Shifting The Blame For Sexual Harassment (Or, Damn Those Mysterious Women And Their Weird Mystery Feelings)

I’ve written before about how it’s actually not very difficult to tell the difference between flirting and sexual harassment. I’d like to get at this issue from a slightly different perspective by talking about the purposeful obfuscation of women’s* desires and boundaries that I often hear as a defense of those accused of sexual harassment.

What am I talking about? Things like this:

  • “Well, you know, you can never know when she’s gonna suddenly cry harassment.”
  • “Oh, women, they call guys ‘creepy’ only if they’re not attracted to them.”
  • “Oh, it’s only ‘harassment’ if they’re not trying to get laid right now, know what I mean?”

Often this is served with a large side of “Wow Women Are So Mysterious I Mean Wow Who Can Even Understand Those Women Their Emotions Just Change So Quickly Wow.”

The implication is that if a guy finds himself accused of sexual harassment or of being creepy, the problem isn’t with the guy’s behavior, it’s that the woman found him unattractive or she isn’t looking for sex or dating right now or she was just having one of those Female Mood-Swingy Things. The responsibility is shifted from the man who’s initiating to the woman who’s interpreting–from the man’s choice of words or actions to the woman’s supposedly unknowable and mysterious moods, desires, and preferences.

I can see how this is a convenient narrative. A guy who hits on a woman inappropriately and makes her upset or angry can just throw up his hands and be like, “Whoa, no idea what just happened there.” Or, worse, he can go post on an MRA forum about how women discriminate against unattractive men by calling them creeps.

Often even terrible ideas have a grain of truth, so here’s the grain of truth in this one. Sometimes people excuse bad behavior in those they really like (or who are skillful enough at manipulation to convince them it’s okay). The halo effect is a thing. That means that, in theory, a really attractive man could hit on a woman in ways that she’d consider creepy and off-putting if anyone else did it, but she reacts positively because she’s so attracted to the man. Maybe.

But in this case, it’s bad behavior being excused because the person’s attractive, not good behavior being problematized because the person’s unattractive. (I’m tempted to call this the Don Draper Effect, but I’ve been watching too much Mad Men lately.) Needless to say, it’s really creepy to hear someone essentially say, “I wish I were more attractive so I could get away with harassing and abusing people more easily.”

To use another example, sometimes men catcall women on the street and those women are flattered. (Before you dismiss this, women have actually told me that they find it flattering. It’s rare, but it happens.) That doesn’t mean that catcalling them is ethically okay. It just means that sometimes unethical behavior gets excused. Oftentimes, really.

More often, though, women appear not to be weirded out by the inappropriate come-ons of a guy they may or may not find attractive, but are too scared to tell him so or just don’t know how to react. (We aren’t raised to react at all, remember, except perhaps a polite smile and a “Thank you,” followed by burning whichever clothes we were wearing at the time because clearly that’s what caused it.) Another guy may witness this as a bystander and think, “Seeshe didn’t get pissed off when he did it!” Right, probably because she’s too intimidated to.

While there’s some degree of uncertainty in all human interactions, even ones that are very obviously inappropriate, that doesn’t mean there’s much mystery. Sometimes women don’t get creeped out by creepy men because they feel very confident in their ability to escape the situation, or because they weren’t raised by parents who inculcated in them a fear of men who act creepy, or any combination of factors. Often they do get creeped out, because it’s uncomfortable to feel like a piece of meat on a serving platter.

Women have been trying to explain to men how this fear and discomfort works for a while now in the form of the “Schrodinger’s Rapist” argument. Many men have resisted this explanation relentlessly because they get stuck in WAIT SO YOU’RE TRYING TO SAY THAT YOU JUST ASSUME I MIGHT BE A RAPIST I AM A GOOD PERSON HOW DARE YOU mode. They miss the part that basically explains this: if you send me the signal that you don’t care about my preferences and boundaries, then I’m going to assume that you don’t care about my preferences and boundaries.

There is no great mystery to this. If you make sexual comments to women you don’t know or persistently pester a female coworker to go on a date with you, those women are going to assume that you’re treating them like an object to be fucked and not like a human being, and they’re going to have opinions of you and your behavior in accordance with that.

Sometimes people misinterpret innocent behavior as malicious, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re “irrational” or “wrong” in doing so. Suppose that 90% of the time a man I don’t know has asked me what I’m reading, it has turned into him hitting on me or refusing to leave me alone when I was clearly sending “please leave me alone” signals or calling me names when I politely asked to be left alone so I could return to my reading. One day I’m sitting in Central Park reading a book and a guy comes up and asks me what I’m reading. I shoot him an angry look and ignore him. He walks off, confused and embarrassed. He had simply thought the cover looked like the cover of his favorite book about social psychology and wanted to know what I thought of it.

Maybe we could’ve had a great conversation. Maybe we could’ve made friends. But, unfortunately, his behavior just looked too much like the behavior of the men in 90% of these situations, who ruin a quiet and thoughtful moment by using my reading as an excuse to hit on me in public. And if he thinks about this, and reads this blog post or the Schrodinger’s Rapist one, he’ll realize that it makes complete sense that I reacted the way I did, given what I have to deal with 90% of the time. It was no mystery. It was unfortunate and disappointing, but at the same time, entirely rational**.

(If you think I should cheerfully engage all of these men and tolerate the 90% who are awful in order to “just give a chance” to the 10% who are not, you don’t understand cost-benefit analyses.)

As I noted in my post about women not actually being “mysterious,” acting as though they are mysterious keeps men from really trying to understand them and puts the onus on women to stop being so damn mysterious, not on men to try a little harder to listen and understand.

If you’re a man and you often find women responding with confusion, discomfort, or even disgust when you interact with them, it might be time to ask yourself why this pattern exists***.

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*I’m using a male harasser/female victim dynamic here because that’s what the conversations I’m responding to are about. Obviously, anyone of any gender can harass anyone of any gender.

**These discussions always devolve into this, but for the moment, I’m not interested in answering any questions to the tune of “Wait so then how DO I approach a woman I don’t know in public and get her to talk to me?” You don’t. Meet women at places where people gather to meet each other, or through friends, or through online dating.

***I do want to note, however, that there are cases in which intersecting identities influence how someone is perceived. For instance, thanks to ableism, a woman may respond with disgust at (totally appropriate) flirtation from a man with a disability. This, I think, is the sort of dynamic that able-bodied cis white men are appropriating when they go on MRA forums and claim that women react with disgust to anyone who doesn’t significantly resemble George Clooney. In my experience, men who are actually impacted by bigotries like ableism or transphobia tend to know that that’s what’s really going on. They’re not being rejected because they’re men; they’re being rejected because they have stigmatized identities or conditions. We can–in fact, we must–fight the fact that some people are automatically perceived as disgusting because of the prejudice that others have against them.

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.

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