What’s the difference between flirting and harassment?

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?

 

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8 thoughts on “What’s the difference between flirting and harassment?

  1. I’m a new follower and would just like to say how interesting your blog is! I completely agree with you- flirting is like dancing. There are varying levels of success, but it ALWAYS takes two to tango. Harassment is more direct and with less cautious to the other person’s feelings. Really good post 🙂

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  2. A very thoughtful response to a tricky and divisive question.

    If harassment can be flirting ‘gone wrong’ or flirting in and un-‘sensitive’ manner, then it can be unintended. There is a huge grey area here that you fail to mention, a grey area usually occupied by ugly, unfortunate or mislead men. The clear line you draw between the two is only clearly visible in the eyes of a woman. The perpetrators of harassment simply can’t see it in some cases.

    Rightly of wrongly, in the endless dance we call flirting, the man is often the proactive agent. So he is more likely to miss read or interpret body language / the situation. If every time a sexual advance is rebuffed, it’s called harassment, then men start to feel victimised.

    Sexual harass is clearly a huge huge problem, but there will always be instances when it was unintended as such. We must allow for the grey area and the mislead men find themselves in it. Failing to engage with the male perspective leads to ugly, arrogant articles like the one in the Guardian yesterday, “Flirting or sexual harassment? A six-pint checklist?” which only serve to give feminism a bad name.

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  3. Reblogged this on @liamdeacon and commented:
    This is a very thoughtful response to a tricky and divisive question. However, the article fails to fully recognise one important complication that is at the very root of the controversy surrounding this question.

    As the article points out, harassment can be flirting “gone wrong” or flirting in and un-“sensitive” manner, but then surely it can also be unintended. There is a huge grey area here that is not mention, between flirting and harassment, a grey area usually occupied by ugly, unfortunate or mislead men. The clear line draw in the article, between the two, is only clearly visible in the eyes of a woman. The perpetrators of harassment simply can’t see it in some cases… leading to them crossing over from flirting and into harassment territory.

    Rightly of wrongly, in the endless dance we call flirting, the man is often the proactive agent. So, he is far more likely to act in an unwanted manner if he miss-reads or miss-interprets the body language / situation. If every time a mislead sexual advance is rebuffed, we call it harassment, then men start to feel victimised.

    Unintended harassment is still harassment and the woman has a rights to defend herself and criticise it. But it is not the same as intended, malicious or aggressive harassment. As I’ve maintained, there is a blurry line between the two, so both parties have a right to disagree.

    Sexual harassment is clearly a huge huge problem, but there will always be instances when it was unintended as such. We must allow for the grey area and the mislead men who find themselves in it. Failing to engage with the male perspective leads to ugly, arrogant articles like the one in the Guardian yesterday, “Flirting or sexual harassment? A six-pint checklist?” Such articles only serves to give feminism a bad name, particularly in the eyes of sexist men who need feminism the most.

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    1. Thanks for your comment Liam.

      I thought I was very clear that harassment is NOT “flirting gone wrong”. I do not think that it is. It is a completely different species of behaviour, for the reasons I have identified here.

      When flirting goes wrong, the useless Flirt is still trying to interpret the body language and micro-behaviours of the other to assess whether his advances are welcome. It just turns out he isn’t very good at doing that, and so makes a mistake.

      The Harasser does not try to interpret these things because he does not care whether or not his advances are welcome. He is going to proceed regardless.

      For this reason, I don’t think unintended harassment is actually that likely. I think if you are really, genuinely, trying your best not to impose yourself or someone or make them feel threatened or intimidated, they won’t feel these things. They might feel awkward or embarrassed at your inept flirting. But if you’re really, genuinely trying not to harass someone, you probably won’t end up harassing them.

      I did not say that every time a misread signal leads to a rebuffed advance this is harassment. I think women are perfectly sensitive to the difference between a well-intentioned sexual advance (however undesired this may be), and sexual harassment. We get enough practice at dealing with them.

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      1. Hey Rebecca, two thoughts I had…

        There is a clear difference in bahaviour between harassment and flirtation, and I suspect now that by laying the ‘blame’ for the distinction squarely on intention you might not have the explanatory resources to be able to label causing of distress in a certain way with the intention not to cause distress (in any way) ‘harassment’ – i think there ARE cases of harassment where there is an intention not to cause distress. For instance, one might follow a woman to her home and park outside her house, touch her inappropriately at work, whilst being very conscious that he does not want her to be upset in any way. Given the definitions you have presented, due to his intentions, you could not label this as harassment. I think this constitutes a good counterexample to your thesis that the distinction between flirtation and harassment is intention.

        Similarly, there are plausibly cases when men try and look for certain microbehaviours, interpret microbehaviours such as girl’s giving ‘uncomfortable signals’ as her being attracted and wanting more. So the man may care very much about the girl’s feelings AND not be oblivious to her microbehaviours, yet still be harassing her. See the literature on shit tests and tokenistic resistance (not LMR), interpreted crudely and by someone with poor ability to read social cues (although he doesn’t realise this).

        I think the most plausible position is (i) we should try and find a more appropriate dividing line between the two concepts, and accept that not all cases of harassment are blameworthy, and (ii) if we can’t tell the difference between bad flirting and harassment, set out some CLEAR conditions of signals which should be universally interpreted as positive or negative.

        Secondly, in the first couple of paragraphs in your piece, you suggest that if we were to realise that harassment and flirtation were commensurable ethically, this would mean that harassment would be ‘no big deal’. Contrariwise, it might entail that the institution of flirtation, by encouraging non-explicitally invited touch and conversation, is damaging and dangerous. By expecting people to read implicit ‘signals’ which are highly ambiguous (you’ve already conceded that people are sometimes unable to read them, so they are amibiguous in some cases, and certainly more so than explicit verbal consent) we put women in the position of having unwanted attention, and men in the position of risking upsetting women and causing distress when they may not be blameworthy, and the psychological stress of being culturally expected to make risky approaches of this nature. The fact that some women including yourself may enjoy being approached and flirted with does not necessarily override the social damage caused by this cultural practice. For instance, perhaps it should be discouraged universally or even criminalised for a man to touch a woman unless he has received explicit verbal consent to do so. It’s easy to mock such a proposal (‘you should be able to read the signals!’) but we’ve already established that the signals are ambiguous to some extent – if they are as explicit as verbal consent, then why not just use verbal consent? Clearly part of the ‘excitement’ is this ambiguity. But to favour such a damaging practice for this dirty high of excitement would be selfish and immoral, it seems to me.

        Thanks! Great topic of discussion.

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  4. Liam, in leaving virtually the same comment twice, over 15 minutes apart, saying this woman has got it wrong, you are kind of coming off like the sort of dick who would harass women.

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  5. “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?”

    I’ve come to realise that my biggest fear, when coming across a Harasser, is “who knows what else they might do”. I just couldn’t express the rest of the reasoning, which you have done so clearly here. Thanks for a great post.

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