Flirting vs. Sexual Harassment

Originally published by Miri | Brute Reason

Let’s be clear: flirting and sexual harassment are not the same thing. 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 a woman at a bar or party and leering about what a “dirty girl” she must be and you’ve never spoken before, you’re sexually harassing her. If you’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 your friend–just a friend–asks you to help him 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 him.

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.”

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, consult relevant Codes of Conduct, and be 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 professor, instructor, advisor, manager, or supervisor?
  • 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.

ASU is federally required to investigate, respond to, and prevent sexual harassment. If you believe you have been a victim of or witnessed sexual harassment at ASU, contact us at SunDevilsAgainstSexualAssault[at]gmail.com for support and to learn about your options and resources.

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