After Weinstein: two women on why we still need to explain the difference between flirting and sexual harassment

Helena Bassil-Mozorow, Lecturer in Media and Journalism, Glasgow Caledonian University and Katy Proctor, Lecturer in Criminology and Policing, Glasgow Caledonian University

Helena Bassil-Morozow: we need a ‘good conduct’ guide

Following the high-profile toppling of Harvey Weinstein in autumn 2017, there was a significant shift in the way society perceives the power balance in the workplace. Though we are still far from solving it completely, at least we can now talk about one of the most enduring and complex taboos of Western societies: abuse of power, particularly when it takes the form of sexual harassment or rape.

After the release of actress Rose McGowan’s memoir Brave, whose allegations of rape and abuse erupted the whole Weinstein affair, things changed overnight. I still remember the shock I felt when I realised that people were actually talking openly about this abuse of power. Western societies operate on an unspoken set of assumptions, all united by the idea of fairness, democracy and equality.

Abuse of power, particularly of a sexual kind, is almost a taboo subject. Its discussion in the workplace is usually relegated to the shadowy world of rumours and innuendo (such as Seth Macfarlane’s 2013 Oscar joke, below), but the subject rarely sees the light of the day. In the past, we seemed reluctant to acknowledge that something like this goes on in a society that promotes equality, diversity and merit.

At last we have witnessed via the Weinstein allegations the start of a dialogue, even if we are some way from definitive solutions to the problem. But in raising the issue of undesirable sexual behaviour, we also need to be careful not to see it where it does not exist, not to turn all human actions into punishable offences. If everyone becomes a stalker, what happens to romantic relationships?

In December 2017, I stumbled upon a guide provided by the Swiss parliament to its employees on the issue of flirting in the workplace. This was basically their response to the #MeToo campaign. Although a little simplistic and even patronising, this “good conduct guide” is a valid attempt to clarify the difference between flirting and harassment. The main distinction it makes is that of reciprocated feelings and respect versus treating a person as a fantasy figure expected to fulfil one’s wishes.

Actress Rose McGowan, the first woman to come out with public allegations of rape and abuse by Harvey Weinstein. Shutterstock

Among the qualities of a healthy relationship, the guide lists “mutuality and respect for personal boundaries”. It is also a “source of joy and self-esteem”. By contrast, a bad relationship is one-sided, degrading and involves breaking the other’s boundaries, whether physical or psychological.

That’s all well and good, but how does one actually spot, achieve or define mutuality? For instance, some people may imagine signs of reciprocity where none are expressed. A colleague may have a crush on you and attempt to attract your attention in ways which you may perceive as awkward or too intense if you do not feel the same way. It’s all further complicated by the fact that human actions are not always consciously expressed or thoroughly understood.

Using the Swiss parliament’s guide as an inspiration, I’ve come up with the list of “danger signs” to look out for when engaging in any romantic behaviour, particularly in a professional setting.

  • Is there a quid pro quo element? This can take a variety of forms, all of which would require a person to agree to sex in exchange for a professional benefit (a job, a promotion, or funding). This is the surest sign that this is not a relationship of equals, and Weinstein is a classic example. Often when quid pro quo is present, the whole relationship is not about mutuality and equality – nor even sexual attraction – but about hierarchy and demonstration of power. This kind of relationship is narcissistic: the person offering the exchange is simply testing the limits of their position. In its most extreme forms, it is manifested in threats to withdraw existing privileges rather than in offers of new benefits.

  • Are physical boundaries violated when one person clearly indicates that they do not wish to engage in physical contact? This is usually exacerbated by quid pro quo situations in which the offending individual believes that she or he “owns” their subordinates. Rape is the most extreme form of this. On the matter of what constitutes sexual assault, the Sexual Offences Act 2003 states:

(1) A person (A) commits an offence if:

a) he intentionally touches another person (B)

b) the touching is sexual

c) B does not consent to the touching, and

d) A does not reasonably believe that B consents.

(2) Whether a belief is reasonable is to be determined having regard to all the circumstances, including any steps A has taken to ascertain whether B consents.

I am aware that this description is fairly vague and open to interpretation, particularly around what kind of touching can be considered sexual, or what is “reasonable belief” that an act of consent has taken place.

  • Is the sexual/romantic attention manifested in the form of name-calling and other denigrating expressions? For instance, being propositioned is not in itself a problem, but when a person you barely know explains they would like to have sex with you using graphic sexual slang, this is highly problematic. Again, this is a serious boundaries issue, and being “invaded” like this feels dehumanising to the other person.

  • Finally, the issue of excessive attention. Unless it takes the above three forms, this could be solved by communicating to the other person that their attention is unwanted. This should not be hinted at, but clearly explained. Falling in love is not a crime, but it has to be mutual.

It all boils down to treating other people as individuals, not objects. In sensitive situations, we all need to be clear about what the other person wants instead of projecting ideas and fantasies on to them. It is about connecting fully with another human being, where feelings are shared and understood. Anything less is just not love.

Katy Proctor: we need zero tolerance

My interpretation of these events is a little less forgiving than my colleague’s. As I see it, the problem does not lie in seeing abuse where it isn’t and “overreacting”. Women have to navigate a minefield of sexual comments, attention and harassment on a daily basis, modifying their reactions and behaviour to defuse risky situations. Women are the best judges of risk and malicious intent, something they are not credited for – and rarely do they see it where it isn’t.

After multiple sex abuse allegations, Weinstein was fired from his film company Miramax and shunned. Shutterstock

Guidelines on “how to behave” fail to recognise that it isn’t necessarily the individual acts that are the problem – no matter how explicit they are. The problem lies when these incidents merge into a course of conduct in the context of unequal power relations. These are not awkward gestures of romantic pursuit, these are calculated acts exploiting a situation for personal gain.

After a tsunami of allegations of serial sexual abuse against male celebrities, there have been many welcome calls for serious change in attitudes and behaviour.

In their wake, of course, there have been the inevitable defensive claims of “it was a different time back then” to “this is just political correctness gone mad” and more recently, “women keep changing their minds about what is acceptable behaviour” and “how are men supposed to navigate the fine line between flirting and harassment these days?”.

The narrative here is that women’s behaviour is confusing men and causing the miscommunication which can lead to abusive behaviour. These particular blame-shifting narratives started with the Jimmy Savile scandal in an attempt to find a reason why his visible abuses were minimised and ignored. And they are still used regularly to excuse and justify abusive behaviour.

Apparently, they didn’t know that what they were doing was wrong, it was a different time and it was just the “norm”; women expected it and enjoyed the attention. I can’t argue that it wasn’t the norm and that women probably did expect the attention, but that doesn’t automatically translate as “they enjoyed it”. In actual fact, many found it abusive – the sheer number of recent disclosures testifies to that. As for the rest of the excuses, they are nothing more than fantasy.

Women have been protesting against this kind of treatment for decades, centuries even. It seems that every alleged celebrity perpetrator has a string of silenced historical complaints made against them. Each person targeted has been victimised deliberately, in a context of unequal power to prevent them from speaking out, being believed, or taken seriously. For a long time, many people – not least the perpetrators – have known that these types of behaviours were wrong.

Those who say otherwise are indulging in “vocabularies of motive”, contextualising their attitudes and actions in ways that not only justify and remove responsibility from those who perpetrate the abuse, but firmly place the responsibility and blame on those who endure it.

A set of guidelines reaffirming the definitions of flirting and sexual harassment, or listing acceptable and non-acceptable behaviours is at best pointless. More worryingly, however, guidelines just fuel the raging fires of vocabularies of motive. We know that abuse is planned to be perpetrated in the grey areas of life, not the well defined. We also know that no matter how watertight a set of guidelines, a defence solicitor worth their salt will argue the loopholes exhaustively.

Perpetrators rely on blurring the boundaries to manipulate a picture of innocence. Setting more (ultimately arbitrary) boundaries for them to blur, therefore, will only provide them with more excuses, as in “I didn’t realise the action in that context was inappropriate”. Not only that, but it boosts the perpertrator’s inherent narcissism and feelings of entitlement.

Jimmy Savile was a predatory abuser who had friends in high places and hid in plain sight. PA, CC BY-SA

We need a zero tolerance approach to gender inequality to convince those who abuse their power that they are not entitled to do so. There are many areas of criminality where claims of ignorance regarding the law are not deemed an acceptable defence. Why do we continue to allow and facilitate claimed ignorance as a defence when it comes to sexual assault?

The high number of credible (and high-profile) allegations made by women against Weinstein means he has been publicly cast as a serial abuser and shunned. But like Savile, he has managed to create a new benchmark for the new language of motive – “That’s just what we did in those circumstances, how was I supposed to know women would change the rules?”.

Providing a new set of guidelines on now to behave appropriately can only facilitate denials of understanding of past abuse – “if only I had known that back then”, or for future abuse – “I must have misinterpreted that”. The rules haven’t changed, only the excuses.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The Conversation

The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.