As the revelations of sexual harassment, abusers and general shitbags rolls on, so to does the inevitable pushback to the #metoo movement. And while there have always been people who insist that we’re creating a culture where any sort of flirting might be mistaken for harassment and an innocent gesture might end a well-meaning man’s career, the voices insisting that we have started to overcorrect have become increasingly strident. People as diverse as British MPs and Hollywood actors have all begun to speak up about how we may be going too far, while Fox News worries that sexual harassment claims may spoil the office Christmas party.
But while it’s easy to laugh at the men who clutch their ties and worry that an errant “good morning” might kill their career or that sexual harassment awareness might kill people’s ability to flirt and socialize… is there reason to be concerned? Is there a real chance that innocent flirting might be mistaken for harassment?
SPOILER ALERT: no. No there isn’t.
So let’s talk a little about how one can flirt in a post Weinstein world.
There’s No Such Thing As “Accidental” Harassment
Let’s start by dispensing with an obvious truth: nobody is “accidentally” harassing people. Nobody is getting fired because they tripped and oops they grabbed somebody’s butt, nor did their belt suddenly have a structural failure causing their pants to pool around their ankles at an inopportune moment. Being a klutz or having really unfortunate timing isn’t leaving people branded with a scarlet H.
Now, there are undoubtedly times when people have fucked up in incredibly mortifying ways. The sext to a consenting partner that went to the wrong IM window, the person who read the moment wrong and tried to kiss someone who wasn’t feeling it… even somebody who reached out and accidentally brushed against someone’s junk. But here’s the thing: everyone recognizes when something is an accident. Shit happens, sometimes in ways that make you want to dig a hole and pull it in after yourself. Those aren’t forms of harassment.
Not unless that “accident” keeps happening.
Harassment isn’t a case of “oops I slipped and grabbed your boob.” Nor is it a case of “I didn’t mean to offer to fuck someone. Repeatedly. With clarification in case she missed it the first time.” Nor, for that matter, is it a case of “oops I forgot to wear pants to the meeting I arranged in my hotel room” or “here sweetie, give me a massage.”
Harassment doesn’t happen at random. It doesn’t happen because of unfortunate timing and coincidence. Harassment has intent behind it – not “ha ha, I’m going to make this person uncomfortable” but the belief that one person is entitled to the time, attention or body of another. The guy who keeps insisting on massages from his coworkers – even if there’s nothing overtly sexual about it – is declaring that he’s allowed to override their autonomy.
And while people may argue that they don’t realize what they’re doing is wrong… that doesn’t make it better. As I’ve said elsewhere: not understanding boundaries or social norms isn’t an excuse for shitty behavior. You may not mean to step on someone’s foot, but arguing about how you didn’t mean to doesn’t undo the fact that you’re stepping on it.
Insisting that harassment is something that you can accidentally stumble into is, quite honestly, insulting the intelligence of everyone involved.
But while we’re at it:
Nobody Is Confusing Flirting For Harassment
Another repeated “concern” from various corners is that we’re on the verge of making it impossible to flirt with people we find attractive. By being so sensitive – so the argument goes – we run the risk of killing romance entirely. How can you ask somebody out on a date when women are so uptight? Have millennials become so delicate that a compliment is going to offend them? Won’t somebody think of the romance?
The problem is, however, that the people most worried about this have a very different idea of what “compliments” look like. “You have great taste in books,” is a compliment. “Your tits are amazing and I’d love to stick my dick between them” isn’t.
Street harassment, for example, isn’t a compliment. The guys following women, talking about their asses, legs or demanding that she smile and talk to them aren’t paying them compliments. And despite what many will insist, the men who’re saying “hey, you’re beautiful” aren’t doing women any favors either.
This isn’t about paying someone a compliment; it’s about demanding that a woman stop and pay attention to a man. It has nothing to do with what she wants; he’s telling her that his desire for her attention overrides her desire to go about her day without getting bothered.
So it is with flirting. Many of these cases of harassment aren’t cases of “flirting gone awry”, as so many claim. Flirting isn’t one-sided. It’s not about one person saying outrageous things or touching women in order to get them aroused and compliant. Flirting is inherently mutual, a back-and-forth between two interested and consenting parties. It’s about two people building desire together, a playful exchange that everyone has agreed to. Flirting is a welcome game being played, not something that’s imposed upon another person.
Quite frankly, when your version of flirting gets “mistaken” for sexual harassment, then you need to consider that maybe you suck at flirting.
Of course, one of the eternal comebacks is “it’s only harassment if you’re ugly”, which misses a fundamental part of flirting: both parties want that attention. When you insist that the only difference between harassment and flirting are your looks, you’re ignoring that it takes two people to flirt. Continuing to press your case is where your attention is unwanted isn’t flirting.
When somebody is attracted to another person, they’re going to welcome attention from them. They want to flirt and tease and laugh with them. They’re going to not just encourage the behavior but be an active and eager participant. But when that attention is unwelcome, then it’s not flirting any more. Once again: you’re imposing your will over somebody else and telling them that you are entitled to override their desire.
(And it goes without saying that just being attracted to somebody doesn’t give that person free rein. The fact you find someone hot doesn’t preclude you from deciding you don’t want them flirting with you.)
When somebody isn’t interested in taking part, it’s not flirting. When somebody doesn’t want to hear about how hot you think they are, you’re not flirting with them, you’re bothering them. And the longer you try to force them to participate, the more you cross the line from “annoying” to “harassment”.
Nobody’s Mistaking “Jokes” For Harassment Either
Of course, talking about the difference between flirting and harassment wouldn’t be complete without discussing the “it’s a gag, bro” defense. Many harassers – including Dustin Hoffman and Al Franken – framed their behavior as pranks and jokes. He’s pretending to grope her while she sleeps! Isn’t that hilarious?
Dustin Hoffman would play similar “jokes” on his female costars. While performing Death of A Salesman, Hoffman would slide his hand up the inside of costar Katheryn Rossetter’s bare thighs while she was delivering lines via a live mic. One night, instead of just caressing her inner thighs, he flipped her slip over her head – exposing her breasts to the crew who he’d called over to witness his gag. And what jokester could resist the opportunity to cup someone’s breast during a photograph, then pull it away before she had a chance to react?
Much of this gets framed as “guys being guys” and “horsing around”. After all, the ways that guys play pranks on one another is the stuff of bro-comedy. From drawing dicks on the first person to fall asleep at the party to embarrassing photos, it’s all just fun and games, yo. This is behavior that many of us – myself included – grew up with as being normal. But the fact that we were told that it’s all in fun doesn’t make it right. And while people can cry about snowflakes and sensitivity, it doesn’t change the fact these jokes and pranks are based on humiliation. The “fun” of these pictures comes from the discomfort of the other person. Touching Rossetter’s inner thighs during a performance wasn’t a game the two were playing – it was an established, powerful actor taking advantage of someone when she couldn’t react. Rossetter didn’t expose herself to her coworkers because she thought it would be funny; her unwilling nudity was the appeal.
And that’s what makes the difference between flirting and harassment.
It’s Not Flirting vs. Harassment, It’s Object vs. Partner
Of course, not every harassing incident gets dressed up as horsing around or innocent flirting gone awry. Some of the incidents were simply jaw-dropping examples of assholedom. Celebrity chef Mario Batali would simply manhandle women – grabbing them from behind into bearhugs, fondling their butts and pawing at their breasts – and retaliate against anyone who complained. Representative Trent Franks repeatedly pressured female staffers to be the surrogate mother to his child and then would suggest that he inseminate them personally. And of course, there is the wide swath of unsolicited dick pics that get sent to women on a daily basis.
And yet, should you listen to the people wringing their hands, we’re at risk of maligning good men who are just making mistakes. That women don’t understand the culture.
The problem isn’t that women don’t understand when a man is hitting on them, it’s that so many men don’t care. While there are guys who are legitimately terrified of being creepy by accident the bulk of the complaints come not from the nervous and the socially awkward but from people who don’t want to have to do anything differently. Who don’t see why what they’re doing is wrong. Who are bridling at the idea that they might not be able to say whatever they want, to behave however they want.
The throughline of all of the incidents making the media isn’t that these men crossed a thin and blurred line, it’s that they felt entitled to women’s time and attention. To their touch. To their bodies. Whether women consented or not was entirely beyond the point – and in many cases, their discomfort made it all the more appealing. The act of imposing your will on someone else and reminding them that they’re an object becomes a way of trying to project power and authority.
This is why nobody is mistaking innocent flirting for harassment. It’s the difference between treating someone as a partner instead of an object. A partner has autonomy and authority. An object is simply there to be acted upon. But that issue of autonomy is exactly what so many people dislike. Treating someone as a partner and equal participant runs the risk of rejection, of being told “no”. Doing what you want – and then convincing others that this is “just how it is” and that they can’t trust their own judgement – means that you get what you want, wishes be damned.
The pushback is unsurprising; there are many who don’t like being told that they aren’t allowed to act without consequence. Better to derail the discussion into arguments about which behavior is the “real” problem or concern trolling about killing romance than to address just how fucked up the entire system is.
Empathy, Respect and Consent
Here’s the thing: to a certain extent, it’s good that many men are worried about crossing a line without intending to. As perverse as that may sound, the fact is that we have all grown up in a culture and a system that has taught us that this behavior is acceptable. It wasn’t that long ago that sexual harassment, even outright assault was expected behavior at work.
That people are starting to question how to behave is a good thing. While there’s no question that it’s uncomfortable, it’s a sign that people starting to recognize just how fucked up things are. To be sure, the uncertainty can be uncomfortable, as can accepting that you may well have been a jerk and caused others pain.
It’s natural to want to avoid the things that make us uncomfortable. But with that discomfort comes enlightenment, which is why you want to lean into it, not avoid it.
Avoiding women isn’t the answer. Neither is treating women like porcelain figurines. There are women who are just as rough and rowdy as any man, who love inappropriate jokes and sexual humor, just as there are men who dislike the same. The key is simply learning to prioritize empathy, respect and comfort. Pay attention to the comfort of others. Find that mutual respect and treat women like partners.
The difference between harassment and flirting isn’t confusing or hard to see. It’s simply a question of learning to be a better man.