The intellectual defense of sexual harassment (Hint: there isn’t one)

Stop-Sexual-HarassmentI read a piece in The Guardian yesterday that said sexual harassment is bad but sometimes it’s not actually sexual harassment just sexual liberation being misinterpreted. I didn’t know that this needed to be said, but apparently it does: there is no intellectual argument to be made in the defense of sexual harassment.

Really. Try as you might, mostly cisgender heterosexual men, but the bottom line is you can’t theorize your way into a world where harassment of any kind is acceptable. Oh, and you will try. I know. Because the more pushback there is to the daily occurrences of street/sexual harassment, the more (y)our privilege becomes threatened, and the more that frightens many of us.

Most often, the defense wades into the territory of human attraction, a field most of us seek to understand but are hopelessly lost in when seeking answers. The thinking goes that what is “perceived” as harassment is actually flirtation. The objectification and sexualization of women’s bodies is an attempt at mating. These can be clumsy attempts, sure, but that’s only because our attraction overrides any sense of boundaries or social grace. We are beholden to lust. 

So, the increasingly thin thinking goes, much of what is being called harassment is not something we need to be worried about. If women simply looked at it differently — as a compliment, as a remark on their level of attraction — they would see that what they’ve been complaining about is the evolution of human mating rituals. It’s not sexism. It’s harmless flirting that’s being discouraged by feminists who are overreacting to displays of overt sexuality. They are downright prudish.

And anyway, haven’t feminist been fighting for sexual liberation? Shouldn’t we all be free to directly proposition one another for sex, regardless of gender, because that’s what feminists have been arguing all along? Why call it harassment when it’s really just the logical conclusion of the sexual revolution?

If we’re still conflating harassment with attraction, then the point has not been made clear enough: harassment is about power, not about sex. When making lewd comments to a woman he doesn’t know on the street, a man is not flirting. He’s asserting his dominance. He’s reminding that woman of her “place.” He’s performing a masculinity based on control. This isn’t sexual liberation.

Which, let’s talk about being sexually liberated. That isn’t a license to approach any woman, anywhere, in any way that a man sees fit. The way toward liberation is not to ignore the power dynamics between the genders. We solve nothing by choosing to be blind to them. There will be men who are attracted to women. Likewise, there will be women who are attracted to men. Sometimes, this attraction will be purely sexual and both parties will want to act on that attraction. Great. Congrats to all parties involved. That’s not an excuse for sexual harassment.

The thing is, you can’t make the issue of sexual harassment into an intellectual exercise. It’s not about matching wits, or theory, or citing Freud, or whatever happened in Good Will Hunting. Sexual harassment is a lived experience, often traumatic, at its root degrading, and sometimes frightening. There is no theory that absolves one from that.

It’s at this point where the intellectual defenders say, “How will a man know what is considered harassment?” You could start by reading a book, smart guy. But within the context of a real life social interaction, there are always cues, verbal and physical, that if you haven’t picked up on, you’re probably doing a bad job at flirting anyway. Or, you’ve convinced yourself that your presence is a gift to all women and they all find you irresistible and their every action is an invitation. In that case, you’ve drank enough Kool-Aid from the fountain of privilege to last you through at least four divorces and multiple sexual harassment suits.

Boundaries will be determined by all parties involved, so yes, there’s no one size fits all rule. With consent, you can play with these dynamics and roles and power imbalances as you see fit. Do what makes you two (three, four, five…) happy. But it’s of the utmost importance, as a man interested in approaching a woman you don’t know, that you’re sensitive to the fact that she has likely been harassed, degraded, objectified, and name-called by a good number of men just because she exists. In this context, no, it’s probably not a good idea to start out with “hey, you wanna bone?” But I’m not here to give flirting tips. Figure that shit out on your own. My point here is to say that we can’t decide that simply because human attraction exists, there must be an intellectual component to sexual harassment that should be taken into consideration. There isn’t. Harassment is harassment.

How do you know what it is? She’ll tell you.

MychalMychal Denzel Smith is a Knobler Fellow at The Nation Institute.

Mychal Denzel Smith is a Knobler Fellow at The Nation Institute and contributing writer for The Nation Magazine, as well as columnist for and Salon. As a freelance writer, social commentator, and mental health advocate his work has been seen online in outlets such as The New York Times, The Atlantic, Salon, Al Jazeera English, Gawker, The Guardian,, Huffington Post, The Root, and The Grio.

Mychal Denzel Smith is a Knobler Fellow at The Nation Institute and contributing writer for The Nation Magazine, as well as columnist for and Salon.

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