I just finished reading Making Spaces Safer A Guide to Giving Harassment the Boot Wherever You Work, Play, and Gather by Shawna Potter from AK Press. The large first portion of the book works on laying out a framework for defining harassment and how to deal with harassment specifically in spaces open to the public, like concert venues or art galleries. But, I think that the ideas put forward in the book could be applied to any environment or organization. I think that the ideas put forward in the book would be valuable to any organization wanting to establish an anti-harassment policy that is more than just a line in the employee handbook that says, “Don’t harass people,” Potter’s ideas require that an organization that bothers with making polices have to bother with making actions, or they really shouldn’t bother at all.
Late in the book there is a particular passage that I liked. The first part speaks to some of the people I’ve met over the past decade that seem to think that there is a political correctness that has gone wild that means they can’t even pay someone a compliment without going to jail. That is, of course, nonsense. The second part though speaks to how American culture taught me how a male courts a female - just badger the hell out of her and eventually she’ll give in. Most of the teen romance movies you saw in the 90’s and 00’s reinforced this terrible behavior.
I get it. You see a cutie at the club or bar or basement show and want to interact, but with all this #MeToo stuff going on, you don’t want to be accused of harassment. Good for you! Before I give you my “Dos and Don’ts of Healthy Flirting,” I want you to think about something: when women and transgender and nonbinary folks say they’re tired of harassment and assault, they are often met with a sentiment that boils down to, “So, what, I can’t talk to women anymore?” Now this is a prime example of how our modern ideas of romance and sex are implicitly based on nonconsensual interactions. If you think you can’t talk to me because I don’t want to be harassed, what does that say about how you were planning on talking to me?
So, first lesson: the question isn’t “How can I avoid being accused of harassment?” but rather “How can I avoid harassing someone?”
In order to avoid making people you’re attracted to uncomfortable, you must work on recognizing the differences between flirting and harassment. You have to avoid victimizing behavior: just because someone looks good to you, it doesn’t mean they’re looking good for you or that they’re asking for anything, including your attention. You also have to be ready and willing to call out your friends when you see them veering into harassment territory. No, this doesn’t mean you can never talk to a woman again—it means you understand that she might live in a more threatening and violent world than you do. Sure, you might be a truly nice guy, but she doesn’t know that. The best way to actually be a nice guy is not to tell her over and over; it’s to show her. And, yeah, sometimes that means leaving her alone.
Maybe you’ve grown up with this idea that you have to win a woman by wearing her down until she gives in. This is pretty much the plot of most romantic comedies, certainly the ones I grew up watching in the eighties and nineties. Yes, every individual is different, but in general terms our culture teaches men to push, while women learn that their role is to push back. This is how very real social inequality and power differentials between genders translate into the “innocent” realm of romance and flirting. We’ve all internalized—and then reproduced—those social relations because, well, they’re everywhere we look. But what if things looked different? What if we lived in a world where women’s boundaries were respected? Where a polite “no” was heard and heeded? For one, you’d have more fun! I’d certainly be more open to chatting with a stranger at the bar if I knew I could say no at any time without negative repercussions.
Unfortunately, we don’t live in that world—yet. Instead of being open to chatting with you and seeing where things go, I’m more likely to be wary and preoccupied, worrying about your ulterior motives, the possibility of a spiked drink, or planning my strategy for how to bow out of the conversation if things go south. I promise you: these are not sexy feelings!