Where is the line between office flirtation and sexual harassment?

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Attempts by men to express confusion about where the lines are have largely been met with derision. When one guy told the New York Times that workplaces should cancel their holiday parties “until it has been figured out how men and women should interact,” he was dismissed in my work Slack. When a sheriff in Texas wrote on Facebook that he would no longer be hugging his colleagues, because he’s worried that now hugs will be taken as threatening behavior, the Twitterati laughed. “I have an idea! How about just not harassing women?” the flippant response goes. But that reaction is too simplistic. The sheriff and the guy who talked to the New York Times are telling us that there is confusion in the culture about what is and isn’t OK. We certainly shouldn’t elevate those concerns over the need to protect women, but why ignore that confusion with an eye-roll?

The public scorn certainly does nothing to help men privately exploring these questions in their own lives. A friend of mine told me about a recent date he went on with a woman he met online. After dinner, he asked her if she wanted to go back to his place. She declined. They went on several more dates, though, and eventually she told him that the reason she didn’t go back to his apartment that first night was that he didn’t ask forcefully enough. That same friend told me of a memorable line he’s seen in several Tinder profiles: “likes to be chased.” I laughed, because who doesn’t? But what my friend saw in this current moment were mixed messages: It’s good to be aggressive if your date is interested, but read the room wrong and you are done. It feels great to be chased when you are attracted to the person doing the chasing. Otherwise, the chaser might be seen as a predator.

Some people see this confusion as a small price to pay. Better to—as Gessen characterized this line of thinking—“have ten times less sex than to risk having a nonconsensual sexual experience.” But this calculation doesn’t just protect women from abuse; it protects us from experiences that I’m not sure I’d relish giving up. A world where abusers fear crossing a criminal boundary is clearly a better world. But a world where interested parties fear crossing this new boundary we seem to be edging toward, where any power differential or wrong move is seen as predation, robs women of the ability to consent as well. Women should have power—the power to move about the world without fearing for our safety, but also the power to not be threatened by an unwanted but unmalicious move, the power to say no to a man’s advances without being that man’s victim.

When my husband, John, and I started dating, we weren’t sure it was OK. We kept it secret from our colleagues for awhile, though we did ask another editor to manage me. Brushing past each other in the office and sitting with our legs touching under the table at after-work gatherings where no one knew we were together was the most exciting time in our early relationship, a glorious phase that ended when a colleague spotted us holding hands on the sidewalk outside of a West Village bar and blew our cover. We eventually told our bosses that we were in love, and they were happy for us. It wasn’t until years later that John told me he used to look down the back of my jeans at work. I was surprised—I guess he had been discreet—but filed that little nugget away as cute, not creepy. It turns out a long, long time ago, he thought I was hot.

But when John took me to a dark bar after we closed our first story together, or when he made his move on the steps of the subway station, in the romantic glow of the Duane Reade sign, why wasn’t that harassment? Though he wasn’t the editor of the magazine or anything close, he controlled which assignments I got, and which I didn’t, and would have been the person to write my evaluation, had we done those back then. There were the steps John took to evaluate my interest before leaning in for that kiss, like asking me out for drinks after work. But what if I had felt pressure to say yes to his  invite? Or what if, when he did kiss me, I had pulled away? At the time, our work and our social lives were all mixed up in wonderful, messy, risky ways. I know John wouldn’t have punished me at work had I not been interested in his advances; if he had, that would have been harassment, and not OK. Even so, life at the magazine might have become uncomfortable for me, or for him, if things hadn’t worked out. Maybe I would have wanted to find another job, or maybe he would have. Maybe, because I was younger and less established, it would have fallen on me to figure that out, which would have been hard, but no harder than needing to find a new job because I wasn’t advancing or because I hated my boss for nonkissing reasons. Maybe I wouldn’t have cared at all that this weird dude kissed me. Maybe I would have been flattered. Or maybe it would have really sucked. In none of those scenarios, though, would John have been a sexual harasser simply because he had more power in the office than I did and made a move. He took a risk. I was capable of evaluating his advances for myself. In my case, I welcomed them. If we had just met today, though, I fear there’s no way he would have even tried.

It is completely within the norm of human exploratory romantic behavior for people to take steps—sometimes physical steps—to see if the other person reciprocates their feelings. It is OK to flirt with a person who you aren’t sure wants to be flirted with. It is OK to not be 100 percent great at reading signals. It is even OK to be grossed out by someone’s advances, as long as those advances stop once you make clear you aren’t into it. There are predators and harassers, even more of them than I thought, and there are some lines that are simple to draw, even if we haven’t been enforcing them until now. But there has to be room for a relationship like mine to happen. And the difference between John being my husband and my harasser cannot just be that it worked out. The difference between actions that can get you married and actions that can get you fired can’t simply be whether or not the person you are interested in is interested back. Careers should end when someone tries, and is rebuffed, and does not heed that rebuffing. Careers should not end just because someone tried. We’re not all attracted to the people who are attracted to us.

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