had offended anyone, he'd have kept the Prince under wraps. "If I would have known, I would have never continued the conversation," he insists.
Draheim says that when Video Age manager Tom Conklin sacked him, he explained that it was not acceptable to talk about or offer to show his pierced penis in the office. Conklin declined to speak about the dismissal for this story. "I'm not going to comment on him or any other current or former employee," he says. Nor would he discuss the company's sexual harassment policies or the potentially unique problems that might arise because of the nature of the industry.
Draheim says he hadn't had any previous run-ins with his bosses, and some of his co-workers agree that prior to the piercing incident he seemed to be an upstanding employee. They say the swift and sudden termination seemed extreme--especially since the offending discussion wasn't far removed from the daily discourse that's part of the job.
From the outside, Draheim's former workplace looks no different from the other businesses in the one-story office complex at the end of a suburban dead-end street. And one might argue that just because Video Age deals in porn doesn't mean its employees should have lower standards of behavior than those working at the tech companies and design firms on either side of it.
But sex is everywhere, says one Video Age employee who asked that his name not be used, explaining that the company management had told staff not to talk to Draheim or discuss his firing with the media. "When we started there, we were told we had to be aware of the sexually explicit material and stuff there," he recalls. "You were warned that was going to be part of the work environment. Most people around there talk about different things, about a product or the movies. There's no getting around it. If you're not okay with it, then it's not the place for you to work."
Of the 50 or so employees at Video Age, about half are women. One female co-worker, who also asked not to be named in this story, stressed that Draheim's behavior was not particularly lewd. "He wasn't running around with his weenie hanging out," she says, adding that, as she understands it, Draheim wasn't informed that his behavior was out of line. "I don't think Bill was saying anything that would have been that out of the ordinary," she says. "I hope they reconsider how they handle sexual harassment. They're dealing with it like it's a normal workplace. They really want badly to pretend that this is a run-of-the-mill mail-order office. But it's not."
The context of the business can be an important part of establishing sexual harassment or hostile workplace claims in court, says Michael Jordan, a professor at William Mitchell College of Law. While employees, unless protected by contracts, can be fired for any reason, proving sexual harassment is a different story. "Not every comment can be used to support a claim of offensive conduct. You have to look at it in context," he explains. The U.S. Supreme Court, he continues, has suggested that an occasional pat on the rump in a sports team's locker room would not be considered offensive behavior. But a pat on the rump in a lawyer's office could be.
"This guy talking about his penis in a porn store may have been inappropriate, but it may be tantamount to that pat on the rump in the locker room," Jordan suggests, hastening to add that he doesn't endorse the discussion of genitalia in the workplace. "One of the requirements of the job is that you are going to be exposed to that. Sexual behavior or statements can be expected." He doesn't know of any specific legal cases that address the issue of sexual harassment in the porn industry, but says there have been court rulings indicating that in some workplaces, sex is simply part of the landscape of the business.
Talking about the piercing, or even offering to show it, wouldn't necessarily create a hostile workplace environment, Jordan says. But if it was a repeated topic of discussion--or if he actually exposed his penis in the office--that would certainly ratchet up the level of offense.
Regardless of the type of business involved, sexual harassment claims seldom make it to court, Jordan continues. And even if they do they are very hard to prove. Yet employers sometimes overreact to a potential infraction and fire the offending employee, either because the worker has been a problem in the past or simply to avoid trouble. "Overkill is the safest thing for an employer to do," he explains.
And perhaps that's because exactly what constitutes a hostile workplace is in a bit of a gray area, depending as much on common sense and the surrounding circumstances as on the offending comments or actions. A successful claim must prove that the problems are "severe and pervasive," says Stephen Befort, a professor at the University of Minnesota's Law School. It's not enough that one person is offended by an overheard conversation. But if the behavior is extreme or repeated, it could become a problem.
"If the place is in the business of selling sex toys, then having sex toys at work is clearly not harassment," says Befort. "But telling of a personal sex life, that can be something you can separate from business." Befort adds that just because Video Age is in the porn business doesn't mean every discussion of sex in the workplace must be sanctioned. "The fact that someone sells guns at a store doesn't mean they want to get shot at."
Draheim has asked around for legal advice but has been told he has no claim against his former employer. So he has dusted off his résumé and is in pursuit of a new job, preferably something that would involve video production.
His plans to direct adult movies are on the shelf for the time being while he concentrates on getting a job. But he has a lot of time on his hands right now, so he's working on developing story lines and writing some scripts. "I just have so many ideas," he explains.
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