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The Hulk Hogan Sex Tape Trial Just Got Super Sexist

And not for the reason you think.
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Hulk Hogan. (Photo: John Pendygraft-Pool/Getty Images)

Hulk Hogan. (Photo: John Pendygraft-Pool/Getty Images)

The lawsuit between wrestler Hulk Hogan and Gawker Media, whom Hogan is suing for publishing his sex tape, is full of big, famous personalities. But yesterday, it was the jury who stole the spotlight, and not positively. The Tampa Bay Times reports:

In one particularly astonishing moment, the jury asked Emma Carmichael, 26, editor-in-chief of another Gawker Media website, Jezebel, whether she had slept with either [former Gawker editor-in-chief A.J.] Daulerio or [Gawker founder Nick] Denton, while working for them. ...

The question, while clearly ignorant of the fact that Denton is gay, hinted at something darker. It appeared to suggest that Carmichael had slept her way to a position of power, and it stunned the courtroom. Heads swiveled and voices hushed.

As stunning as the jury's question may seem, statistics suggest it's an unfortunately common line of thinking. It appears both men and women believe co-workers commonly sleep their way to the top, which perhaps explains why the Hogan v. Gawker jury thought to ask this sexist question—and why the judge allowed it.

More than one in four men and one in three women say they know someone who is having an affair with their boss, according to research by the Center for Work-Life Policy, a think tank. Among those individuals, one-third or more thought their co-worker was promoted as a result.

But how often does sex really act as a career booster in the workplace? It's hard to get accurate numbers on how many sexual, superior-subordinate relationships there are, but among women who were willing to admit to sleeping with their bosses, only 12 percent thought they received a promotion out of it, the Center for Work-Life Policy found. Plus, these relationships may appear to occur more often than they really do: Cross-sex professional friendships are often mistaken for romances, in a way that same-sex friendships aren't, as psychologist Kim Elsesser reports in her book, Sex and the Office. Indeed, nobody asked whether Daulerio slept with Denton on his way to his position, as some have pointed out.

Meanwhile, the perception that "sleeping to the top" is a common occurrence creates a particularly fraught environment for high-ranking female professionals, the Center for Work-Life Policy argues. Sponsorship from a superior is crucial for middle and senior managers to make it to the very top, the center's researchers found. In a world where most C-suite members are still male, however, that means a woman climbing her way up the corporate ladder will likely need to develop a close, professional relationship with a man, leaving the pair open to accusations of impropriety.

That means the assumption that Hulk Hogan v. Gawker's jury made is not only statistically unlikely, it's actively harmful to professional women and men. At least Carmichael appears to have handled the situation as well as one might expect of a high-ranking editor who earned her position. The Tampa Bay Times reports she "replied smoothly" that she had not had affairs with her bosses, and "left it at that."