Sexual Harassment, Unwanted Sexual Attention, Cruising, Flirting

There’s been some really good discussion lately about sexual harassment at conferences and community events. I’ve mostly been tracking it via Greta Christina’s blog, though of course there are lots of other people talking about it. I’m really glad to see more conversation about what kinds of behaviors different communities consider acceptable, how to make guidelines clear, and how to set limits.

Elysa Anders over at Skepchick recently posted about an interaction she had after her keynote presentation at Skepticamp Ohio, when a male/female couple approached her and gave her a card with their names, phone number, website, and a photo of them nude (from the waist up, and with his hands over her breast). After giving her their card, they walked away before she could respond. Anders’ reaction to this experience highlights many of the challenges with coming up with consistent event policies around sexual harassment.

I totally get (in as much as a man can, I hope) that being cruised, flirted at, and propositioned when one is a presenter gets really tedious. I don’t have to deal with the daily harassment that many women face and I still find it annoying when I’m in work mode and someone wants to cruise me. I’m often open to that kind of interaction at another time, like in the hallway between conference sessions or in the bar at the end of the day, but if I’m in my presenter headspace, that’s not the time to approach me with anything more than “I’d love to chat with you later, if you have time.”

But I also think that Anders made some really judgmental and shaming statements about this couple. For example:

Propositioning your keynote speaker via your sex calling card then bolting is not a loophole, it’s being an asshole.

Handing someone your naked photo with an implicit invitation to come fuck them then running away is something awful people do. You think this is how you get people to have sex with you? By making it clear that you have no respect for their feelings and that you refuse to give them agency in your interactions?

I cannot think of a single situation where it’s ever appropriate to hand someone an invitation to group sex if you haven’t already had or discussed having sex.

While these folks’ actions weren’t appropriate in this setting, I can think of quite a few situations in which it would have been perfectly acceptable to do what they did. Swingers conventions and kink conferences both come to mind. Non-conference events like sex parties or clubs are also places where one might offer a card like theirs and walk away. For that matter, so is Folsom St. Fair. And those are also places where it very well might be “appropriate to hand someone an invitation to group sex if you haven’t already had or discussed having sex.”

I’m not suggesting that this couple’s behavior was OK in this context. Skepticamp Ohio is most definitely not like any of the events I listed- it’s not a sexual event and it’s not for a community of erotic affiliation. And since the event harassment policy clearly states that “explicit sexual language and imagery is not appropriate for any conference venue,” offering Anders their card in the event space went against the guidelines. So it’s really good that the event organizers contacted the couple and spoke with them about it. At the same time, I don’t think they deserved to be shamed like that. And the fact that Anders isn’t familiar with the communities in which this kind of behavior is common and sometimes encouraged doesn’t mean that they don’t exist.

What this situation brings up for me is the fact that there’s a big difference between doing something to deliberately and maliciously harass someone and offering an unwanted invitation or attention. Marty Klein tried to address this distinction, but his post only made things worse. I think that part of that is because Marty’s work as a therapist involves working with people to distinguish between “this person did this thing” and “I feel this way about it.”

To be more clear, let me use Sharon Ellison’s model of  Powerful Non-Defensive Communication. There’s a whole sequence of events between what happens and what we feel:

  • Some event happens, whether by a person’s actions or chance.
  • We filter it through our experience and decide what we think it means.
  • We have an emotional response based on our interpretation of that meaning.
  • Our feelings shape how we respond to the event.

Given how many different elements there are to this, it’s amazing to me that people ever manage to communicate with each other. But the reason I find this model so useful is that it helps us understand that even with the best of intentions and desires, it’s entirely possible to end up with someone having a completely different response than we hope for. We each assign different meanings to similar situations, and we have different emotional responses as a result.

Knowing Marty as I do, I feel pretty confident that this is part of what he was trying to tease out. You don’t have to have any intention of making someone uncomfortable for them to feel that way. Unwelcome sexual advances often fall into that camp. And their discomfort doesn’t always mean that you did anything wrong.

At the same time, most men are usually pretty clueless about how infuriating it can be to have one’s intellect set aside in order to be told that one is pretty or sexy. For that matter, most guys have no idea how men act towards women when other men aren’t there. As an experiment sometime, walk down the street far enough behind a woman that you can see how men act towards her. Pay attention to their faces, what they say, and how they interact with each other (especially if they’re in groups), and you’ll get a different picture. Once you realize how much crap women put up with from men, you might begin to understand why many women feel the way they do.

In this situation, for example, the fact that women at conferences have been dealing with sexual harassment and being tokenized, dismissed, or ignored because they’re women, the fact that their speaking out has resulted in all of the usual derailing and attacks, and that this fits within a larger pattern of cultural sexual intrusion that women face on a daily basis all intertwine to make this kind of interaction especially likely to be button-pushing. Within that background, I think it’s easy to see how this couple’s actions landed in the way they did, even though I think it’s unlikely that they had that intention.

I wish that Marty had woven that into his analysis of this situation. In a world in which sexual intrusion wasn’t a daily experience for most women, I think his point that discomfort with unwelcome sexual advances isn’t necessarily a sign of sexual harassment would carry more weight. But we don’t live in that world and it’s not reasonable or fair to expect women to be willing or able to set aside the defenses that result from catcalls, being ignored, being insulted, sexual assault, or any of the other expressions of sexism that affect our interactions.

As a man who flirts with and cruises women, I really do understand how frustrating it is to feel like I’m being judged because of the actions of other men. That’s one of the costs of sexism for men. And you know what’s even more frustrating? When men don’t listen to women, when we don’t speak up when we see other guys acting badly, and when we make excuses for our and other men’s actions. Oh, and sexual assault, pay inequality between men and women, the assumption that men know more than women, and all of the other crap that sexism creates. If you can’t deal with the fact that as a result, many women are likely to require men to demonstrate that they’re not like “all those other guys,” take another look at the reasons why so many women feel defensive and ask yourself how you’d feel in their shoes. Also, here’s a useful tip you might want to read.

And as a man who also flirts with and cruises men, I think heterosexual folks would do well to learn from gay men. Men cruise each other in non-gay settings all the time, but it’s usually invisible to anyone else and can easily be ignored if one doesn’t want to receive it. But get a bunch of men together in a space specifically meant for it and subtlety goes out the window. The awareness of context and setting is what makes it possible to navigate those different situations. Similarly, letting a woman know you think she’s attractive can certainly be done in different ways, depending on where you are. Try a little subtlety and see how it works.

I don’t have any easy answers to all of this. I’m really glad to see different events and groups talking about it and looking for approaches that are specific to their communities. For example, OpenSF was a conference for polyamorous folks, which meant that a “no cruising” rule wouldn’t work since some folks would want to meet potential partners/lovers there. Their policy was different from Skepticamp Ohio, as was only fitting. The more we can recognize that rules depend on the situation and the community, the more we can  be clear about our various expectations and hold people accountable to them.

My hope is that one day, we’ll be able to have clear lines between harassment and unwelcome advances. In the meantime, the best we can do is to step lightly, approach others with respect, and be mindful of the setting. Oh, and be willing to apologize if we hurt someone and make amends, regardless of our intentions.

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3 Responses so far.

  1. krissy says:

    She was right to call out those insensitive jackasses. It was probably the husbands idea. Boundaries are nothing to be ashamed of and she was right to be angry at their inappropriate display- you have to consent to see someone naked otherwise flashing is considered a sexual assault.

  2. Jeff Barrows says:

    As a sex crimes lawyer, these are things that needs to be focused on by government officials. Sad to say but the amount of sexual harassment in our society has been increasing.

  3. […] grateful that I’ve learned some better tools at initiating sex, at flirting, and at recognizing the differences between flirting and harassment. Though I wish it hadn’t been so, when I was younger and less practiced, there were times when my […]

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