Flirting and Sexual Harassment: Not Actually the Same Thing

I could do a whole series on harmful and irrational responses to sexual harassment claims. First we had the “but it’s a learning opportunity!” defense, and now there’s this sort of thing: “But people are going to flirt. We’re all sexual beings*. We’re all adults here and should be able to deal with some harmless flirting. Grow up.”

Let’s be clear: flirting and sexual harassment are not the same thing. I have been flirted with many times. I have also been sexually harassed many times. The difference is whether or not the person is treating me like a human being with her own agency, with her own preferences and desires.

If you’re cornering me at a bar or party and leering about what a “dirty girl” I must be and we’ve never spoken before, you’re sexually harassing me. If we’re acquaintances and meet up for lunch and you smile in that particular way and say, “You know, you’re really pretty,” you’re flirting. If you’re my friend–just a friend–and I ask you to help me carry some boxes and afterward you say with a knowing smirk, “So, don’t I get a little something in return for this?,” you’re sexually harassing me.

Different people may have different boundaries. You may not know what those boundaries are. But that doesn’t mean they don’t exist, or that you have no responsibility to figure out what they are, or that the people you’re attracted to are required to be okay with any sexual comment or approach you choose to make because “we’re all adults here.”

In communities of geeks, nerds, gamers, atheists, and others who have probably been social outcasts at some point in their lives, accusations of sexual harassment often lead to defensive claims that it was “just flirting” and that the person being accused of harassment is actually just socially inept and didn’t realize they were doing anything wrong. It’s easy to use social awkwardness as a cover for predatory behavior. We’re just awkward! We didn’t really learn social skills as kids! We didn’t do this whole dating thing until our 20s! And so on.

First of all, it’s crucially important to understand that playing innocent is something sexual harassers do to hide their tracks. When caught in the act, they protest that they were “just flirting” and it was “all in good fun” and that they “have no idea what [target] is so upset about.” They pretend to be socially awkward and inept, and that they just “didn’t realize” that their actions would make others feel violated and uncomfortable. They claim that there was a “miscommunication,” although evidence suggests that people are quite good at communicating about boundaries, even if they do so using veiled language.

Accepting prima facie this idea that claims of sexual harassment result from one person being “awkward” and the other person not giving them the benefit of the doubt is harmful, because it allows predators to use awkwardness as an excuse.

But let’s for a moment grant that some people may genuinely not realize that what they’re doing constitutes sexual harassment. They just have bad social skills or learned all their flirting techniques from Mad Men or read a few too many PUA forums. What now?

Well, here are some ways to tell if your “flirting” is edging into sexual harassment territory. It’s not an exhaustive list, and answering “yes” to some of these questions doesn’t necessarily mean you’re harassing someone. It just means you need to be careful and self-reflective.

  • Is this person someone you’ve never interacted with before?
  • Is your “flirting” overtly sexual (i.e. making explicit comments about their appearance, talking about what you’d like to do with them sexually) even though this person has never expressed sexual interest in you?
  • Are you the one doing most of the talking? Is the other person turning away, looking around for other people, giving you monosyllabic answers?
  • Are you in a position of power or authority relative to the person you’re talking to? Are you a conference speaker or organizer, a well-known person in the community, a manager or supervisor at work?
  • Do you have the ability to create consequences for this person if they don’t return your interest? The question isn’t whether or not you will, because they can’t read your mind. The question is whether or not you can.

Primarily, sexual harassment is not about your intentions. It’s about how others perceive your intentions. Others may perceive your intentions as being creepy or dangerous either because they actually are creepy or dangerous, or because you’re not doing a good job of communicating your intentions. And that’s on you. If you’re concerned that people will misread you as being creepy, communicate! Say, “So, I find you really attractive. Want to come back to my room later? If not, no worries.” And then let them say no.

Good flirting requires being good at reading people–their tone, their body language, their word choice, their facial expression. Some people are not very good at reading people. That’s okay! Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. However, the fact that you have a particular weakness does not mean that it’s other people’s job to deal with and work around that weakness. If your social awkwardness makes people feel uncomfortable and violated, it is your responsibility to change your behavior, either by learning better social skills or by communicating more clearly so that people don’t get the wrong impression of you.

This is why it’s so infuriating to hear people making excuses for themselves or their friends that go like this: “But he’s just really socially awkward; it’s not his fault.” “Give her a break, she’s just kind of a weird person.” No. Give people more credit than that. People can change.

For instance, here are some great resources for people trying to develop their social skills, especially when it comes to flirting and dating:

(Feel free to leave more in the comments.)

It’s not always clear where the line between appropriate and inappropriate flirting lies, but that doesn’t mean the line doesn’t exist. If you’re trying to flirt with someone and you don’t know where that line lies, it’s your responsibility to find out. (“Hey, is it cool that I said you’re really pretty? I can totally stop if it’s weird for you.”) It’s not the other person’s responsibility to alert you once you’ve already crossed it, made them feel unsafe, and ruined their evening.

I think the most difficult thing for people to understand about this is that it’s not about intent. When someone with whom you’re not close starts hitting on you, you can’t possibly know how they will react if you ignore or rebuff their advances. You can’t possibly know if they’re just hitting on you for innocent fun or if they’re going to try to get you in bed by whatever means necessary.

Anyone who blames you for not knowing and refusing to assume good intent is being creepy. They’re saying that not hurting someone’s feelings matters more than keeping yourself safe. It does not.

In any case, consensual, mutually enjoyable flirting is a really fucking awesome thing. Let’s not devalue it by pretending that sexual harassment falls under its umbrella.


*We are not all, in fact, “sexual beings.”

Flirting and Sexual Harassment: Not Actually the Same Thing

54 thoughts on “Flirting and Sexual Harassment: Not Actually the Same Thing

  1. 1

    You touch on this in your post, but I’ve found (for myself at least) that flirting works best when I’m having an otherwise completely normal conversation with someone and then suddenly realize, “Oh hey… we’re flirting.”

    I would posit that even approaching somebody with the intention “NOW I WILL FLIRT WITH THIS PERSON” is going about it the wrong way. Particularly, as you say, if you’ve never interacted with them before.

  2. 2

    Flirting is an interaction, a two-way street**, sort of like a dance. It should be fun for both people, or it shouldn’t be happening. Picking someone up in a bearhug and spinning them while they squirm and try to get loose isn’t dancing. Dumping all of your saved-up sexual intent in a person’s lap isn’t flirting. Intent is HUGELY important: you shouldn’t decide where things are going in some concrete way, proper flirting is its own goal, and its own reward.

    If everyone is having fun, and you react in a way that’s matching how the other person is reacting to you, and you escalate in small and nonthreatening steps, then if/when you hit someone’s limit you’ve just nudged it and they can nudge you back rather than you going barrelling through their boundaries like a bull in a China shop. I tend to flirt a lot, and I’m in a monogamous marriage, so if I feel like the flirting is leading in certain directions I’ll just casually drop in a mention of my wife. If I was single and looking, I’d probably drop in a mention of a restaurant I would take a hypothetical date to. That’s when I would usually get the “hey that would be fun” or “hey, I’ll tell my boyfriend about that place” fork in the road. 🙂

    And again, because you’re flirting and not sexual harassing, when you get the “we’re not going any further” hint you should take it and keep talking/flirting at a lower level as appropriate because hey, we’re all friends here having a fun conversation!

    **or more than two, if that’s what everyone’s into.

  3. 3

    I am/was that appallingly socially inept outcast type you mentioned. While I did at least never go further than trying to flirt with uninterested girls (i.e., never did anything other than talk), I missed a lot of (in hindsight) glaringly obvious boundary issues. And, I also was the “Nice Guy”. And from being the “Nice Guy” and the social failure, I dabbled in misogyny a bit, shamed to say. I outgrew it, I’m glad to say.

    Everyone who identifies as/is identified as a geek, nerd, social pariah, should be *REQUIRED* to read this post. My life would have been a lot easier had I grasped those “signals of lack of interest”.

    Just to be clear….my (or anyone else’s) social ineptitude does not excuse anything. It explains it, and shows where an opportunity to educate lies. It is *NOT* incumbent on the woman to promptly educate the clueless schmuck. Looking back, that would never have made it past my (again, ashamed to admit) sense of entitlement. The friends of the clueless one need to try and help him understand.

    Blanket apology to the many women i creeped out with my attempts at flirting…I’m sorry. I know better now, and I’ll make sure my son knows better before he can repeat my mistakes.

  4. 4

    Thank you so much for pointing out we are not all sexual beings. I’m asexual and the whole all sexual being bs makes me want to kick things. Asephobia is so fucking upsetting to me I don’t even want to tackle it. I do want to mention there is an intent difference in flirting sometimes- I flirt because it fun and with the right people can lead to intelligent, witty banter. Some people seem to think flirting is a means to sexual encounter and from what I’ve seen that’s the side that can cross the line into harassment an that ilk.

  5. 5

    In my experience, sexual harassment is exactly the same as flirting but it is unwanted flirting. If a woman is interested in the man, whether he be a total stranger or a friend, coworker, or even boss, it doesn’t matter. All that matters is her interest. If she is interested, it is merely flirting and is not only okay but desirable, if she is not attracted to the man then it is suddenly sexual harassment. Could be the exact same words and actions, said and performed in the exact same manner, the only differentiator is her interest.

      1. Day

        Yes, I would agree with that. I am a woman and when I guy I like says something overtly sexual to me, it’s flirting. If I don’t like the guy then it is unwanted. If he persists after I’ve expressed disinterest, THEN it is harassment. Yes, people have different boundaries… but everyone is free to enforce theirs. We have overly cultivated sensitivities in this society, but if you are sensitive, then you should also have the self-respect to speak your mind. Poor guys being trained to act like women. C’mon, last time I was at a Burner event a guy walked up to me and said, “You’re pretty. Can I make you come?” I burst out laughing and said, “no, I’m good!” He said, “No problem! Have a nice night!” Was that harassment? No, I don’t think so. The comment was EXTREMELY overtly sexual but contextually appropriate. It would have been harassment if he insisted after I refused him. Ladies, take some responsibility for yourselves and STOP EXPECTING MEN TO READ YOUR MINDS. (P.S. I don’t condone this sort of behavior outside of an ectasy-induced love fest). When men are interested they often do very silly things, like make bone-headed remarks or run in the opposite direction. As the superior sex, women need to train them gently, as dogs and children, not get mad at them for blurting out the first thing that crosses their limited frontal cortex.

    1. 5.2

      No, Mark, that’s not how it is. As I’ve written here, the differentiator is not the woman’s (note how my post was gender-neutral, since flirting and sexual harassment do not just happen “by” men “on” women) interest or lack thereof. It’s how the person initiating the flirting (or harassment) signals their intent.

      If I’m not interested in you, and you flirt with me, and I politely smile and nod and look around for my friends and you realize I’m not interested and leave me alone, then you haven’t harassed me, even though I’m not interested. Conversely, if I’m interested in you, and you flirt with me, and then you start calling me a “naughty girl” or asking me how many people I’ve slept with or telling me that you’re just sure I’ll be up for something tonight, then I’m going to feel harassed, even if I was interested in you before. Why? Because you’re being creepy. I’ve had many a great attraction ruined this way, and I’m not alone.

      A woman being interested in you is not suddenly a free pass to act however you want. Everyone has different boundaries, as I said, but most people don’t take kindly to having their boundaries crossed. Their attraction to you will fade quickly. Seriously, just ask me; I was once sexually assaulted by someone I had a huge crush on, one of the most attractive people I’ve ever met. Yup, I didn’t want to do what they wanted to do. Yup, they didn’t let me say no. Nope, the fact that I found them super hot changed nothing. It was sexual assault.

      As has already been recommended, reread the post. I don’t speak for all women, but I am an actual woman, and you should try listening to some of us sometime.

      1. See also “It’s only harassment if the man is unattractive. If he were Brad Pitt, she wouldn’t mind at all.”

        Bullshit. Brad Pitt, Johnny Depp, George Clooney, etc. are perfectly capable of harassing people.

        Further, the fact that some women do not mind being harassed if it comes from a man they find attractive does not make harassment okay.

      1. Also implies a universal standard of “ugly/attractive” which all women adhere to, and implies that those standards of attractiveness trump all other issues, such as concerns over boundary issues.

        1. There is certainly close enough to a universal standard of “ugly/attractive.” And Anonymous Mark didn’t state that he harasses women on a regular basis. Any ugly guy is going to figure out very quickly that his interest is (near enough to) universally unwanted, and the majority just stop then.

          1. But maybe not. I knew a guy (a supervisor where I worked) who was decidedly ungood-looking. He was also a raging alcoholic, short, and had a nasty disposition. Not a nice person in general and certainly not someone you would look at and think of as a “player”.

            This guy slept with more women in a month than I have in a lifetime. Because every single time he saw a woman he was interested in, he “flirted” with her. He could be very charming, and his language skills were impeccable. He had that “gift”, if you could call it that.

            I once asked him about it, and he basically said “you never know until you ask.” He said he got shot down 95% of the time, but the other 5% made up for it.

            This guy also knew when to cut his losses – ‘she’s not interested, OK; moving on’. And to not cross over from flirting to harassment. Because once you cross the line, as Miri points out, you can’t uncross it.

          2. That’s my situation. I’ve basically given up even trying to date (let alone flirt) for like 10-15 years now. I still get angry rejections by women about every six months, when she apparently mistakes my bland civility (the same I use with men, just to be pleasant and avoid conflict) as flirting. The women in question here are women I pretty much have to talk to because they’re in the service industry and I’m trying to order a coffee or whatever. At this point in the interaction I’ve only said “hi” or “morning” so it’s hard to imagine it’s based on anything other than my ugly face.

            How do I know these reactions are angry rejections? I don’t for sure, but they fit the behavior and they sure feel like it: intense stare, snarl of disgust, and short, clipped, angry word choices. And these women don’t behave the same way with other customers. It looks a lot like “this guy made a pass and I’m trying to make it very clear that I don’t like him without explicitly saying so”. A sort of “how dare you talk to me” response. And again — all I’ve said at this point is “hey” and I’m about to place my coffee order. It’s always a weird shock because I’m never even thinking about social interaction, and then this loathing is dumped in my lap.

            It makes me wonder how many women think I’m flirting with them, but chose to just ignore it. And I have no idea why they’d think I’m flirting.

            Actually it hasn’t been a problem for the last year or so because I’ve found a nifty trick — keep your smartphone out and make it very clear that you’re more interested in it than them. It seems rude to me (I used to put it away when I get to the front of the line, to communicate clearly and be polite), to sort of talk to the person behind the counter like they’re an afterthought, and sometimes I’ll put the phone away to be polite when talking to men (who aren’t threatened by me talking directly to them), but women respond better — don’t get as angry — when I make a show of barely acknowledging their existence. Again — it sure seems rude to me, I don’t like it, but it gets a better response.

            I didn’t give my real name and email. Let’s see if this message even gets posted.

          3. It got posted.

            Though I really don’t know how to respond. There’s a piece missing in this story; I’m certain of it.

            I say that because I’m also decidedly not good-looking, but I have never, ever had a stranger who happens to be a woman treat me that way. In grade school I was bullied, and a favorite one of the girls I went to school with was “you’re ugly”, but whenever I go to order something, or otherwise buy something, and the person checking me out is a woman, the absolute worst I’ve ever gotten is just not much conversation at all beyond “is that all?” “Yes.” “Have a good day.” “You, too.”, with the absolute best being once when I got yelled at by other customers for having a really long Batman discussion with the cashier… she made note of my shirt and we started talking… and it was pretty clear that she knew more about Batman than I did, and I’m kind of obsessed…

            I wasn’t distracting her from her job. I moved aside and others checked out while we talked. I think some customers just wanted some attention from her, and she was giving all the attention that wasn’t on her job to me. She became a friend.

            I pretty much get friendly, or at least pleasant, interactions these days.

            So I’m trying to figure out what’s different in your case. Maybe the local culture where you are is just ruder? Maybe you have an unrecognized habit of unintentionally leering at them (it’s totally okay if you do and don’t know it! It took me years to realize that I did this, myself, so don’t feel bad about it! Just try and keep a mental note about how you act in public; it’s actually really easy to change and no one will demonize you for being a bit awkward… and you know what… you may find you don’t do this, which is totally awesome! But it’s always good to take stock of our social behavior every now and again, anyways… at least, I find it helpful for me…)? Maybe you’re just that person who always shows up an a bad day?

            How many women are you talking about? 1? 2? 100? Don’t know? Does this happen literally everywhere you go, or just in the local area where you live? That is, have you ever gone on vacation to another state or country and had this same thing happen?

            I’m trying to figure out that missing something. I really do believe that something is being misread in these interactions because, based on my personal experience, I really don’t believe that people (both men and women) are that mean and shallow, regardless of looks. Could be your fault, or theirs, or both of yours, or nobody’s… it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that it has to be more than your looks. I feel pretty confident in saying that because… again… I’ve not ever had that happen and I’m in the same boat looks-wise as you.

    2. Rob

      This comment is being overrun like you are blaming the woman. First off, I appreciate the diplomacy of the article keeping the gender of the person doing the sexual harassment non-gender specific. I applaud that, but realistically these sorts of things are moreso aimed at men. I agree with Mark entirely, but feel compelled to add this is not meant to cast blame on the woman as if it’s her fault for not finding the man attractive. Men should be able to read the cues if she is not interested and cease with their flirting or else it becomes sexual harassment. However, yes, if another man she is really into basically does the exact same thing and she likes it then it is not sexual harassment. Please, if anyone disagrees, tell me how this is wrong.

  6. 6

    In a professional environment, treat both of them the same. Do not flirt and do not harass anyone sexually. That way you will not have to guess and figure out

    Is your “flirting” overtly sexual (i.e. making explicit comments about their appearance, talking about what you’d like to do with them sexually) even though this person has never expressed sexual interest in you?

    because flirting can be overtly sexual without being sexual harassment and then to hinge it on, “Wait, wasn’t Todd really giving me those sexy vibes last night at the company picnic?”

  7. 7

    Funny how some fools are always “We’re all adults here and should be able to deal with some harmless flirting. Grow up.” But, REJECTION, BEING LABELED CREEPY and HURT FEELINGS — completely unacceptable!

    1. 7.1

      I know! I find that hilarious. People don’t really talk about this enough, but learning how to handle rejection–as a partner, as a friend, as a potential employee, as anything–is an absolutely crucial skill. Just as crucial as learning how to make those overtures in the first place.

      1. Is the general topic of “handling rejection” something that you might blog about?

        I’m getting ready to do some internet reading about the topic if “handling criticism” because I personally suck at it. AND I am writing a novel, and if I were more suave and open about handling criticism (without collapsing into a pool of tears), I am sure my novel would benefit a great deal from feedback from beta readers. (It isn’t finished.)

        If anyone has learned this skill as a late bloomer and has a tip for me, thank you.

        1. Yeah, I could definitely do that. But for me it would be from the perspective of someone who’s had depression and self-hatred issues, because that’s the only perspective I have on it. Namely, for me the biggest issue with rejection and criticism has been trying to avoid feeling like I AM A TERRIBLE PERSON WHO SUCKS AT EVERYTHING EVER AND IS TOTALLY WORTHLESS. But maybe lots of people struggle with this.

      2. Heh, that reminded me of one of the classics, SlushKiller at Making Light, which is all about how writers handle rejection notices from editors. One of the bits from Teresa Nielsen Hayden, under ‘Remembrances of Louts Past’, went as follows:

        An eon or two ago, when I was a girl and occasionally went on dates, I observed that there was a species of young man who’d be perfectly pleasant right up to the point where I declined to go to bed with him. Then he’d turn nasty and angry—all bridges burnt, not even minimally polite. It was clear that the sole thing that mattered was whether I’d put out.
        I haven’t thought about those boys in decades. What brought them back to memory today was reading Frustrated novelist from Calgary’s comments on a wonderfully kind, generous editorial letter…

  8. 9

    As far as resources for the socially awkward dude looking to improve his dating related social skills, I really like Mark Manson’s stuff. He’s an ex-PUA with a really good take on undoing the toxic thinking that can pervade PUA culture and which drives a lot of advice. His advice on relationships focuses a lot on self reflection and improving one’s own sense of self worth, by, among other things, holding yourself accountable for your actions. He has some great posts about feeling like a victim because women won’t pay attention to you, and about dealing with your internalized misogyny. I find his focus on the gendered nature of things to be problematic, but the audience he’s writing for is overwhelmingly socially frustrated dudes who would otherwise be cruising PUA sites, so it makes sense in context.

  9. 10

    It took me many years to understand that there are a lot of “good” guys who grew up with a real blind spot around the expectation that their desires were somehow of paramount importance. They would listen, agree to whatever I asked, then go right ahead as if no agreement had taken place. All the while thinking they were in the right. Having all sorts of crazy or tortuous justifications so that, in their own minds they were still the “good” guy. When they were caught out, it was obvious that it had made much more sense in their heads than when they had to really explain it out loud.
    So, I have started calling bullshit. And that is what any justification for harassment is. It’s just too fricken bad if they get all butt hurt and lash back at you when you call them on it. Their anger is just a strategy (conscious or not) to shut you down. The level of backlash is usually proportional to how much they want to protect their blind spot. So I am now able to observe without taking it personally, and I call bullshit on the backlash too.
    I also take every opportunity to tell young people (especially girls) to pay attention and react to what people (especially guys) do, and not so much to what they say. Because some people (can you say “Bob Filner?) don’t want to learn and don’t learn until they have to.

    1. 10.1

      Their anger is just a strategy (conscious or not) to shut you down.

      But I think the anger of a regular guy (not a serial harasser like Filner) is also for self-protection. A rejected man, or any person, has the choice of thinking that they DESERVE to be rejected (which could lead to a painful sense of worthlessness) or the could choose to think that the person who rejected them was WRONG and TERRIBLE. Even if the person who said “no” wasn’t wrong and terrible, if I was rejected, I’d probably prefer to think of the situation that way. Blame can lead to disappointment. It takes a pretty highly evolved person to accept all the blame onto themselve. (Disclaimer: I know I am being unsympathetic to the people that are being “hit on” by stopping and trying to be sympathetic to the person doing the propositioning. I’ve been married a very long time, so I’m looking at the issue from a great distance and the “antagonists” haven’t hurt me for a long time, which makes empathy possible.)

  10. 11

    Miri, since you brought up rejection, I just want to point this out before someone comes in with it:

    To any Nice Guy/MGTOW/MRA… rejection may be a staple of your (non-existent/Forever Alone) dating life, but that doesn’t mean you’ve learned how to deal with it.

    And I can say that from very personal experience.

    So to any potential Nice Guys or MGTOWs or MRAs who come in here with that “but bitchez just keep rejecting me and it’s not fair!!!11!!!!!elebenty!!!!11!11!!!!”, that does not mean you know how to handle it.

    In fact, if those rejections are the reason you’re a Nice Guy or MGTOW or MRA, then you really don’t know how to handle it… at all. In fact, that’s probably a good place to start as to why you keep getting rejected.

    Seriously… it starts with a mirror.

  11. 12

    I was at GenCon recently, in the board game room. A guy walked in with nobody to game with, and I invited him to join my son and I. After a few minutes of chatting and setting up the game, he started making a fairly awkward pass. I casually mentioned my husband, the gentleman immediately stopped the pass, and we went on to share a fun couple hours of gaming.

    No cornering me.
    No creepy boundary testing
    No anger.
    No stomping away.
    No continuing to hit on someone who gave an indicator of not interested.
    No acting like I was a total bitch for ‘leading him on’.

    Just an oh well, worth a shot, okay now let’s get back to gaming.

    And this was from a very ‘stereotypical’ white cisgender male geek wearing a flying spaghetti monster button who admitted to not having any friends to accompany him to the con.

    Almost brought tears to my eyes.

      1. If it had turned out he was local to any of the folks with whom I’d attended the con, I’d have made sure introductions were made. Including to the unattached ladies. I’m actually kind of sorry he wasn’t, as it turns out, he was also the kind of ‘rules lawyer’ it’s nice to have at the table – the kind that shuts up and lets the DM make a call, but is always on hand to clarify a rule if there is a question.

  12. 13

    It’s not always clear where the line between appropriate and inappropriate flirting lies, but that doesn’t mean the line doesn’t exist. If you’re trying to flirt with someone and you don’t know where that line lies, it’s your responsibility to find out.

    Another thing: an innocent fuck up is different than most sexual harrassment. An innocent fuck up is followed by an apology and a commitment to trying harder to not fuck up in the future. If the person in front of you is doubling down on their harrassment, they’re likely more concerned with how they’re percieved than they are about not harrassing.

    1. 13.1

      Exactly. I’ve had this happen many times. I’ve had to assert my boundaries many times by being like, “Hey, it makes me feel really uncomfortable when you do [thing]” or “Hey, could you please not make comments about my appearance? It’s a little awkward for me.” Well-meaning people apologize and stop, even if they don’t understand why I don’t like it. I, too, have had people ask me not to say or do certain things to/around them, and I stop saying and doing those things.

  13. 14

    In my experience, sexual harassment is exactly the same as flirting but it is unwanted flirting.

    On this (rather asinine) note: I remember a commenter on Karen Stollznow’s recent sexual harrassment post arguing that it was unfair to accuse men of sexual harrassment since “it was really just flirting and anyway she let that other guy do it,” (paraphrased).

    These attitudes are, unfortunately, common.

    1. 14.1

      I’ve also heard *a very small contingent of males* to make a case that ANY sexual advance should get a kind of ‘free one time only pass’ since a man can’t possibly know a woman doesn’t want him to grope her unless he’s done it. It seems kind of untenable, as if there can’t exist some helpful blanket standards of things you just don’t do to people unless you know for sure they want it, but it’s worth knowing what ridiculous shit is out there.

      1. Yeah, I’ve seen that before. What’s funny is that they are almost literally asking to be punched in the face.

        For some, physical violence is sexually attractive, yet I’m very certain that they would (rightly) be mad if someone physically hurt them in some way without asking first.

        1. Yeah, these guys *never* want to push the ‘one free pass for any advance’ to the logical conclusion. They’d probably not like *some other guy* grabbing their crotch since hey, how do they know that they’re not into that?

          Perhaps it’s just an extreme form of the ‘you can’t expect me to have any social skills’ argument – not only do some men (not most) want to be exempted from having to read cues from women, they ask to be absolved from having to be aware of any norms for non-threatening behavior around strangers.

  14. 15

    “It’s not the other person’s responsibility to alert you once you’ve already crossed it, made them feel unsafe, and ruined their evening.”

    This is very true, but the fact is, in a lot of harassment cases, the other person HAS explicitly alerted the harasser that the line is there and has been crossed. They are just “too socially awkward” to understand coy phrasing like “That was out of line” or “You’re making me uncomfortable.”

    You also didn’t mention that often the defense is “I thought she was just playing hard-to-get! How are we supposed to tell the DIFFERENCE when SO MANY WOMEN do that?” (and I haven’t actually seen anyone claim that men do that, so I’m not using GN language, but feel free to inform me).

    To that, I say, “Do not reward ‘playing hard-to-get’ by continuing to pursue. It’s a mind-game. If a woman rejects your advances, the response should ALWAYS be to halt those advances. Then if she was legitimately rejecting your advances, you don’t cross the line, and if she was ‘playing hard-to-get,’ she might not next time.” In other words, if women actually are “playing hard-to-get”, that is a dynamic that their pursuers are fully participating in by playing the game right back at them. And they have the power to end it.

    1. 15.1

      The playing hard-to-get thing is a really important issue too, especially because many women are complicit in it. Many women do play hard-to-get, because they’ve been taught that that’s the only acceptable way to express their sexuality.

      Some men see it as their mission to “break through” these women’s defenses and “liberate” them from this tendency, but I find that completely disgusting. First of all, how convenient that “liberating” women involves getting them to do what you want sexually. Second, it’s not anyone’s job to “fix” anyone else.

      I really like your response and I’ve never thought about it that way before. It’s true. Why wouldn’t you value a partner who communicates openly and honestly rather than one who doesn’t? Why would you want to be with someone who won’t tell you what they’d like? There are plenty of fish in the sea; spend your time and affection on people who have developed the skills to build healthy relationships (and yes, one-night relationships count).

      1. I’ve both passed on romantic and/or sexual opportunities because a woman was “playing hard to get,” and had guys defend harassing behavior to me with exactly that defense. The answer always seemed obvious to me; if you actually want women to not “play hard to get,” then you wouldn’t reward the ploy with your romantic and sexual attention. You would back off entirely, showing her that acting like she’s not interested won’t get her anywhere.

        Incidentally, this has the nice bonus of respecting her fucking wishes if (shocker) she meant it when she said that she wasn’t interested.

  15. 16

    When we hear that Harassy Dude X is just super socially awkward, sometimes I think that we shouldn’t shy away from responding, “Well then, as shitty as it is for him … he really shouldn’t flirt at all, should he?”

    I am totally that guy. I tried for years to read people’s normal, seemingly obvious social cues (i.e., women’s social cues, since I’m a straight guy) to figure out when I crossed that boundary between flirting and harassing. I just can’t do it. I absolutely cannot tell when a woman that I’m really interested in is subtly flirting back, or when she’s profoundly uncomfortable.

    And we can whine that women aren’t clear, that they could always come right out and say “not interested; please leave me be,” but they totally never do that, dudes! Yeah, sometimes, … but we can’t blame women for that at all. Women have been trained hard to decline without declining, to reject without rejecting, often under threat of violence.

    I know it sucks, fellow socially-awkward guys, but at some point, yeah, I had to admit to myself that I simply cannot flirt without likely harassing a woman, at least at some point. And if “not harassing a woman” is actually a priority, then I just can’t flirt.

    1. 16.1

      I am totally that guy. Sometimes I feel like I should be walking around with a neon sign over my head say “CLUELESS.” Socially awkward, inept, clueless or whatever you way with to call it.

      I know it and I accept it. In that light, I tend to try to avoid situations where there might be potential of my making a complete ass of myself. I do have a small group of friends that understand my utter and complete lack of understanding, and that do occasionally delight in my foot-in-mouth disease.

      But they are also the people that protect me from myself and are kind enough to try to offer insights and advice into where and when I screw up.

      I have even gone so far as to start a conversation with a lady I found very attractive with “I like you, but I’m probably going to say something stupid. Please don’t hold it against me. Just tell me, slap me, stop me, throw something at me or whatever so I have a chance to redeem myself.”

      1. That’sa bullseye with admitting up front that you aren’t good as subtle flirting. If the other person is looking for someone that is good at flirting, they wouldn’t be right for you anyway. It’s not that we have to be excluded from the environment or opportunities, we just have to be ourselves.

    2. 16.2

      I don’t know. Is there any other disability where people who have it are told they have to just not participate in society? (Around here, at least?)

      I think the point here is that harassment isn’t due to awkwardness or disability-related social difficulties. The patterns are entirely different.

  16. 17

    Azkyroth, I suffer from (among other things) a rather severe social phobia. One of the things I have chosen not to do is flirt, because I know (from experience) that it comes off creepy, no matter how genuine my intentions are. There were times when I tried to flirt not for sex reasons, but just for fun… and it still came off creepy. Part of the reason is because I’ve only been able to recognize cues of awkwardness/uncomfortableness for the last two years… I’m 26 now. Though I stopped flirting about four years ago because even though I didn’t recognize the cues, I did realize it wasn’t working and that it was probably my fault. However, I still spent a number of years flirting well beyond my welcome.

    So as a sufferer from social phobia, I indeed support telling people like me to just not flirt… at least until we learn how to do it properly. Even people like me can learn how to read cues, and it’s probably better for us to wait until we’ve actually learned these things before engaging in behavior that toes such a fine line, as flirting does.

    I see it as protecting people like me. I built a reputation, unintentionally, of course, as a creep because of it. When you find out that people think you’re creepy when you only have the absolute best intentions at heart, that is fucking devastating. I know why MRAs and Nice Guys(TM) would love to make “creep” a “dirty word”… because it is a negative word. Back when I was a Nice Guy(TM) and closet MRA, I was just as against the words “creep” and “creepy” as they are, mainly because I hated being known as one.

    But in these cases it’s also a good word, as it describes this behavior so accurately, and it was a revelation (so to speak) when I realized it was actually kind of true about me.

    If socially awkward/phobic people like me just stopped flirting, at least until we learned how to read social cues (which is possible… I know), it would be better for us. We would actually get a better reputation because of it. I know I’d rather be known as “that socially awkward shy guy” then “that creep who can’t seem to get that we’re not interested”, largely because “socially awkward shy [person]” can still be likeable… a creep can’t.

  17. 19

    Feminists are hideous gargoyles and, frankly, you do nothing to impugn that.
    Also, I believe that you would see the ludicrousness of the overwhelming majority of your articles if ever you manage to get some good dick in that dusty hole of yours.

  18. Ace

    You also have to keep in mind that sometimes two people can flirt with each other for months before the relationship grows sour. Then when the relationship grows sour, one can FALSELY accuse the other of sexual harassment as a form of vengeance or revenge for the workplace breakup, so we really don’t know how many accusations of sexual harassment are true or false. There is a lot of grey territory between mutual flirting and sexual harassment that never gets discussed, and sometimes people play the harassment card to hurt others who rejected them or who they are no longer dating.

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