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Friday, October 18, 1991 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Flirtation Or Harassment? New Fears At The Water Cooler

THE office will never be the same after the Clarence Thomas sexual-harassment hearings. Both sexes will find a more stilted and a joyless atmosphere at work - especially in large offices. The fear of sexual-harassment accusations will cause many men to censor their natural desire to be flirtatious and friendly.

These men will have succumbed to an extremist interpretation that says any sexual discussion or flirtation is sexual harassment - even though this is completely false. It is critical that we stop sexual harassment - but we must not lose mutual flirtation in the process.

Flirtation - whether meant as a proposition or as making love without meaning it - is not sexual harassment, Sexual harassment includes "unwelcome sexual advances" in the context of work - but who is to determine when any overtures are unwelcome? If every woman is to be the judge of "welcome" or "unwelcome," every man could be accused of harassment at the drop of his very eyes. The problem is one of definition and proof.

We live in a culture that has failed to clearly distinguish between flirtation and harassment - just as we've largely failed to differentiate pornography from erotica. If we like it, we call it erotica or flirtation. If we are offended (or feel pressure to disapprove), we call it pornography or harassment. Pornography, erotica, flirtation and harassment are in the eyes of the beholder. The question is, how can we be sure that one consents to exposure to explicit sexual materials and sexual overtures?

For many men and women, flirting is second only to breathing. Flirtation is delightfully mutual - notifying another of our lighthearted playful feelings - and sometimes more. Unrequited flirtation becomes harassment when a woman makes it clear that she doesn't want any further sexual attention. No matter what Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas say about what did and didn't occur almost a decade ago, some will believe her and others will believe him.

Given the lack of a clear distinction between flirtation and harassment, we should use the Senate hearings as a springboard to listen to each other - and to empathize with what it is like to be the other sex.

The sexes are more alike than different in our need to enjoy each other. Mutuality between women and men is not uncommon. Yet the "battle of the sexes" gets more press than friendship and love between the sexes. We are not so different that we should be called "opposite" - we are complementary and exciting to each other.

Some regularly put the other sex on trial for not being carbon copies of their own sex. Men are supposed to risk rejection by initiating a date, while women are warned to wait for a man to initiate, and then to at least hesitate before saying "yes" to any overture. With such rigid roles, is it any surprise that men sometimes come on too strong?

Flirtation is innate and natural in all societies. Overly extensive sexual-harassment statutes easily confuse natural flirtation with harassment. Some charge harassment only after the alleged harasser has been duly warned not to make further overtures, while others contend "once is enough." For the latter, a man might ask a woman co-worker for a date while at the water cooler - only to face a harassment suit later on. Some women are harassed by their bosses, professors and co-workers. Some men are exploitative rather than sensitive and assertive.

But there is another side to the man-abuses-woman script. Women sometimes falsely accuse a man of harassment after the man refuses to start - or breaks off - an intimate relationship.

As we've seen with the Thomas case, accusations of harassment aren't always treated as unfounded until proof is supplied. A man can lose or fail to get a job or hurt his chances for promotion if he is accused of harassment. Accusations are so damning that many who hear them rush to judgment.

We desperately need to rediscover flirtation, lust, romance, passion and friendship by encouraging women to initiate - and to say "no, thanks" - as much as men are free to do. Women and men should be on the same pleasure-team.

Both sexes are responsible for the current distrust, tension and conflict that separate us. We can conspire together to eradicate these negative feelings in favor of openness, honesty and friendship. Lasting intimacy will be more likely when we achieve economic and social equality. But we don't have to wait for total equality to celebrate each other's humor and playfulness. Let's start now!

Roger Libby is a sociologist and sexologist in Atlanta. A former Seattleite, he received his doctorate from Washington State University.

Copyright (c) 1991 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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