The reader may have become aware of some examples of sexual harassment on the interwubs lately. I do not propose to get involved or to make detailed comment as I do not know much about the cases apart from what has been mentioned online. I take it as read these are echt cases of sexual harassment. What I do want to do here is to discuss the reason why otherwise sensible men might harass a woman.
A few years back, I was approached by a woman at a conference and invited back to her room. She knew I was married, but there was flirting and a clear indication that we could sleep together as we were both in countries other than our own. This was not harassment, for several reasons, the most obvious being that I am male, but also that we were effectively equals socially and professionally and neither had any power over the other. I did not accede, but I do not think that had I done so I would be a bad person, other than having “cheated” on my wife.
Therein lies the complexity: morals have changed in most western nations. Liaisons between unmarried (to each other) adults are no longer looked upon as immoral or illicit, so long as nobody is injured (in the legal sense of having some violation of their rights). As the Wiccans say, an it harm none, do as thou wilt. But much of the framing of harassment is based around ideas of propriety that, to be frank, are a little out of date. Not all: so long as the point of anti-harassment rules are that a person (male or female) is treated with respect because they are a person, the framing is fine. But often it is because someone is the partner of another that the harassment is considered wrong. That is, if I am married, I should not approach somebody else for sexual engagement because I am in a sense the property of my spouse.
If somebody is raised in the less Christian or traditional value system of secular society, they might think it wrong only to not tell and gain agreement from their spouse, not to ask for sex. And if the relationship is not an obviously clear one of power or authority or influence, one might think, what harm? Yet, there is harm even when the relationship is only informally one of power or influence (let’s face it, most relationships involve an inequality of power in one way or another). So here’s my question: given that some sexual contact is inevitable among adults, and even somewhat desirable for all, what are the rules? When does it not involve harassment, and when does it?
Some forty years ago, as I was shifting from callow youth to callow young adult, the agreed rules of behaviour (as portrayed in most 1950s and 1960s American movies) were in great flux. One might be attacked for opening a door for a woman, or for not, occasionally in the same encounter. It was hard to know when to ask a woman for sex, when some women were calling any such attempt a kind of rape, and asserting that only women had the right to ask, while at the same time the counterculture was treating women as mere sexual playthings. I’m not saying only men had trouble with this (women did and still do, being called sluts if they had sex and frigid bitches if they didn’t), but men did have trouble. The rules were inconstant and unclear as society became post-Christian, and to an extent, post-bourgeois.
So it is not hard to imagine some man attempting to get a woman to respond by discussing sex, and inadvertently harassing her. Note: I am not saying that she is not harassed or that the harassment is minor. I am saying that the male may not even understand there is an issue. We often don’t. The rules are unclear, variable and sometimes contradictory.
It is all very well to say: treat the woman with respect. Of course one should. One should treat all people with respect. To treat women with respect is to at the very least not make her feel unsafe, demoralised, afraid or demeaned. But what does that exactly mean, and how can we “court” to use the old term, if even attempting to establish an interest is occasionally taken to be harassment? I’d be very interested in your comments, since I really do not know.
Of course, most of the time there is no problem, especially when the space in which these advances are made is equal and safe (which precludes many professional contexts), but since some people only ever really get to know people in professional contexts, some clear rules would be helpful. So please, write them down below, and discuss them.