In The New '10s, with the Internet, and specifically the MeToo and TimesUp hashtagsnote trending on Twitter and Tumblr, the issue of sexual harassment was brought into the forefront of many people's consciousness. The increased focus on this complex topic has left many people wondering what constitutes sexual harassment, and how they can avoid facing civil or criminal charges, or even if they can flirt anymore. This page gives a primer on what sexual harassment is, how it's different from flirting, and behaviors that are best avoided if you want to avoid being on the wrong side of the aforementioned hashtags or causing undue harm and distress to other people.
What is sexual harassment, anyway?
Sexual harassment is defined as any type of physical contact, verbal comments, body language, etc. that is simultaneously sexual in nature and unwelcome and unwanted. It is defined by the person on the receiving end of the behavior, not the giving end. Flirting can easily become sexual harassment if the flirting is unwanted, especially if you continue after the person has made it clear that they're not interested and/or uncomfortable. It can be committed by and against people of all genders and sexualities.
How do I know if I've crossed a line?
You need to become attuned to the other party's body language. Are they shrinking back? Do they seem annoyed? Are they crying? Did they straight-up tell you to stop? Are they saying everything's fine, but their tone or body language strongly suggests that they're uncomfortable? If so, you need to backpedal, fast. And, yes, we realize that these types of nonverbal hints and cues can be tricky, but they're something you need to practice and become aware of. Being socially awkward or unaware is not an excuse. Notice, too, that it's impact, not intentions that matter. You might not mean to make them unsafe or uncomfortable, but that's irrelevant; what's relevant is that they feel unsafe and uncomfortable.
What behaviors should I avoid, and what should I do?
- Do not stand too close to the person you're talking to. "Personal space" may vary in different countries and cultures, and even among relationship or social contexts (such as with your best friend versus a casual acquaintance, see No Sense of Personal Space and Cuddle Bug for more info), but the concept is always there. If they're leaning away from you, take a step back or scoot over.
- Do not touch someone without their permission. This goes for any type of touching, whether it's a hand on their shoulder, a hug, a high five, a handshake, a kiss, or anything else. This also includes things like touching wheelchairs and other mobility aids. If you're not sure, ask. Or, refrain from touching them. Others, at their discretion and their right, may at all costs refuse a handshake from you, see Handshake Refusal.
- Do not corner or block them. This is a threatening gesture, and should be avoided at all costs. Don't block them from leaving the conversation, or back them into a place where they can't leave. And on that note...
- If they try to leave, don't follow them. If they're leaving your conversation, they're leaving for a reason. What that reason is, is no concern of yours. Let them go.
- Flirt only in places coded as social. Social places are places where, well, where people go to socialize. Examples of these places are parties, bars, cafes, and Fan Conventions. Non-social places are places where people are going to do other things, with socializing either a very distant second or not even on their radar. These include houses of worship, gyms, libraries, public transit, and stores. And even in the social places, if they're hinting or telling you that they're uncomfortable or uninterested, STOP and leave them be.
- Do not flirt with service personnel while they're working. They are not free to leave or end the conversation, and they have to bite their tongue more than they want to. If they do, they can be fired, reprimanded, or have their pay docked. Don't take advantage of that by flirting. (And don't track down their contact info and flirt with them off the clock, either!)
- Do not share Explicit Content with people you don't know well. Sending a picture of your genitals to someone you've just met is no different than flashing your genitals on the subway. Same with asking for sexual favors, or discussing your sex life. That's not to say that those topics have no place in conversation, or that your genitals are ugly. Just reserve those topics and pictures for people you know well, and that you know where you stand with, and that you know would be interested.
- Do not flirt at work. Save the flirting for your free time. Not only does it look unprofessional, it makes your coworkers uncomfortable and can get you fired. (Office Romances are almost always a bad idea.) If you are a manager or above, or if you interact directly with clients/patients/students/etc., then you need to take extra precautions. Think chaperones, meetings with the door open, witnesses, etc., so long as doing so won't violate their privacy or confidentiality. And never use your position or status to take advantage of anyone, or threaten to get them fired or demoted if they don't do what you want. (This includes situations where the other person is at work, but you aren't. Waiters, salespeople, baristas, bartenders, and the like are in situations where they can't freely leave, and are frequently punished for displeasing customers, even just by turning down advances.)
- Make sure they can consent. This includes making sure they're of legal age, they're conscious and interested, and that there's no power imbalance. Remember, too, that consent can be revoked at any time, for any reason, or for no reason at all. And know that only an enthusiastic yes constitutes consent: choice of clothing, flirting, presence at a party, relationship status, or even previous consent don't constitute consent.
- Realize that they owe you nothing. You are not entitled to sex, a relationship, their time, etc. No matter what. Even if they're your spouse or significant other, or already did XYZ with you, or you paid for dinner/drinks/a diamond/anything else. Rejection sucks, but it's part of life. And you don't have the right to keep pestering them, or to badmouth them, or to force yourself on them.
- Use empathy. Ask yourself, "If I were in their shoes, and someone (maybe bigger and stronger, maybe in a position of authority, maybe scary-looking, maybe in a place I can't easily escape) was flirting with me, would I be OK with that?"
- Do not stare or leer. It makes people feel threatened and unsafe, even if that's not your intent.
- Save the Grand Romantic Gesture for Rom Coms. Most people perceive these as over-the-top and desperate, not sexy. You're far more likely to make them feel embarrassed or uncomfortable. And even though they don't owe you anything, they'll look like a Jerkass if they reject you. And it won't change their mind if they're unavailable, uninterested, and/or incompatible with you. If you're determined to do one (for example, a marriage proposal on the Jumbotron at the Super Bowl, in the middle of the halftime show), make sure that the target of your gesture is a) someone you know well and b) that they would appreciate it and not feel embarrassed or put on the spot. The same goes for love letters and gifts.
- Give appropriate gifts. Save overly-romantic, intimate, or expensive gifts for people you know well, and who would appreciate them. If it's someone you don't know very well (e.g. a friend of a friend who's hosting a party you're attending, a "Secret Santa" at the office Christmas party, a Yankee-swap where anyone could get your gift at random, or someone you've only been seeing for a short while), tone it down. This also includes gift cards; a gift card to Amazon is better for someone you're less acquainted with than a gift card to Victoria's Secret. (Even if it is for someone you know well, show that you're attuned to what they like and how they like to receive gifts.)
- Do not make lewd comments or gestures. If you wouldn't do it or say it in front of your grandma, your pastor, your boss, on national TV, etc., don't do it or say it on the street, or to anyone else.
- Compliment something other than their appearance. There's far more to them than a pretty face, or an attractive body. Maybe they crushed it on their presentation. Maybe you like their jacket. Maybe they just know a lot about a topic you're interested in. Compliment that. Keep it simple. And don't put others down to build them up, "neg" them, or make it about you and your turn-ons. Especially, don't bring their race, ethnicity, religion, etc. into the picture.
- Realize that just because they're in a public space doesn't mean they are a public space. Again, no gross comments or gestures, no unwelcome touching, no honking/whistling/hooting/etc.
- Do not inundate them with texts, phone calls, emails, letters, messages, Snapchats, etc. One call/text/email/etc. is fine, but flooding them with messages (especially if they haven't even had a chance to reply) is not. And you might have to accept that they just have nothing to say to you.
- Do not display or show off Hentai, Yaoi, Lemon fanfics, pages from nudie magazines, pornography, or other obscene or sexually-oriented content. This also includes Sexy Firefighters calendars and Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue pictures, and even artwork featuring nude figures. If you do it at work or school, this can get you in trouble. Enjoy them, but do so in private. People don't like having that stuff just sprung on them out of the blue.
- Do not participate in Slut-Shaming or "locker-room talk". And call out those who do, or change the subject. (e.g. "Guys, that's gross", or "Dude, not funny", or "So, did you see the game last night?") Or get up and leave. Yes, it takes courage, but sometimes you need to evacuate to higher moral ground. Courage will get you there.
- If they seem drunk, or high, or otherwise impaired, don't flirt with them, or do anything else with them. Get them somewhere safe, or call them a cab. Don't take advantage of them.
- If someone shares intimate photos or messages with you, don't share them. They are not public property, nor were they ever. Nor are they meant for you to blackmail them with, or get revenge on them with if the relationship goes sour. If you wouldn't distribute copies of their house key, don't distribute intimate photos or messages they sent you. Not to your friends, not to their friends and family, and most definitely not on the Internet.
- Do not get pregnant or force your partner to get pregnant without their consent. Having a baby is a huge life-changing decision that shouldn't be made lightly. (And no, it won't make them love you more, or make them want to marry you, or prove that they love you, or solve your relationship problems.) Don't lie about or sabotage your own birth control, or sabotage theirs. And make sure you're using it correctly. If you want to have a baby with your partner, talk to them about it first, and make sure they're OK with it. If they're not, then either use protection, or don't have sex with them at all.
- If you have a kink or a fetish, don't spring it on your partner out of the blue. Talk to them about it, before things get hot and heavy. And if they make it clear that they're not into it, don't do it at all.
- Do not confuse "flirting" with "being friendly". And realize that what may be friendly or flirty to you, might well be threatening or "creepy" to someone else. A good rule of thumb is, "Would I do/say this to or around someone I wasn't attracted to?" If the answer is no, then you're flirting...which is OK if it's welcomed by the other party, but not OK if it's not.
- Do not "accidentally" show up at the same places. Once or twice might be an accidental encounter, but more than that is stalking. And they'll know.
- Do not make Harassing Phone Calls.
- Be polite when dancing with people. Don't "cut in" if they're dancing with someone else, don't assume that they want more (or that you're entitled to more), stop if they feel uncomfortable, and don't just start dancing with them out of the blue. (This goes double for dances like grinding.)
- Do not rape anyone. Rape is any sexual contact that is unwanted. If they say "no" or "stop" and you continue, or if they're under the influence of drugs or alcohol, too scared to say no, crying, or trying to get away, and you continue, that's rape. And it's rape regardless of their gender or sex, what they're wearing, where this all takes place, their sexual history, their reputation, their relationship to you, whether they were flirty or shy, or any other factors. You can, must, and should stop if your partner feels uncomfortable. Go no further or faster than they wish.
- Do not ask intimate questions too soon. Few people want to discuss their sex lives, sexual fantasies, sexual history or experiences, etc. with a stranger or casual acquaintance, generally speaking. This doesn't mean you have to only Talk About the Weather, but save those particularly personal questions for when you know them better. Even then, if they don't want to talk about it, change the subject.
- Don't be a pest. If you get rejected, don't go asking why, or trying to change their mind. There could be a million reasons why, not all of which have to do with you personally. (Many of them don't, in fact.) Maybe they're already in a relationship. Maybe it's a case of Incompatible Orientation. Maybe they're just not interested in dating right now. Maybe they don't have anything in common with you. Maybe they like you, but only as a friend. You could be the best you you can be, and they could still want someone else. Whatever the reason, they don't owe you an explanation. (And no, they're probably not rejecting you because they're mean... or because you're a loser, or they think you're a loser.) Just accept it as gracefully as you can and move on.
- Do not police anyone's clothing or body. It's not your place to tell someone what they should or shouldn't be wearing. That's for them to decide. They make decisions regarding clothing, makeup, hairstyle, etc. for themselves, not for you, and not with your input or turn-ons in mind. And they deserve respect (see below) no matter how much or how little clothing they're wearing. Remember, clothing is not consent. It's also not your place to comment on anyone's body, health, or eating habits.
- Do not doxx anyone, or post "revenge porn". It doesn't matter what they did. Don't do it. Be the bigger person and walk away. The reason is, you don't know what people may do with that information'. And it's not your information to share, even if they themselves did on social media or whatever. (Think of it like copying someone's house key without their permission. It's not your key, even if they gave it to you, and it's not yours to distribute.) You'll open them up to stalking, harassment, losing their jobs, and even being killed. (Another thing: it puts innocent people in the crossfire. People that they live or work with, or people on their contact lists, or even people that currently live at their address (even if they don't).
- Monitor your drinking behavior. If you know you're a sloppy, overly-flirtatious drunk, stop before you get to that point. (This may mean abstaining from alcohol in public altogether, or it may simply mean limiting yourself to one or two drinks.) Being drunk is not an excuse for being creepy or inappropriate.
- Treat them as a human being, not an object. Do this one, and everything else falls into place. And you should be fair to all other humans. Treat people well, even if you're not sexually attracted to them, or they're not conventionally attractive. Even if they're not interested. And don't divide up people into "good person" and "trash" based on their sexual history; the number of partners they've had (or not), or how much sex they've had (or not), or their reputation, doesn't change who they actually are as a person. Nor does it entitle you to pick on or harass them.