Intentions don’t mean a thing when perception is reality. This is a crucial thing to understand as we try and dissect what constitutes harassment. It is equally crucial in trying to ascertain whether we have come across inappropriately- falling short of harassment but still making someone feel uncomfortable.
What is harassment? I think this term has been interpreted to be rather subjective. It’s really not. Simply it is the repeated behavior of bothering someone whether intended or not. It need not be physical either. Inappropriate comments of a sexual nature, even something as innocuous as “that dress is very flattering on you,” can be perceived as harassment. The degree of harassment may vary but it is still a form of harassment.
What about when it’s consensual? Just because something was consensual doesn’t mean it will continue to be. That you may have gotten away with flirting or maybe even sleeping together in the past doesn’t mean you will tomorrow. Respecting boundaries is important. Not mixing business and pleasure is also good advice to live by.
How about female harassment? Most of the discussion surrounding sexual harassment is regarding male to female. Women can also make a man feel uncomfortable. This is tricky because it’s also the case that men are less likely to say something about it due to cultural perception of weakness. Some men may even feel flattered by compliment but intention is not what matters. Perception is. Some men may also feel uncomfortable given comments made.
Let’s really take a few more moments to examine how females can appear out of line while not realizing it. That’s the thing, culturally we have treated harassment as almost unique to men. But women often make comments because they’re trying to play the same game. They realize when they’re attractive and when they see a man who is also attractive, they’ll be a little more comfortable flirting because it’s not as common for a man to complain. So maybe you refer to that sexy guy as a ‘silver fox’ but never consider that maybe it makes them feel uncomfortable. Maybe they have a girlfriend. Perhaps it’s not consensual. They won’t always say it, they may even flirt back because of social customs around male-female dynamics but it doesn’t mean they’re ok with it.
Harassment is such a tricky thing because oftentimes the victim may not immediately say anything or note that it bothers them. So it’s really up to all of us-male or female- to carefully choose our words, especially when it involves a professional context or a person we’d aspire to work with.
Complements are not always complements and it’s easy to overlook that when we read about instances of touching, coercion and dick pics. Harassment is nuanced and must be treated as such. We’re all responsible for better filtering our comments and carefully managing our actions. If in a position of power, don’t tolerate it. It really boils down to those who can afford to speak out so that a workplace isn’t a breeding ground for predators who feel as if their actions won’t be reprimanded. Understand the dynamics between the powerful and the powerless and whether something is really consensual. Remember that just because you intended it otherwise, harassment isn’t about intention, it’s about perception.