No Fine Line: How #MeToo Can Open the Way for True Sexual Harassment Reform

In the wake of revelations of Harvey Weinstein’s pervasive and unrepentant sexual harassment, aggression, and assaults over more than two decades, online social networks started seeing the hashtag #MeToo. Overwhelming numbers of women (and some men) started posting #MeToo, sometimes alone and sometimes with descriptions of some events from their lives. The accounts were all too common to most women. I certainly was not surprised by most narratives because those narratives are entirely consistent with the world I have lived in and experience since at least 11 years of age. #MeToo was used over $1.5 million times. Which begs the question: What do we do with this information?

Well, for starters, we can begin to talk about how common sexual harassment it is, which is an important counterpoint to the other “story” which is that sexual harassment is “women being too sensitive” and that efforts to curtail sexual harassment are nothing more than efforts in “political correctness.” Sexual harassment is pervasive and omnipresent. It is more than “impoliteness” and it is not about “women’s sensitivities.” The #MeToo campaign hopefully opened the door to a more accurate conversation about the existence of sexual harassment itself. It, however, can do more than that. #MeToo can push the conversation into defining sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment is, in truth, poorly labeled. “Harassment” has gained a soft feel to it. It seems to indicate more “annoyance” and “offensiveness” than what it really is, which is aggressive pressure and/or intimidation. Sexual harassment is not "annoying" or merely "offensive"; it is an act of aggression. And here is where things get interesting. To people who have been subjected to sexual harassment, each incident came with the unmistakable leveling of a threat, whether veiled or explicit. Sexual harassment is not about flirtation, attraction, or affection. It is an abuse of power and an act that threatens the victim’s financial, emotional, or even physical safety, and sometimes all three. But to those who have not experienced sexual harassment, it is plausible to think that genuine romantic advances could somehow be mistaken as sexual harassment by an "overly sensitive" recipient. This is complete nonsense but unfortunately it is a pervasive misunderstanding of harassment. Understanding and addressing this is powerful because it creates a different way to present the issue. If men think that sexual harassment is blue and flirting is green, they may be think women are confused by teal or turquoise. But to those who know better, sexual harassment is blue and flirting is more akin to neon pink: there is no confusing the two, ever. If that is in fact what is happening on the two sides of the "sexual harassment aisle" the chasm must be filled or no progress will ever take place.

So let's begin there. Sexual harassment is about imposing the harasser’s power on the target. Sexual harassers do not interest themselves in their target’s desires, or wishes, or pleasure in the encounter. (A genuine sexual or romantic pursuer would, in that respect, hope that their counterpart had the same or similar feelings). Sexual harassers are gratified by the fact they get to engage in the behavior and their goal is to obtain compliance—not consent or reciprocity, but mere compliance. Subjugation to their will because they asked for something and the other person cannot both preserve their career, their financial well-being, their job, or their professional opportunities without giving in. The law recognizes this in that there are two types of sexual harassment under federal law: quid pro quo and hostile work environment. Quid pro quo refers to situations where employment decisions are made based on the employee providing sexual favors. A hostile work environment refers to situations where the employee's work environment is intimidating, hostile, or offensive due to the unwelcome sexual conduct and the conduct unreasonably interferes with the employee's work performance. In both circumstances, mere flirtation is not and cannot be mistaken with sexual harassment. There is no “fine line” between the two, which makes #MeToo even more powerful. Women are subjected to a continuous barrage of sexual aggression, verbal and physical, that pervades their lives, sometimes starting when they are mere toddlers. As a victim, and a witness to this, I can say: It. Is. Exhausting. And it is enraging. Women’s entire careers get derailed because a man decided his desire to impose sexual dominance was paramount and, let’s not forget, because those around that man facilitated that behavior as “expectable” or “normal.” This second point is even more infuriating and brings me to the second way systemic change will happen.

We must, as a society, stop teaching and propagating the idea that men’s sexual harassment of women is “boys will be boys” or “locker room talk” or a normal expression of male sexual desire. This gives sexual harassment an air of “inevitability” and, just as problematic, “normalcy.” It is neither. Boys, and as a result men, can be taught that their sexual feelings are theirs, and nobody else’s. These feelings are certainly not the responsibility of the women (or men) eliciting them. Boys, and as a result men, can also be taught that women in professional settings are not auditioning to be their sexual partners or “romantic leads.” They are just moving through this world and pursuing their own aspirations. Boys, and therefore men, can be taught that women in workplaces, generally, want to be judged on their professional and intellectual achievements. Men’s approval of their looks or sexuality is, more often than not, an impediment to those goals. Most importantly, we must teach boys, and men, that sexual harassment is not a “woman problem.” It is a “man problem” that overwhelmingly hurts women. #MeToo was a stark illustration of this fact. Let’s take this and push forward. Men can begin doing that today with two simple sentences: “That’s not cool,” or “Don’t do that.” When a man talks about women as sexual target practice, or slut shames a woman, or talks about obtaining compliance (rather than consent), if men called each other out, they would radically change the culture of masculinity that makes sexual harassment both a common occurrence and a commonly enabled behavior. Men can do better: please take every opportunity to do so.

Much more can be said on the topic, of course, but focusing on these concepts to begin with could truly change the course of sexual harassment narrative. First, there is no fine line between flirting and sexual harassment. The two cannot be “confused” and “good guys” are not in some terrible peril of being accused of sexual harassment. Victims of sexual harassment know this, all too well. Second, sexual harassment is an act of aggression. It is psychological and emotional terrorism. It is not merely “inappropriate” or “offensive.” It is destructive and must be treated as such. Third, men’s and women’s sexual behaviors are learned. In fact, sexual and relational norms are so societal, rather than evolutionary, that they vary widely across the world to this day. We must reject the idea that male sexual aggression is normal; it is not. Plenty of men express sexual desire in non-aggressive and non-threatening ways. I know: I’ve been the subject of both, and telling me I can’t tell the difference is nothing short of calling me dumb. Men can do better, and they need to. Let’s keep speaking up and speaking out. For each other’s sake, because we deserve to exist in spaces where women feel safe.


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