What’s the difference between flirting and harassment?

April 11, 2014 — Leave a comment

This is a very thoughtful response to a tricky and divisive question. However, the article fails to fully recognise one important complication that is at the very root of the controversy surrounding this question.

As the article points out, harassment can be flirting “gone wrong” or flirting in and un-“sensitive” manner, but then surely it can also be unintended? There is a huge grey area here that is not mention, between flirting and harassment, a grey area usually occupied by ugly, unfortunate or mislead men. The clear line draw in the article, between the two, is only clearly visible in the eyes of a woman. The perpetrators of harassment simply can’t see it in some cases… leading to them crossing over from flirting and into harassment territory.

Rightly of wrongly, in the endless dance we call flirting, the man is often the proactive agent. So, he is far more likely to act in an unwanted manner if he miss-reads or miss-interprets the body language / situation. If every time a mislead sexual advance is rebuffed, we call it harassment, then men start to feel victimised.

I’m not talking about those who try and pass off harassment as “harmless flirtation” or those who harass because they do not try to understand the woman. I’m talking about those who thought they read the woman correctly, and genuinely intended on flirting, but were interpreted as harassing. Reading body language is notoriously difficult and hopeful, hetrosexual men are probably more prone to it that most. Unintended harassment is still harassment and the woman has a right to defend herself and criticise it. But it is not the same as intended, malicious or aggressive harassment. As I’ve maintained, there is a blurry line between the two, so both parties have a right to disagree.

Sexual harassment is clearly a huge huge problem, but there will always be instances when it was unintended as such. We must allow for the grey area and the mislead men who find themselves in it. Failing to engage with the male perspective leads to ugly, arrogant articles like the one in the Guardian yesterday, “Flirting or sexual harassment? A six-pint checklist?” Such articles only serve to give feminism a bad name, particularly in the eyes of sexist men who need feminism the most.



Ms Rebecca Reilly-Cooper, a political philosopher in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Warwick, gave a response to this re-blog that i feel is really worth sharing here. She draws more nuanced distinctions than were present in the original article and I agree with her on many points.

“Thanks for your comment Liam.

I thought I was very clear that harassment is NOT “flirting gone wrong”. I do not think that it is. It is a completely different species of behaviour, for the reasons I have identified here.

When flirting goes wrong, the useless Flirt is still trying to interpret the body language and micro-behaviours of the other to assess whether his advances are welcome. It just turns out he isn’t very good at doing that, and so makes a mistake.

The Harasser does not try to interpret these things because he does not care whether or not his advances are welcome. He is going to proceed regardless.

For this reason, I don’t think unintended harassment is actually that likely. I think if you are really, genuinely, trying your best not to impose yourself or someone or make them feel threatened or intimidated, they won’t feel these things. They might feel awkward or embarrassed at your inept flirting. But if you’re really, genuinely trying not to harass someone, you probably won’t end up harassing them.

I did not say that every time a misread signal leads to a rebuffed advance this is harassment. I think women are perfectly sensitive to the difference between a well-intentioned sexual advance (however undesired this may be), and sexual harassment. We get enough practice at dealing with them.”

More radical with age

As a couple of recentarticles have perfectly illustrated, whenever feminists try to talk about the issue of sexual harassment – be it the catcalls and leers that women commonly experience while minding their own business walking down the street, or just good old-fashioned workplace sexual harassment – they are inevitably met with the supposedly killer objection: “but isn’t a lot of this just harmless flirtation? What’s your problem with people trying to flirt with you?”

The power of this response comes from the fact that nobody wants to be the frigid old prude who objects to friendly, good-natured, charming men paying you a well-intentioned compliment. We all enjoy being flirted with, at least sometimes. But if you say that men shouldn’t make advances towards women they find attractive, aren’t you in effect saying that we should prohibit flirting?

I think this response is usually rather disingenuous, because it’s pretty clear that objections to workplace and street harassment have got nothing…

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