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Sexual Harassment—Or Unwanted Sexual Attention?

Adulthood requires that we know when unexpected sexual attention is harmless.

If you're interested in sexuality, consider the following scenario. It's a COMPOSITE of various situations that recur at conferences and other large gatherings. It's particularly important that people interested in progressive politics and gender relations work this out. Again, this is a COMPOSITE--the way therapists write about cases, changing some details and adding others.

A while back I attended the national conference of a large progressive organization. It was well-organized, stimulating, and fun. The people were mostly energetic, interesting, and friendly; it was a good mix of ages, sexual orientations, and divided almost 50/50 male-female.

I was eventually asked, as a sex therapist, what I thought about Sexual Harassment. Apparently a couple at last year’s conference had approached a particular woman in her mid-30s. Eventually “Mary & John” handed the woman their card—suggesting quite clearly that they were “open” to “adult activities.”

The woman didn’t want to share this kind of fun, which of course is perfectly fine. But she was somehow “offended,” which is unfortunate. In fact, the woman felt that this invitation constituted Sexual Harassment, and she complained. Dissatisfied and emotionally distressed, this previously loyal movement member blogged about it, urging her female readers to stay away from the organization. Now the word is out to younger progressive women—don’t go to this group’s conferences.

So the leadership of said organization is scurrying around, trying to figure out what to do. “About what?” I asked. Apparently,

* Some people want a policy on Sexual Harassment
* Some people want a zero-tolerance policy on Sexual Harassment—one COMPLAINT and you’re out
* Some people want to issue a statement about the organization’s policy on Sexual Harassment
* Some people want to persuade this woman to attend next year’s conference
* Some people want to persuade this woman to stop trashing the organization

For someone who didn’t want one kind of attention, this woman has certainly managed to get plenty of another kind of attention.

This woman—and the more intimidated members of the organization—need a history lesson. In the Bad Old Days, people—men—with institutional power (professors, bosses, doctors) used sex as a bargaining chip. “Sleep with me and you’ll get ahead,” some of them told the women who reported to them. “Refuse me and you won’t.” It was ugly. It was How Things Are Done. You can see it in the show Mad Men.

In the 1970s, women began to sue their employers under the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Women demanded an end to the discrimination (“put out or get out”), and to the maintenance of hostile work or learning environments created by continuous sexual pressure. Nowadays, both kinds of pressure are considered unacceptable in most American institutions, and both employees and employers (and students and professors, etc.) have some sense of this.

But Sexual Harassment law was never designed to protect women from merely feeling uncomfortable. In a typical workday, men and women alike face many sources of discomfort: atheists face clerks wearing crosses; able-bodied people face colleagues in wheelchairs; Fundamentalist Muslims and Jews face professors dressed with arms and legs uncovered; the infertile face coworkers’ desks with photos of their kids, and parents are given time off for parenting events such as piano recitals.

No, the law is designed to simply create a level playing field of opportunity—not of emotional experience. It doesn’t require anyone to be a mind-reader, it doesn’t undo the normal uncertainties of social interaction, and it doesn’t require anyone’s social skills to be smooth as silk. Occasionally feeling offended is still considered part of the cost of being out in the world.

So what did that young woman experience? Not Sexual Harassment, but Unwanted Sexual Attention. And when the woman made it clear it was unwanted, the attention went away. That should have been the end of the story. But if the recipient of a friendly, non-pressuring, non-institutional (and OK, let's say clumsy or even stupid) sexual invitation isn’t grown up enough, she (or he) will feel assaulted. And with today’s heightened consciousness—and internet access—she will have the option of describing herself as victimized to a large number of people.

And yet why do we privilege unwanted attention that happens to involve sexuality? Again, we’re not talking about coercion or even pressure—we’re talking about attention, invitation, or suggestion that has no connection with real-world consequences like job evaluation. Adults are the recipients of unwanted attention every single day: stories from strangers on airplanes, awkward compliments from co-workers, grocery clerks sympathetically inquiring about the brace on your wrist or that cold medicine you’re buying, Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormon missionaries asking if they can talk with you for a just a moment about their Invisible Friend In The Sky.

Unwanted attention—whether sexual or non-sexual—is part of the cost of stepping outside your front door. With Jehovah’s Witnesses, you don’t even have to go out—you get the attention by just opening the door. When American society privileges our discomfort if the unwanted attention is sexual, that’s more about our cultural values than about any inherent hierarchy of discomfort.

The whole “Eek! An unwanted sexual invitation—gross! My day/week/year is ruined!” is a bit precious. The whole idea that women need to be protected from discomfort, or from men, or from sex, is a giant step backwards. Obviously, sexual violence and coercion are horrible and unacceptable realities in contemporary society. But if we need special rules to comfort or protect anyone reminded of this reality, modern life will come to a screeching halt. And it will be women who will suffer most from this “protection.” 1970s feminism was completely clear on the dangers of such traditional “protections,” and labored continuously—and successfully—to undo most of them.

The topic is particularly poignant when the people involved are progressive political activists. If we expect to go out and communicate effectively in a world that is often hostile to our ideas, we need to have the emotional skills to tolerate a wide range of responses. If we can’t even handle a friendly sexual invitation in a genuinely safe environment without losing our composure, how can we tolerate the rough-and-tumble of the world out there? Learning to say things like “that feels bad, please stop,” “I don’t like that you said that,” “You have obviously misread me completely,” and “I don’t think anyone would like what you just did” involves a fundamental skill that every grownup needs.

This has NOTHING to do with the number of women who are sexually coerced, trafficked, raped, murdered, or otherwise maltreated around the globe. This is not about porn films, prostitution, clitoridectomies, or forced child-rearing. Bringing these very real issues into this discussion just obscures what we're talking about: dealing with being uncomfortable, dealing with people who may be clueless--but harmless.

This is simply about the need for people to acquire and express a little bit of sexual intelligence. Gay men who are arrested and prosecuted for inviting undercover cops to have casual, anonymous sex don't deserve to suffer. Similarly, “John & Mary,” and every other non-dangerous person, deserves a simple reply when they issue an unwanted sexual (or non-sexual) invitation:

“No thank you.”

Walking away is optional, and certainly acceptable.