Confused By What Constitutes Sexual Harassment, Sexualizing, Flirting, or Just A Bad Date? Here’s The Primer for Men – Memorize It


By Abby Gagerman

When the #metoo movement started a few months ago, the stories weren’t what shocked me. Yes, women are being assaulted. Yes, women are being harassed. Duh. What shocked me was that there were men in my life, men that I respect, who said the most horrific things.

Things like:

“Sooner or later, men will just hire prostitutes for sex because they’ll be afraid of getting accused of something.”


“These stories are bullshit. Women can just walk away. They can just quit. They have all of the power–don’t they realize that?”


“Men are going to stop hiring women so they don’t have to worry about being accused.”


“These poor guys. I mean I get the rapists having their lives ruined, but sexual harassment? Is it that big of a deal? Do their careers have to be ruined?”

And I thought to myself: Come on! Is it really that hard? Is it really that hard to know if a woman wants you to hit on her or not? Is it really that hard to NOT sexually harass someone? I’ve worked with so many men over the years who never sexually harassed me, so can it be that hard to not do it?

But maybe it is hard to understand. It must be, because it’s so prevalent. And it can be confused by women who call the wrong things sexual harassment, like being hit on in a bar by a not-so-smooth guy. These experiences, while uncomfortable, do not constitute sexual harassment. Nor does the experience Aziz Ansari’s accuser had, however upsetting that horrible date was for her.

But when I try to discuss these issues with men around me, many of them get very defensive. So in an effort to have this conversation without risk of triggering strong reactions from them, here’s a primer that I hope men who are struggling with these concepts will take the time to read and think about:

 – When a woman does not think she has a choice to say no, whether because someone grabs her, touches her, or forces himself on her, that’s assault. Now I’m assuming that most men, especially the ones who are reading this blog, know what assault is and don’t struggle with the concept. However, when a woman has a choice whether or not to participate, but not participating or rejecting advances means that she could lose her job or not advance or that she might not be able to take advantage of an amazing opportunity, that’s harassment. It’s also harassment when people create a hostile work environment by discussing sex, by putting up demeaning or sexual pictures, and by telling sexist jokes, and women feel like if they object to these situations, they will be somehow punished, even covertly.

Also, when a woman is feeling particularly vulnerable, like during a medical exam, and the person with the power in the room makes her feel like she does not have that much of a choice over whether or not she participates or can overtly reject advances, that’s harassment too. For example, a woman I know had been in a car accident, and in the ER, as the doctor was examining her, while she was still freaked out from the accident and didn’t quite have it together, he reached around and grabbed her breast. It’s now 20 years later, and she still gets upset about it because it was such an invasion while she was so vulnerable.

Sexualizing a woman is a little more nuanced. Many women don’t have issues being sexualized, especially if it’s not in a setting where she’s feeling vulnerable. But take, for example, an 18- year-old young woman who is interning in an office, and say there’s a man who works there who is in his forties or fifties. Say that man leers at the young woman and makes her feel like he’s imagining her in bed. Now no, he’s not committing assault, and no, he might not be outright harassing her, but he is treating her in a way that makes her feel vulnerable, uncomfortable, and outright demeaned.

Men, would you be okay with this if it were your 18-year-old daughter?

It’s NOT harassment if you approach a woman over whom you do not hold any power, and you hit on her. Harassment is about POWER. If you have no power over a woman, if she has every ability to say no or tell you to take down the nude pics or stop with the blow job jokes, then you’re not in a position to harass her.

Aside from the assault stories, and aside from pervasive and chronic sexual harassment cultures, like the ones we are hearing about in certain political and entertainment arenas, most of us are not asking for a reckoning. Maybe that’s the source of the male fragility around me, the idea that their worlds are going to come crashing down, the idea that some woman with whom they worked 20 years ago is going to come forward and say, “Hey! You gave me an unwanted massage in my cubicle. GUILTY!” Or maybe the source of their defensiveness is the idea that maybe, just maybe, the flirty-talk or ass pats they do with women who report to them might actually not be welcome. Maybe it’s just too much for the ego to take.

But let me clarify it for you:  What we are asking for is a culture change. We are asking you to consider these matters from a woman’s perspective. We are asking that you imagine your granddaughters, daughters, nieces, sisters, wives, and mothers in these situations, and we’d like you to ask yourself, “Is that okay?”

We are asking you, instead of the knee-jerk defensive reaction some of you are having, to take a step back and ask yourself, “Am I assuming that all of my behavior is wanted?” And, “If it’s not, would I know?” And, “Do the women I interact with have the power to reject or correct me without fear of losing their jobs, their opportunities for advancement, their reputation for being delightful to work with?”  

And even if you’re one of the many men who grew up in a culture where these behaviors were tolerated, accepted, or encouraged, and even if maybe you might be guilty of harassment or creepily sexualizing someone who might have been made to feel uncomfortable about it, we are just asking you to think about these ideas moving forward and to change your behavior so it’s more egalitarian.

We all know some women who enjoy being flirted with at work. We all know some love stories that began with a boss/underling story. We all know women who took advantage of situations to advance themselves, viewing it as an opportunity. We all know women who happily talk about sex at work and find the conversations stimulating and entertaining. We all know women who fully enjoy being looked at as an object of desire, even by much, much older men.

We also all know women who have been raped. We all know women who have been grabbed by their private parts without permission. We all know women who have felt violated by a doctor or someone else while they were feeling vulnerable. We all know women who have been overtly harassed at work, but they felt that if they said or did anything, they’d lose everything because maybe they didn’t have the privilege of being able to quit their job.

Men, ask the women in your lives, especially the older ones, to share their stories with you so you can try to understand their points of view. You might be surprised at the stories your mothers, grandmothers, aunts, sisters, and wives tell you. You might be horrified. And you might even be motivated to get on board with this culture change, so that it’s not your daughters who one day say, “#me too.”

Lisa Barr, editor of GIRLilla Warfare: Abby Gagerman, Mom of three and a social worker, is a staff writer for GIRLilla Warfare.