Recently, I was involved in an effort to revise my college’s sexual harassment, rape, and abuse policies, which means that I spent like eighty hours sitting in various rooms having meetings with people. (And also the policy is 100% gender-neutral and includes envelopment as rape. Say thank you.) In the process of doing this, I discovered that some of the common Internet ideas about sexual harassment law aren’t actually true.
Note: throughout this article, I will specifically be discussing sexual harassment policies at schools. While sexual harassment policies in the workplace are probably substantially similar, I didn’t actually spend a month studying them and therefore do not feel qualified to comment.
Sexual harassment law does not criminalize flirting. Actually, let me bold this for the Redditors in the back complaining about how they can’t hit on women at work anymore: sexual harassment law does not criminalize flirting.
For instance, let’s say you wanted to ask someone out on a date! According to the Office of Civil Rights’s guidance on sexual harassment policies, it does not count as sexual harassment unless it’s threatening or intimidating or, in some circumstances, repeated. So, uh, don’t intimidate people, and don’t ask people out fifteen times on the off chance that they will change their minds.
Or let’s say that you wanted to comment that someone had a nice ass. That, too, would not be sexual harassment, unless it got to the point that it would interfere with a reasonable student’s education. Random comments about the niceness of someone’s ass, okay; multiple people commenting every day, throughout the school, for months, about the niceness of someone’s ass, not okay.
Or let’s say you wanted to send someone flowers and they didn’t want them! This is specifically mentioned as not being sexual harassment. Now, this is weird to me, because I’m having a hard time figuring out in what circumstance you’d send someone a bouquet of a dozen roses if you weren’t aware of whether they would want the flowers, and if someone randomly sent me flowers I’d probably think they were kind of creepy. But nevertheless you can do that and it is not against any rules.
Or let’s say you’re a teacher and the kid skinned his knee and you hugged him! That is not sexual harassment, because it is legitimate nonsexual contact. Now, if you were repeatedly hugging your students on the slightest pretense in a really creepified manner, that would actually be sexual harassment.
Also, in order for something to qualify as sexual harassment, it has to be unwelcome. This is usually the point at which people say “See! Sexual harassment law is biased against unattractive men! Attractive men get away with everything and we unattractive men get scraps!” and then wander off muttering about alpha males. But sexual harassment has to create an unwelcome environment to count as sexual harassment. Most of the time, that means that the behavior has to be repeated. If you comment on someone’s shirt, and they say that they wish you wouldn’t, and then you stop, that’s not harassment. If you comment on someone’s shirt, and they say that they wish you wouldn’t, and you keep commenting on their shirt, that is harassment, and at that point the person’s right to a safe learning environment trumps your right to be Lord and/or Lady Douchington.
Now, there are circumstances in which a single act counts as sexual harassment. For instance, if you grab someone’s ass, tits, or genitals and it’s unwelcome! However, I do not think it is too much to expect that people make sure that their ass-grabbing is wanted before they go about grabbing other people’s asses willy-nilly. That is not too high an expectation.
Also, you know what’s cool? Sexual harassment does not just refer to flirting with people in ways they find uncomfortable, inappropriately sexualized classes when the sex does not relate to the subject of the class, and making people have sex with you for A’s. There’s also “gender-based harassment,” which refers to things like sabotaging all the women’s experiments or teasing a dude for not fitting your ideas of what men ought to be like.
Finally, I would like to point out that school-level sexual harassment policy guidance is remarkably gender-neutral. Most of the areas where it’s not gender-neutral reflect sexism in our society (which, for instance, views women’s breasts as more private than men’s chests) and not in the guidance itself. In fact, without sexual harassment law, there would be thousands of men who would be sexually harassed by women and who would have no recourse whatsoever. So. There’s that.