On Radio 4 this morning, host John Humphrys expressed concern that women coming forward with stories of assault and harassment may be confusing men. Speaking to former Tory leader Lord Hague about the allegations in Westminster, Humphrys asked: “Is there a danger that we could go too far in the other direction and people will be afraid to ask somebody else out for the evening, or indeed ask them out for a proper date, maybe even eventually to marry them or something? There are risks in this aren't there?”
I was lying in bed at the time – incidentally, next to the boyfriend who, remarkably, somehow knew how to approach me more than a year ago without harassing me. I had hoped that perhaps I was still groggy from sleep, and hallucinating this conversation. Surely, the only “risks” we should be speaking about here are those to the safety of women? Alas, no, John Humphrys really did suggest that women are killing romance by speaking about their experiences of sexual harassment and assault at the hands, quite literally, of men.
He isn’t the only one fretting about the state of romance right now, in this important new era of transparency and accountability. Just the other day, a taxi driver complained to me that “feminists are making it impossible to pay a woman a compliment”. A male friend asked if he could get away with saying “I’d like to shag you” to a woman he’d only just met. It seems that the now 63 allegations of harassment, assault and rape against Hollywood heavyweight Harvey Weinstein – and the many others in different industries that have followed – have frightened some men into a state of harried confusion.
Allow me to say this: no, we are not killing romance with allegations of sexual misconduct. No, we are not making it impossible for men to flirt by holding those accountable who intimidate, stalk, harass and grope. If anything, we are in the process of providing some very clear guidelines on appropriate sexual conduct and anyone confused by the matter ought to be paying better attention.
There is a stark difference between flirtation and sexual harassment.
One is the act of being coy and charming with someone you are romantically keen on, the other is an act of intimidation and unsolicited contact. Flirting is a prolonged smile or a cheeky text shared with someone who has signaled in some way that she is interested in you. Harassment is the imposition of verbal or physical contact without any cue that it may be welcome. Harassment is not even truly a sexual act; it is a powerful gesture of entitlement and I strongly suspect the perpetrator knows precisely what he is doing at the time. Accidental harassment is rare because the act depends, to some extent, on the perpetrator believing that he entitled to a woman’s affections, regardless of whether she has indicated that she would like to impart them. Therein lies the great difference between flirtation and sexual harassment: the intent. Men should not be frightened of offending a woman or incriminating themselves as long as they are not trying to force her into paying him attention, talking to him, answering calls, touching him or sleeping with him. Any man who recognises that a woman is a human being with her own agency and autonomy, and treats her with respect, should be relatively safe.
Nevertheless, here are a few guidelines for any man who is currently confused about the politics of courting. Begin by asking yourself a few simple questions before you hit on a woman. Could your proposed action be considered aggressive, threatening or intimidating in any way? For example, if you see a woman walking down the street on her own after work, assume that she already feels vulnerable and do not approach her with a come-on. Does the context of the situation make your intentions weird or inappropriate? For example, don’t approach a woman in full professional mode at a job interview, or slide into her Twitter DMs with a chat up line disguised as a work enquiry. Is the woman’s body language and general behaviour indicating that she feels safe, comfortable and in control? If she is shying away from you, making excuses to move on from talking to you, ignoring your advances, or explicitly telling you she’s not interested, back away. Do not deliberately misinterpret signs that a woman is not interested as some sort of “hard to get” game she’s playing; more often than not she is simply not interested. To try and convince her otherwise takes you into harassment territory.
If anything, the #MeToo movement is making romance safer, clearer and less ambiguous. Women are being very clear right now about what they will and will not tolerate from men – it is my very best advice to listen to them.
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