As a couple of recent articles have perfectly illustrated, whenever feminists try to talk about the issue of sexual harassment – be it the catcalls and leers that women commonly experience while minding their own business walking down the street, or just good old-fashioned workplace sexual harassment – they are inevitably met with the supposedly killer objection: “but isn’t a lot of this just harmless flirtation? What’s your problem with people trying to flirt with you?”
The power of this response comes from the fact that nobody wants to be the frigid old prude who objects to friendly, good-natured, charming men paying you a well-intentioned compliment. We all enjoy being flirted with, at least sometimes. But if you say that men shouldn’t make advances towards women they find attractive, aren’t you in effect saying that we should prohibit flirting?
I think this response is usually rather disingenuous, because it’s pretty clear that objections to workplace and street harassment have got nothing to do with objecting to flirting. This is because harassment is categorically not a form of flirtation, or an instance of well-intentioned flirtation gone wrong – and we all know this. There’s an important difference being flirted with, even where that flirtation is unwelcome and inexpertly executed, and being harassed. And both subject and object know what this difference is. We all know flirting when we’re on the receiving end of it, and we all know harassment when we’re subjected to it, and we can all tell the difference between the two.
The key feature of flirting, that makes it flirting, is that the person doing the flirting – The Flirt – is acutely sensitive to the desires and motivations of the person with whom they are flirting. Flirting is a process of sending out careful, subtle, micro-behaviours signalling one’s attraction: slightly prolonged eye-contact, a quick touch of the arm, an exaggerated laugh at a joke that was really not that funny. And, crucially, flirting also involves having a heightened awareness to the micro-behaviours being displayed by the other, to try to interpret their signals about whether this attraction is welcome. Does he maintain the prolonged eye-contact, or he does he quickly look away? Does she return the playful arm touch, or does she subtly inch further away to discourage further touching? Of course, this can all be done badly, with comic, embarrassing, or even distressing consequences. Some Flirts are terrible at reading other people’s body language, and blunder on, oblivious to the discomfort and awkwardness of their target. This is unfortunate, and it would be better for everyone if the useless Flirt would desist. But nonetheless, we can all recognise that this behaviour is largely harmless, causing not much more than some mild irritation or social embarrassment. When someone proceeds in flirting with us, despite our trying to make it clear that this is not welcome, we feel awkward and embarrassed, but not usually threatened or intimidated.
Harassment is different, predominantly due to the intentions of the Harasser. The Harasser, unlike the Flirt, is not sensitive to the desires and motivations of the person he is harassing. Usually, he is not sensitive to these, because he does not care about them. He is going to proceed with his sexual advances, regardless of whether these are welcome or desired by the object of his attentions. I have written on this blog about my experience of being harassed at a conference I attended. Someone reading that account could easily respond: but isn’t that just harmless flirting? But as the object of the behaviour, I can say with utmost certainty that it was not flirting. It was harassing, for this reason: the Harasser was oblivious to, and uninterested in, my very obvious distress. Had he been flirting, he would have been making some attempt to read my body language, which was sending out very clear and loud “GET YOUR HANDS OFF ME” signals. So loud and evident were these signals, that I was rescued from the situation by two friends who, witnessing my distress, intervened and whisked me away. Yes, they are my friends, and they know me. But if they could observe and correctly interpret the panic and distress in my eyes and demeanour from a distance, I think it’s reasonable to say that the Harasser could have done so – and indeed, would have done so, had he been a Flirt. But the thing that made this experience so distressing at the time, and so rage-inducing later, is that it was clear to me that he had no interest in my attitude or response to his advances. He did not care whether he was upsetting me or making me uncomfortable. Indeed, in his eyes, I was not really a person at all. He had no interest in my feelings and desires whatsoever. And it was this realisation – the realisation that he did not care that I did not want him to touch my neck – rather than simply the fact that I did not want him to touch my neck, that made the experience so profoundly dehumanising and objectifying.
Harassment is distressing and degrading precisely because the Harasser demonstrates so little concern for the wants and interests of the person he is harassing, and in so doing, treats them as not fully human – in Kantian language, as a means for the fulfilment of his own desires, rather than as an end in herself, a person with her own desires and goals and purposes. And that’s different from flirting, because even in cases where the Flirt is just not very good at this, he is at least still trying to interpret the motives and intentions of the object of his advances correctly. Presumably, if the useless Flirt had any idea about how unwelcome his advances were, he would be mortified, and withdraw them. But the Harasser would not, because he does not care. Harassment is a denial of one’s personhood and one’s agency, and as such, is a distressing and dehumanising experience. But more than that, it can also be frightening. For if someone has shown themselves to be so utterly uninterested and unmoved by your wants and desires, and proceeds to behave in a way that treats you as a mere means for the fulfilment of their own, then who knows what else they might do?