Harassment vs. Flirting: A Double Feature


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evie05 asks:

I made a big fashion faux pas today to wear leggings without anything to cover my butt/crotch which resulted in a “cameltoe” (slang for labia majora being outlined through tight clothes). And a guy at school rudely pointed it out to me and implied I must have a lot of sex because that makes the outer lips more fleshy and prominent.

The thing is, I haven’t had any sex, I’m still a virgin, so I was pretty embarrassed and offended. I just thought cameltoe was caused by clingy, tight clothes. Was this guy just ignorant about girls’ bodies or is there some truth to what he is saying? I honestly feel ridiculous asking but I just had to make sure.

Heather Corinna replies:

Let’s talk about what’s real when it comes to the size and shape of the labia and mons first, then address harassment. There’s nothing ridiculous about asking this, and nothing ridiculous about looking for comfort and reassurance after you’ve been sexually harassed. Harassment tends to leave us feeling uncomfortable, insecure and upset, after all, so good on you for seeking out what you need to take care of yourself after being harassed.

How much sex someone has or hasn’t had, and whatever their sexual history has or hasn’t entailed won’t likely have any influence at all on the size or shape of the vulva. The mons and outer labia specifically are mostly fatty tissue, so how prominent they are or aren’t has a lot to do with how fat is distributed there. That’s mostly about genetics but can also be influenced by how much a person weighs, how and where they carry their weight and also with water weight. Back to genetics again, how those portions appear is also going to be about bone structure: all our bones aren’t the same, and how our parts look is related to the size and proportions of the bones beneath them.

When you are sexually aroused or actually engaged in any kind of sex, including masturbation, both those areas can also tend to swell and look bigger or more prominent. But once a person isn’t aroused anymore, that swelling goes down pretty quickly and doesn’t last over days, months of years, just like if your face gets flushed from exercise, once you chill out and your heart rate goes back down, it stops being so red.

For sure, clothing can change how things look, too. However, I hope you know that wearing leggings or anything else that may make those parts of your body less hidden doesn’t make harassment warranted or your fault. Jean Seberg and Edie Sedgwick rocked that look like nobody’s business in the mid-1960s: it wasn’t a fashion faux pas, it was totally trendsetting. Mind, if you feel like that’s not a look you like or feel comfortable in, you don’t have to wear it again, but whether or not something you wear is or isn’t fashionable isn’t based on whether or not you got harassed when you were wearing it. Alas, there’s absolutely nothing anyone can or can’t wear to assure they won’t be harassed or attacked in some way. If only!

Sometimes, without intent, a given clothing choice will result in others being able to see parts of our bodies we don’t mean them to, or don’t mean to expose, but that doesn’t mean that wearing whatever that is means we’re giving anyone a green light to harass us. Sexual harassment is an abuse, and like other kinds of abuses, the person at fault is the person who chooses to abuse someone: harassment is that person’s fault and responsibility, not your fault or your leggings’ fault. If and when we earnestly feel someone might be exposing something they don’t want to be, the thing to do is to either just look away or to say something to them kindly, discreetly and and with as much sensitivity as we can muster, rather than say, making sexual comments or taking a picture of their exposed parts and selling it to a magazine.

I don’t know if this guy was ignorant, because I don’t know if he thought what he said to you was true or not. Clearly, he was harassing you, probably because he meant to harass you. When people aim to do that, they usually aren’t after what’s true, they’re after power and getting a reaction; they aim to make you feel powerless and humiliated, not give you bonafide information about your body. So, in my book, once someone is harassing me or someone else, I figure their credibility is shot, and I should figure that whatever they say — even if I might take some of what they say as a compliment in a different context — it’s probably either not true or that even if it is, what it’s motivated by makes it something I should dismiss by default.

Another reader recently asked a different question about harassment, and I think both of you could benefit from each other’s questions and answers.

Samuel F. asks:

My mom has talked with me about flirting and the difference between that and harassment, but what more broadly can I know about flirting and subtlety without crossing over into sexual harassment?

A commonly used definition (including in law and policy) of sexual harassment is this: unwelcome advances or requests for sexual favors, and other unwanted verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature. It’s often added that submission to or rejection of that conduct explicitly or implicitly can or does affect a person’s employment or education, can or does unreasonably interfere with a person’s work or educational performance, or can or does create an intimidating, hostile or offensive working or learning environment. Harassment can be something someone only does one time, or it can be ongoing.

I’m not sure what your Mom explained to you around this, but I think if we want to get down to the lowest common denominator we can about the difference between flirting and harassment, we can think of flirting as things we do to put our interest in someone out there in ways we suspect they’ll welcome, feel comfortable with and which would incline them to want to connect with us more. We can think of harassment as putting our feelings or wants out there in ways that either would not likely be welcomed, or where we dismiss or don’t think about the other person’s comfort, and which aren’t about trying to incline someone to want to connect with us, but instead forces an interaction, whether they want to interact with us or not.

That’s a little oversimplified for my taste, though, so let me dig in a bit more deeply.

Looking back at Evie’s post, I think it’s clear that was harassment. I think that because a) that guy was making comments to about her body parts and her sex life, which are very personal and private things, b) putting a sexual judgment on her, and c) these were unwelcome comments he also probably knew were unwelcome and intended to be unwelcome. Evie didn’t ask him to give her feedback about her outfit, her body parts, or his perceptions of her sex life. As well, when we’re flirting, we’re generally trying to incline someone to want to spend more time with us, not trying to make someone feel embarrassed, ashamed and inclined to try and run away from us as fast as they possibly can.

The new book, Hey, Shorty!: A Guide to Combating Sexual Harassment and Violence in Schools and on the Streets (Joanne Smith, Meghan Huppuch, Mandy Van Deven, Girls for Gender Equity; The Feminist Press at CUNY, 2011) addresses your question, and talks about how “sexual harassment is unwanted behaviour while flirting is a wanted behaviour.” The authors list some ways people on the receiving end of these behaviors can tell the difference with these two lists:

Flirting: Feels good, you enjoy it, motivated by attraction, shared, flattering
Sexual Harassment: Feels uncomfortable, you feel ashamed, motivated by power, one-sided, humiliating

Looking at what happened to Evie, I think you can see it’s easy to tick all those boxes in the second list, and none in the first, and know Evie was harassed.

When we’re flirting, the aim is usually to express our interest in someone else in a friendly, noninvasive way and to feel out if the other person shares that interest in us and, if they do, to make clear we’re open to that. Our aim in flirting is to make the other person feel comfortable being around us or getting closer to us. With harassment, either the aim is to make someone feel uncomfortable, or the person harassing just isn’t even really thinking about the other person; isn’t caring or thinking about how they feel at all. When someone is harassing someone else, they’re trying to force an interest in them or attention to them, not trying to set the stage for that interest or attention only if the other person wants to interact.

So, we’re going to want to avoid doing anything that might or likely would make someone feel uncomfortable, attacked, vulnerable or violated by, both because feeling that way will likely turn them off, but also because our aim isn’t to make them feel bad, but to make them feel good.

Consent matters here, in similar ways I talked about with you in a previous question and answer. In this piece, we talk about consent with and without words, and about how nonverbal cues are a lot tougher to read than words. That’s both because they’re more subtle, but also because we’re not all the same people. What might be a nonverbal cue of interest from one person might be a cue of disinterest from someone else. So, we want to be careful trying to read and react only to those kinds of cues, especially if and when we don’t know someone very well yet, or when we’re not super-confident in our ability to read nonverbal cues well on the whole or with that person. When in doubt, it’s best to start with two-way communications that involve words.

We can flirt in ways where we’re asking for permissions to engage with someone else in that way. For instance, questions like “I like talking with you, do you want go sit over here alone where we can talk some more?” or “I’d like to sit a little closer to you, is that okay?” make your interest clear, but they also make clear that you care about that person’s boundaries, and that you’re giving them all the room in the world to decline interacting with you in those ways if they don’t want to.

A lot of flirting also involves making clear you’re interested in the other person as a whole person, and actually want to connect with them, so asking about themselves and their lives are basic parts of flirting. When you ask about those things, you want to aim to ask about things you think most people would openly share with each other. Asking what they like to do when they’re not at school or where they’re from, for example, is fine. Asking them if they’ve had sex before or if they’re wearing underwear? Not so much.

Another tip I can share is to figure that unless you know for sure someone has romantic or sexual interest in you, figure at first that they don’t and treat your interactions like you’re nonsexual and nonromantic friends or work colleagues. In other words, someone who we meant to be a platonic friend only is probably not someone whose crotch we’d stare at or make sexual suggestions to; someone who was our boss isn’t someone we’d expect to welcome love letters from us. Until you’re pretty sure someone’s interest in you is sexual or romantic, tread lightly.

For sure, sometimes that approach may result in someone not picking up on your romantic or sexual interest in them who may well share that interest, but I’d say it’s better to miss out on a possible opportunity to connect with someone than to invade a person’s physical or emotional space. Plus, even if you miss out on that opportunity once, you can always take more time to get to know someone to develop a better sense of what they want and what kind of attention from you they welcome.

If we don’t know someone well or aren’t certain they want sexual or romantic attention from us yet, it’s wise to consider anything overt around those things off-limits with flirting. “You’ve got a great rack,” “You seem like you’d be fun in bed,” or “Just so you know, I give really good head,” isn’t usually going to hit it out of the park with people who aren’t already in an intimate relationship with you, aren’t already very comfortable with you, or who don’t have interest in being sexual with you. Comments like those are usually to feel like harassment to people outside those spheres, especially those who are members of groups which are more sexually vulnerable or more routinely or institutionally harassed or objectified. Sometimes you might hear straight guys say they’d love to hear those kinds of comments, but in reality it probably wouldn’t be as great like it might seem, especially when those kinds of comments were things you heard all the time, often came from people you didn’t like, have interest in or feel safe around yet, or if that was the only or primary way the world seemed to see and interact with you.

On the other hand, comments like “You have a great smile,” “You’re a lot of fun,” or “I really like to dance, do you?” are generally a lot more welcomed, more appropriate and are unlikely to harass anyone, especially if when they don’t respond or don’t respond warmly, you walk away and give them space, figuring you threw a ball out there and they decided not to catch it, so it’s a no-go.

You can think about actions the same way. Making direct eye contact is a way to show your interest and invite someone else’s, and doesn’t tend to push boundaries or be perceived as inappropriate. Someone can always just look away (and if and when they do, that’s usually a cue that they’re not interested). On the other hand, staring at someone’s bottom is a different story, especially since their bottom can’t stare back: it’s a one-way interaction. Remember: flirting is about interactions we intend to be two-way. Smiling at someone is often part of how people flirt, as is having open body language, like not sitting with your arms crossed or your body turned away from them. You cam smile at them and see if they smile back; you can turn towards them and see if they turn towards you or turn away. If you want to touch someone, you can always ask first, like this, “I’d like to kiss you, may I?” or, in the immortal words of the Beatles, “I want to hold your hand,” followed by an “Is that okay?” before you do hold their hand. Touching someone’s body on purpose without asking first often isn’t okay.

Most of the time, people harassing other people do know what they’re doing, but now and then, people really don’t. None of us is psychic, and we’re always human, so sometimes we’ll just misread people or overstep a little bit. We also don’t all have the same skills or abilities when it comes to perceiving and reading other people’s nonverbal cues. I don’t know what your own skillset and ability is like there, which makes it a bit tougher for me to give you personal advice around this. Your Mom, as someone who has known you your whole life, probably has a better sense of that, so if, after reading this, you still feel unclear, it might be a good idea to talk about this some more with her, picking up from the last talk the two of you had.

The “unwanted” past of the definition of harassment is important, but so is recognizing that we just can’t always know what people want and don’t. Motives matter: do you mean to make someone feel backed into a corner, embarrassed or ashamed? Do you mean to try and put yourself in a position of power over them? Or were you trying to be kind, flattering and to connect with them in a way that was about both of you and that felt good to you both? If you truly don’t mean to harass someone, but they experience your words or actions that way, it’s not the end of the world, and is usually easy to remedy.

If and when you misread someone’s cues or otherwise accidentally overstep their boundaries and they express feeling harassed or behave in a way that makes clear your words or actions were not welcomed or wanted, you’ll just want to employ some basic etiquette. Apologize gently and briefly (like, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to bother you,” or “My apologies, I overstepped, but didn’t mean to. Have a good night with your friends.”), then back off. Do not stick around to keep trying to get what you want from them, whether that’s about getting them to assure you you’re not a jerk or getting them to pay you attention you wanted in the first place. If you do that, you’ll usually only continue to make them feel uncomfortable. If after that kind of mistake, you feel bad about yourself, rather than trying to get reassurance from them, talk to a friend or someone in your family instead to get the comfort you need.

I hope you know this advice and information isn’t just about how you might behave towards someone else, but also how someone else might behave towards you. These aren’t just tips on how you should aim to behave, they’re expectations you get to have about others behavior towards you. Sometimes guys only get messages about harassment as if it’s only them who could harass anyone or like it’s only bad news for women to be harassed, but it’s fine for people to harass men. Neither of those things are true. It’s not okay for anyone to harass anyone or for anyone to be harassed. So, in the case you ever feel harassed yourself, you get to call it out and ask people to step off, too, and if and when they don’t respect those limits and boundaries, it’s their bad, not yours.

How a person decides to deal with sexual harassment when it happens is up to them. If it’s a one-time thing, they may just walk away and blow it off, getting away from the person and situation, and that alone can make it all stop. If a person didn’t mean to harass, that’s often all the other person will need to do for them to get the hint and back off. When a person does mean to harass someone, they’re looking for a reaction, so sometimes just not giving them one can put an end to it.

Other times, especially if harassment is ongoing or the other person isn’t stopping when we don’t react, that approach may not work and we’ll need to try saying something very directly and clearly. If someone is harassing you, it’s ideal to make it very clear to them that a) you do not like what they are doing and b) you want them to stop what they are doing. Depending on the situation, you can do that with words, in writing, or both. If you need support to feel comfortable or safe doing that, ask a friend to stand with you.

And sometimes, we’ll have tried all of those things and someone still won’t stop harassing. Sexual harassment isn’t lawful in many areas, and ongoing harassment can massively disrupt a person’s life, feeling of safety and sense of self, so it’s totally appropriate to report harassment to an outside source, like a bystander, school administrator, boss or the police. You can do that if you’ve tried other things and you’re not getting results, or even if you haven’t: it’s always okay to ask for help from others when you need it.

Here are a few extra links to help round all of this out:

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