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I believe a female colleague saw me masturbating at work. I was in my office after hours with the door locked and blinds down, but I'm afraid the blinds had a crack. I am not an exhibitionist, and this was a moment of weakness. This incident would have been over a month ago, and yes, I have stopped doing that. I only work with my door and blinds open now.

She's been glaring at me for weeks with what looks like contempt. Sometimes I won't even know she's there, but I turn to see her staring me down. It's incredibly uncomfortable.

I have not approached her, and it has never been acknowledged that this is why she's upset. Actually, I'm not even 100% sure if she saw me, but I cannot explain the behavior otherwise, as our rapport went from positive to suddenly hostile without any explanation. I once went to her cubicle and she immediately told me my presence was unwanted. She has had a history of reporting male colleagues that have unwanted advances on her, so I'm afraid that whatever I do to rectify the scenario will make it worse. I don't generally spend time around this person, so I can't think what else I could have done to offend.

How should I approach this scenario? It could be that she's mad about something entirely different, but I wouldn't have the slightest idea at what.

This is in a midwestern US company with roughly 200 employees. We're not in the same unit, but at times are at the same meetings. Nobody else seems to be treating me differently, and I am generally very well-liked by my other colleagues.

closed as primarily opinion-based by Jim G., Dukeling, Dan Neely, gnat, Mister Positive Apr 22 at 11:21

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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Do nothing. Anything you do would contribute to validating the story she possibly could tell. That story now would be "I watched through the closed blinds of the office of a co-worker, and I thought he may be masturbating" and then it could be followed by "so I watched long enough to be sure" or "I turned away quickly". No matter how inappropriate or disgusting, neither case is the basis for clear-cut sexual harassment. Not sure how your company handles such inappropriate behavior, but better not to ask.

Edit/Explanation: After some attempted interpretations (see discussions on meta) and other answers I feel the need to clarify a little bit. I do not suggest to lie. I suggest strongly not to lie. I do not suggest to "pretend it never happened". I do not suggest to attack the credibility of the co-worker. My answer was more oriented toward playing trough the different scenarios:

  • she did not see anything/she walked away without watching. Then any discussion/communication with her about it would probably be worse for her (and for sure worse for the OP) than saying nothing. in this case, most likely she has nothing to report to anybody.

  • she saw and watched close enough. Now that is a little tricky. It was definitely not directed action towards her, different people have different levels of tolerance to such things and staying and watching is probably not a sign that it scared her especially. So while still potentially disgusting and disturbing it is not an personal attack against her or public exhibitionism (also taking the criminal problem of the table). Also here, communicating with her about it is probably worse than not.

  • In no case it is a sexist action - at least for me - if I (male) would see a (male or female) co-worker masturbating in the office i would also be at least upset.

So what is on the table now: a professional misbehavior without a judicable interaction. While it it is probably enough for a written warning (and being fired if repeated), it is IMHO likely not enough for firing the OP. Under these circumstances, doing anything himself to "settle" this with the female colleague/HR may give more unpleasant attention her than it actually prevents. Also while I say "don't lie" I also find it not necessary to incriminate yourself.

So why do i say "don't lie"? Very simple: this takes it to a whole other (criminal, unethical) level. With negative consequences for the female co-worker, and in case that she had a mobile phone to take a picture, for the OP. The cover-up here would be worse than the crime (since the crime is probably not a crime, but the cover-up may be).

That leave the question: What should he say in case he is being interviewed by HR/manage? I suppose "I refuse to comment on that(, and i would prefer if a union representative is present)" could be an answer. He could make it clear that this refers to anything which people believe to have perceived behind closed window blinds/locked doors.

So not acting at all seems a good path

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    Keep your contacts with her strictly necessary business. Avoid one-on-one meetings with her. – Patricia Shanahan Apr 20 at 23:16
  • The meta-discussion is related to a now deleted answer not yours. – Myles Apr 24 at 18:08
  • @Myles It also refers to this answer. – Oliphaunt Apr 27 at 21:46
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So a co-worker who's already had to deal with inappropriate advances from multiple male colleagues now on top of that has to put up with someone exposing themselves to her while at work? And to make things worse since you have an office and she has a cubicle I'm guessing you are higher status within the organisation?

Yeah. You're in the wrong here.

It looks like she hasn't made any kind of formal complaint or been gossiping around the office so you may be in luck on this one. It is good that you have already made sure to change your behavior.

As to the rest? She's said what she wants - she doesn't want to be anywhere near you.

So respect that. Don't go near her. Don't talk to her, definitely don't go to her cubicle.

As to the rest, are you sure you aren't projecting your guilty conscience onto her behavior? Either way though if she stares at you then that's your problem, not hers. You're lucky that's all she's doing and every time you get a look of disgust across the office be grateful that it is that not a formal complaint.

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    Wait "someone exposing themselves to her while at work" -- did we read the same question? I read "I was in my office after hours with the door locked and blinds down, but I'm afraid the blinds had a crack." That does not, to me, sound like exposing oneself or being exposed to. – bishop Apr 21 at 12:10
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    @bishop If he hadn't been seen then he wouldn't have felt the need to post this. He was clearly able to see out well enough to know who it was that saw him and enough that whoever it was looking in could see what he was doing so this was more than just a tiny crack....Truth is a three edged sword, we've seen his story with the angle he's put on it - now we need to consider her side and how she will see it and what the real truth of the facts may be. – Tim B Apr 21 at 12:13
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    @TimB There are claims in your comments which seem to contradict the information provided by OP ("he"/"him"). He was clearly able to see out well enough to know who it was that saw him - but he is not even 100% sure if she saw him, he was not aware of any crack, he only infers that she could've seen him because he cannot explain the behavior otherwise. he chose to do this at work with the blinds not fully closed - possibly for the thrill of that risk taking- but, again, it was not a deliberate choice to leave the blinds not fully closed, he is not an exhibitionist. Could you clarify? – Piwi Apr 21 at 14:40
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    I don't know if it's true in OP's workplace, but in every place I've ever worked, the walls for both private offices and conference rooms might as well have been made out of tissue paper, acoustically speaking. It's possible that closing the blinds wasn't enough to keep the activity secret. – Monica Cellio Apr 21 at 19:33
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    To clarify, I did not see the offended individual that day nor that week even. I am not senior to her (i.e. no power differential). I was, to my knowledge, as private as I could have been. My conclusion is based entirely off deduction and, as Tim says, a projection of my guilty conscience. This is, so to speak, the worst case scenario of my deductions. In all likelihood, she is offended about something else, but I cannot think of another scenario that explains the magnitude of her reaction. – user102949 Apr 21 at 22:58
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The way I see it, you have three options. You can keep silent, to resolve the manner via a confrontation, or quit the company. Which option to take depends on how much damage keeping the status quo does to you, and how much you value your current job.

Keep silent

If you keep silent, as e.g. Sacha suggests, it is likely that this matter will never be resolved. If this makes your mind at ease, then this is a good option. If, however, the reason you are asking about this a month after the incident is that this weighs heavily on your mind (either due to guilt, or fear of bad consequence if your colleague speaks up), then keeping it to yourselves might not be a good option. It is up to you to decide how much the fact that this incident is unresolved bothers you. If you choose to remain silent, consider talking in confidence to someone outside the company for support.

Tell her what you did

One way to get rid of the uncertainty of this issue is to simply "come clean" against your colleague. I think the best way to do this is to arrange for a private meeting with her and someone else from the company (someone from HR perhaps) that should 'mediate' between you and her. Another important point is to be honest, do not try to hide what you did, but also make it clear that it was a mistake, that you are sorry for her to have had witnessed it and that you will never do it again.

If you do that, all you can do is hope for the best. Professionally, this option is pretty risky, if she does not accept your apology, you may get fired and possibly be haunted by the incident in the future if this gets public as a result. It might be a good idea to familiarize yourself with the company policy and what they can/will do as a response to your incident.

Quit

The final option is to avoid the problem entirely and quit the company. It is possible that this will lead to rumours, but those will be just that: rumours. This is a safe option, but costly, especially if you like your job otherwise.

  • Leaving has the risk that the colleagues will tell your colleagues "I didn't want to tell, but now that he's gone I can tell you why..." with possibly "interesting" consequences. Not too likely, but possible. – gnasher729 Apr 23 at 21:20
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    @gnasher729 That is possible I suppose, but I don't think that is much more likely than that the colleauge telling anyway at some time. Leaving has the advantage of being mostly safe of repercussions by the company. I'm not a legal expert, but I'd think it would be very hard to make a legal case against this, so I doubt the company would bother if you no longer work there. – Discrete lizard Apr 24 at 5:04
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    Confronting a female colleague over something like this, without her actively pursuing it is - in some way - quite aggressive - and even with somebody else present - worse than the fact. It's her choice to address it or not - and also how long to think about it. If she prefers to think that she is not sure, then it is that way. – Sascha Apr 28 at 12:19
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What constitutes "professional" conduct is not innate and is ultimately subjective. I was struck by your characterization of "moment of weakness", as it is very telling yet unfortunate. There is nothing innately wrong with masturbating. You wanted, and in turn created, a private area for yourself. Someone may have inadvertently saw you. One might expect a mature adult to "act professionally" and realize that masturbation is not wrong, that it was not meant for her eyes, and that playing a game of tittle-tattle is silly.

Again, what constitutes "professional" behavior is ultimately subjective. Therefore, stick to guns without capitulating to someone else's point of view. Why is their point of view any more important than yours?

There is the legal angle (which is also ultimately subjective). She has no proof, therefore my suggestion would be to completely ignore the situation as though nothing happened. If this even comes up in an official capacity, vigorously deny all of it. You did no harm nor had any intention to..

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    While masturbation is not wrong, it's generally considered an extremely private act, and confined to the home or other private location. I don't think many would consider any place at work to be an appropriate place, even in an office with the door and blinds closed. Many would similarly consider it inappropriate to look at porn at work. – Barmar Apr 22 at 0:19
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    I agree. Whether it is some people, many people, or whatever quantifying adjective, the issue is still a matter of subjectivity and there is no logical reason why the original poster should trade a useful perspective (that he did nothing wrong) for another (that he committed a grave mistake). He needn't capitulate to the masses. – C Pat Str Apr 22 at 2:07
  • But is this a battle you really want to fight? It's not like breast feeding, which was also once considered taboo in public, but has become accepted because we understand the benefits (but women still try to avoid exposing themselves too much). – Barmar Apr 22 at 16:15
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    Beyond a very theoretical interpretation, you’re far out on a limb claiming this is subjective as a question of professional conduct. Barring a narrow band of industries, this at bare minimum can’t reasonably be considered a job function. Even then, it’s reasonably only part of certain roles. Maybe you could argue a matter of degree, but even then I’m hard pressed to suggest that an activity that is illegal in public view doesn’t at least generate more concern than one that is not. – John Spiegel Apr 22 at 19:01
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    I'm not disagreeing (much) with any of the above comments. It would be foolhardy for the original poster to capitulate to another's point of view. On what basis should he do so? Morality? If so, whose morality and why them? It is not merely theoretical that judgement about professional conduct is subjective, it actively is indeed subjective—regardless of the number of people who insist that any given judgement is the correct one. I fail to see logical reasons why the original poster should trade a favorable interpretation for an unfavorable one. – C Pat Str Apr 22 at 23:28
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Have you ever heard of the notorious book Crime And Punishment by Dostoevsky? As a recap, The main character gets away totally clean of murder, but a heavy burden of guilt for what he has done lays the foundation for guiding him to become the main suspect at the scene of the crime over some period of time. His whole persona in the way he interacts with people is entirely altered because he cannot rest his conscience, ultimately driving him into the hands of the law to be condemned for his actions. It's safe to say that the way he approached every interaction led people to believe that he was guilty.

You should stop feeling guilty for something that never happened in the first place...

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    Huh? The original poster acknowledged s/he did indeed masturbate in the office. Stop feeling guilty for something that never happened? That doesn't square with the question. – ChrisInEdmonton Apr 21 at 20:33
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    @ChrisInEdmonton Yeah, it's disturbing how many folk here are advocating gaslighting. – Geoffrey Brent Apr 22 at 1:22
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You don't specify whether you are male or female. This is not relevant, of course.

Quit. Hand in your resignation immediately. Not at the end of the week, not at the end of the day, immediately. You acted breathtakingly unprofessionally and are now contributing to a hostile work environment. I'm stunned that you have decided to continue working there for a full month, knowing full well you have made your coworker uncomfortable. This is deeply inappropriate and probably places your company at substantial legal risk.

Whether or not you need therapy and/or training on how to set appropriate boundaries before taking your next job is really up to you. Whatever series of events lead to you behaving like you did a month ago must never recur and you must do whatever is necessary to ensure this. A therapist could also help you understand how harmful your decision was, to continue working there and continue contributing to the hostile work environment. Hopefully, the therapist could also help you with your denial. Of course your coworker is upset because of your masturbation, why on earth would you be uncertain about this?

I'd suggest not stating the reason why you are leaving and not talking to the female coworker without first seeking legal advice because it's at least plausible you have committed a crime. I mean, yes, you are morally obligated to apologize but I doubt any lawyer is going to recommend this due to your legal jeopardy.

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    It’s unprofessional and – unfortunately – shameful in our society but nobody’s been harmed by it, OP did it outside of work hours and also tried to ensure privacy. – Michael Apr 21 at 15:33
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    The female coworker has very, very clearly been harmed by it. – ChrisInEdmonton Apr 21 at 17:46
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    What they did was a terrible idea, but considering they were trying to do it in the privacy of their office, after hours, it's less certain they could reasonably have foreseen that someone would see them and be disturbed. Would you be saying the same thing if they'd masturbated in the bathroom? If they'd done it in their car in the company parking lot when no one was around? – Obie 2.0 Apr 21 at 20:49
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    Or if they did it in their office with the blinds down, but no one saw them? I mean, setting aside the distinct possibility that they're being dishonest (mentioned in another answer). – Obie 2.0 Apr 21 at 20:53
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    I agree. We actually had a guy do something similar at a previous workplace, and he was fired immediately. – JanetPlanet Apr 28 at 19:33
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It's really bad situation Sir, but s*x its something natural. and to be honest with you don't go to check if she has been seeing you at this moment (masturbate) its more than a month with no report about you its fine. start to trying to forget what happened in this day and the first the office its privity zone you don't open the door without asking. and spying its bad things. don't worry and try to forget and stop doing this mas.. its at all not good .

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    "but s*x its something natural." - So is defecation, you DON'T do it in the office. – Rlyeh Apr 21 at 8:56
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    honest yes but we make sometimes a mistake – salah eddin lamnayra Apr 21 at 9:22
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    I like the irony of saying "sex is something natural" but censoring the word "sex" – Moyli Apr 21 at 18:05
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    No; People don’t “masterbate at work” by mistake. – Ramhound Apr 22 at 0:59
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    @Underverse - I don't know how to respond to that response without indicating how I feel about that ruling. One does not accidentally perform a sex act. I don't really care what a judge has indicated, that ruling, would not apply to the author of this question anyways. In the US what that millionaire did would be rape – Ramhound Apr 22 at 17:24
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Edit: I pacified 70 angry charging cows one time, using specific animal behaviour, so you can either trust my judgement or get squashed by 70 rutting bulls.

Clarification for autist spectrum people: Some girls came home running and crying from the forest one day because they had seen a farmer pissing in a field and they saw his penis. They said he was a flasher, and they were scared and nearly crying. Can you imagine an young man running home crying if he sees a woman weeing? What's the proportion of female flashers? Be objective about men weardin dresses and sex difference. This reality is the basis for my controversial reply:

It will probably take at least a year or two until a sense of decency has returned to your area of her office. She probably doesn't want have to interact with someone who has confidently masturbated at work. If you need to be reassured after having done something wrong, You can use gestural communication which expresses that you are seeking forgiveness for the incident.

From a psychological point of view, you should avoid eye contact with her, look down meekly, and put your hand on your top shirt button or nibble your thumbnail momentarily when you pass her. That's a common sign of acknowledgement that you have done something wrong, and a gesture that you are not a threat. It's called pacifying body language which is respectful and essentially the opposite of gesturing towards your crotch.

Where I live in Southern France, 95 percent of rural cyclists are male, The women simply feel too threatened or harassed to cycle alone out of town. In town it's 50/50. That's why I say: Women get startled and shocked pretty easily from sexual threats like flashers. I do that gesture when I am out in forest or the country tracks and I cross paths with a lone female, because they can sometimes become scared if there is no clear gestural communication. I prefer to gesture like a waif than scare/disturb scare someone when I'm out walking near stables, despite having a big jaw and a craning neck and lots of muscles, I make a waif gesture with my hand. I don't cross confused or worried young ladies anymore as a consequence. Women constantly do that gesture to me, that's why I figured that they understand it.

In your case it's a bit extreme so just look down on the floor as soon as she sees you, avoid eye contact or make it brief and make a respectful gesture because that's the nature of society.

From a professional viewpoint, It's not something that ever happened, and you should set aside 5 minutes of every day to take care of your needs early in the morning and after work to avoid being tempted at work.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Snow Apr 29 at 6:28

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