Where is the line between office flirtation and sexual harassment?

The Upside of Office Flirtation? I’m Living It.

The Upside of Office Flirtation? I’m Living It.

What women really think.
Dec. 5 2017 12:53 PM

The Upside of Office Flirtation?

I’m living it.

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Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by ShaunWilkinson/iStock.

When I was 23 years old, my boss would look down the gap at the waistband of my jeans when he walked past my desk. I was an entry-level fact-checker at my first magazine job, and he was an older and more powerful editor. My career, at the time, was in his hands. Once, when we had finished working on a story together, he suggested we get a drink to celebrate. It was a Friday night, and I remember feeling extremely nervous as we sat across from each other in a dark bar. He was flirting with me, I could tell. The next weekend, he asked me out again. A few days later, he kissed me on the steps of the West 4th subway station without first getting my consent. We’ve now been happily married for 14 years and have three children.

Allison Benedikt Allison Benedikt

Allison Benedikt is Slate’s executive editor. Follow her on Twitter.

I’ve thought back on that origin story several times over the past weeks, as horrific allegations of sexual assault and harassment have piled up alongside murkier stories of older men “forcibly kissing” younger women who didn’t want to be kissed, men planting “unexpected” kisses on female colleagues, men being “creepy AF” in Twitter DMs, men asking women if they are single in quasi-professional settings, men touching female colleagues in bars, men being “gross”—basically, stories of men, often men with some power, trying to get with women who are not interested. If I had not been interested in my husband’s advances, would that have been harassment? Was it harassment anyway, since he was my boss? Today, many people seem to think the answer is yes.

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It is an understatement to say something has shifted in the culture. And that shift is unquestionably to the good. Men like Harvey Weinstein and Charlie Rose and Matt Lauer and their less famous counterparts deserve to be kicked out of polite society, ruined, and, in certain cases, indicted. Women (and men) feel safer coming forward with stories of abuse and are being believed. But a byproduct of these welcome developments has been an expansion of our collective definition of harassment. Reading accounts of others’ experiences since the great outpouring began, I’ve vacillated between horror at the abusive situations so many women have endured and alarm at some of the interactions being considered misconduct. I’ve felt a rift with many of the younger women I know, who claim to understand exactly where to draw the line between legitimate behavior and abuse and seem to view harassment as any interaction with a man that has made them uncomfortable. For all the power of the #MeToo moment, it’s been a bit bewildering too.

If a younger woman asks an older and more professionally powerful man for job advice, and that man ends up hitting on the woman, is that on its own harassment? Is it always wrong when a man is attracted to a woman at work, and acts on that attraction? If that man tries to, say, kiss the woman he is attracted to, and she’s not into it, and they leave it at that, was that forcible kissing? If a woman is not attracted to a man who comes on to her, and that man is in a position of any sort of power, is that clearly a fireable offense? I don’t think the answer to these questions is definitively yes. And yet, these tales and others like them have been stitched into the narrative of behavior that’s truly beyond the pale, and at times punished accordingly.

Several women have written recently that they fear a coming backlash—that one false allegation against a famous man will bring this whole new reality crashing down, or that in the understandable urge to name names, women will be seen as the aggressors, out to tar every man’s reputation. I have those fears too, but I also fear the consequences of overcorrection, of the concept of harassment ballooning to include perfectly legitimate attempts at seduction—the initial touch, the scooting closer in the booth, the drunken sloppy first kiss, the occasional bad call or failed pass. Writing in the New Yorker, Masha Gessen has talked about the risks of classifying these as actions that, if unwanted, could land you on a viral spreadsheet or be used to establish a pattern of abuse that can get you suspended or fired.

Attempts by men to express confusion about where the lines are have largely been met with derision. When one guy told the New York Times that workplaces should cancel their holiday parties “until it has been figured out how men and women should interact,” he was dismissed in my work Slack. When a sheriff in Texas wrote on Facebook that he would no longer be hugging his colleagues, because he’s worried that now hugs will be taken as threatening behavior, the Twitterati laughed. “I have an idea! How about just not harassing women?” the flippant response goes. But that reaction is too simplistic. The sheriff and the guy who talked to the New York Times are telling us that there is confusion in the culture about what is and isn’t OK. We certainly shouldn’t elevate those concerns over the need to protect women, but why ignore that confusion with an eye-roll?

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The public scorn certainly does nothing to help men privately exploring these questions in their own lives. A friend of mine told me about a recent date he went on with a woman he met online. After dinner, he asked her if she wanted to go back to his place. She declined. They went on several more dates, though, and eventually she told him that the reason she didn’t go back to his apartment that first night was that he didn’t ask forcefully enough. That same friend told me of a memorable line he’s seen in several Tinder profiles: “likes to be chased.” I laughed, because who doesn’t? But what my friend saw in this current moment were mixed messages: It’s good to be aggressive if your date is interested, but read the room wrong and you are done. It feels great to be chased when you are attracted to the person doing the chasing. Otherwise, the chaser might be seen as a predator.

Some people see this confusion as a small price to pay. Better to—as Gessen characterized this line of thinking—“have ten times less sex than to risk having a nonconsensual sexual experience.” But this calculation doesn’t just protect women from abuse; it protects us from experiences that I’m not sure I’d relish giving up. A world where abusers fear crossing a criminal boundary is clearly a better world. But a world where interested parties fear crossing this new boundary we seem to be edging toward, where any power differential or wrong move is seen as predation, robs women of the ability to consent as well. Women should have power—the power to move about the world without fearing for our safety, but also the power to not be threatened by an unwanted but unmalicious move, the power to say no to a man’s advances without being that man’s victim.

When my husband, John, and I started dating, we weren’t sure it was OK. We kept it secret from our colleagues for awhile, though we did ask another editor to manage me. Brushing past each other in the office and sitting with our legs touching under the table at after-work gatherings where no one knew we were together was the most exciting time in our early relationship, a glorious phase that ended when a colleague spotted us holding hands on the sidewalk outside of a West Village bar and blew our cover. We eventually told our bosses that we were in love, and they were happy for us. It wasn’t until years later that John told me he used to look down the back of my jeans at work. I was surprised—I guess he had been discreet—but filed that little nugget away as cute, not creepy. It turns out a long, long time ago, he thought I was hot.

But when John took me to a dark bar after we closed our first story together, or when he made his move on the steps of the subway station, in the romantic glow of the Duane Reade sign, why wasn’t that harassment? Though he wasn’t the editor of the magazine or anything close, he controlled which assignments I got, and which I didn’t, and would have been the person to write my evaluation, had we done those back then. There were the steps John took to evaluate my interest before leaning in for that kiss, like asking me out for drinks after work. But what if I had felt pressure to say yes to his  invite? Or what if, when he did kiss me, I had pulled away? At the time, our work and our social lives were all mixed up in wonderful, messy, risky ways. I know John wouldn’t have punished me at work had I not been interested in his advances; if he had, that would have been harassment, and not OK. Even so, life at the magazine might have become uncomfortable for me, or for him, if things hadn’t worked out. Maybe I would have wanted to find another job, or maybe he would have. Maybe, because I was younger and less established, it would have fallen on me to figure that out, which would have been hard, but no harder than needing to find a new job because I wasn’t advancing or because I hated my boss for nonkissing reasons. Maybe I wouldn’t have cared at all that this weird dude kissed me. Maybe I would have been flattered. Or maybe it would have really sucked. In none of those scenarios, though, would John have been a sexual harasser simply because he had more power in the office than I did and made a move. He took a risk. I was capable of evaluating his advances for myself. In my case, I welcomed them. If we had just met today, though, I fear there’s no way he would have even tried.

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It is completely within the norm of human exploratory romantic behavior for people to take steps—sometimes physical steps—to see if the other person reciprocates their feelings. It is OK to flirt with a person who you aren’t sure wants to be flirted with. It is OK to not be 100 percent great at reading signals. It is even OK to be grossed out by someone’s advances, as long as those advances stop once you make clear you aren’t into it. There are predators and harassers, even more of them than I thought, and there are some lines that are simple to draw, even if we haven’t been enforcing them until now. But there has to be room for a relationship like mine to happen. And the difference between John being my husband and my harasser cannot just be that it worked out. The difference between actions that can get you married and actions that can get you fired can’t simply be whether or not the person you are interested in is interested back. Careers should end when someone tries, and is rebuffed, and does not heed that rebuffing. Careers should not end just because someone tried. We’re not all attracted to the people who are attracted to us.

I was, however, attracted to my husband. And before I was attracted to him, I had a crush on another guy at work, who sometimes wanly flirted back but clearly wasn’t interested. I kept trying anyway, in my own awkward and fumbling way, despite him having a girlfriend. I’m sure I touched his hand in a bar or tried to get close to him when I could, even though deep down I knew he wasn’t into me. Maybe I even made him feel uncomfortable. There was also another guy, the office flirt and star writer, who recently emailed to ask if he had ever harassed me. I get why he wrote—it is cliché at this point to note that men are rethinking their old behavior—but no, that wasn’t harassment. It was fun.

Of course not all workplaces are the same, and I have no interest in arguing that every office should be flirty and fun, or that all bosses should feel free to flirt with abandon. My point is not that I know where the line is. It’s that, even in the midst of the most public reckoning with atrocious and abusive male behavior of my lifetime, the line is not as clear as much of the dialogue would have you think. We spend a huge portion of our waking hours at work, and particularly when you are young and single or childless or divorced or simply working all the time, much of your social life revolves around your colleagues. We have work crushes and work wives and husbands, and sometimes we kiss our co-workers or sleep with them. Sometimes that turns into something real—my husband and I are not the only long-married couple to come out of that now-defunct magazine. But sometimes it turns into everyone at a bar, drinking a little too much, and a man touching a woman’s arm or leg or rubbing her shoulder, trying to make a move, and that woman not being into it. That’s an uncomfortable situation, but we all make each other uncomfortable sometimes, particularly when sex and attraction are involved. The goal should be for a person to say “no thanks, dude,” without consequences, not for rejection to never be necessary at all.

I remember the night I first realized John might be into me. The magazine had invited the staff on a booze cruise. We were all on this boat—me, John, the guy I had a crush on, all of our colleagues who were also my best friends—tooling around New York Harbor, getting drunk and talking shit. John was probably getting the drunkest and talking the most shit. We eventually docked and ended up at a karaoke bar on the Far West Side. People started to peel off. It was getting late. My friend asked me if I wanted to share a cab home, but John was singing “Sweet Child of Mine” very poorly and for some reason I wanted to stay. I’m not even sure I liked John that night, but I know that neither of us was in a position to use our best judgment. Alone at a bar with my drunk boss: It reads today like a nightmare situation for any young working woman. But for me, it was the start of something good.

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