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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  • John

    I have a question. I don’t like to be touched. I don’t know if it’s social conditioning or something that is inherent to me, but I’ve always found unnecessary touching from either men or women harassing. Some feminist men have decried the inability of men to experience “platonic touch”.

    Many women have placed their hand on my arm, shoulder, or back in non-sexual situations like a saleslady when I’m shopping for plates. I view this as sexual harassment, but I also have difficulty with “platonic touch” is this sexual harassment? Because there are some men like me, I know of one other in particular, should feminism advocate that women not engage in platonic touch either without prior consent or should men just get over it?

    • Dante

      I think you may not understand sexual harassment if you think a touch on the shoulder from a salesperson is sexual in nature. However, it’s okay to not like that. In my opinion it’s pretty much never okay to touch another person without consent outside some kind of emergency, which means that it’s pretty much never okay to touch a stranger. It doesn’t have to be sexual harassment, or even harassment, in order to be not okay – many things are not okay that aren’t sexual harassment. I don’t think you’re going to do yourself any favors if you tell salespeople that they’re sexually harassing you by touching you on the shoulder. You’re still allowed to tell them not to do that.

    • veradona

      No, you are not expected to “get over it”. This is about setting boundaries, if you are uncomfortable with physical touch, you can set boundaries by asking people to respect your personal space and not make unwanted physical contact. That is your right, and it should be respected. There is nothing wrong with not being comfortable with platonic touch, and you have every right to ask for it not to happen. There are several different social and cultural norms, and it is reasonable to ask people in general to be sensitive to differences in peoples’ comfort with physical contact.

      But no, it does not qualify as sexual harassment. Why do I say that? Because there are a number of hallmarks of sexual harassment that are not common with this particular situation:
      1. By your own description, the touch itself is platonic. This means it is free of expectations: there is no sexual connotations/demands involved with the touch. The touch itself does not imply or gain anything for the person who i.e. puts their hand on your arm. Sexual harassment is generally sexual by nature: it implies an objectification/sexualization of the victim.
      2. Sexual harassment is often against the wishes of the victim. That means that it often continues despite the victims requests against it. So if you ask someone to not touch you because it makes you uncomfortable, and they continue, then that is harassment. I’m not sure if it is sexual harassment, but it is still harassment and not acceptable. This is of course within a certain reasonable limit. My mother hugs me all the time even when I don’t want to be. Is it annoying? Sure. Do I think it’s harassment? Absolutely not. I know it comes from a place of tenderness and affection. Which refers to back to my first point: sexual harassment comes with sexual intent
      3. Sexual harassment, as this article mentions, is often more about the power dynamics then the sexual act itself. It is often used as a way to assert dominance in a situation, because unwarranted sexual advances are hard to stop or rebuff. Individuals who are sexually harassed often feel undermined because the message they get is “I do not care how intelligent, diverse, capable you are, I will sexually objectify you simply because you are attractive”. It shifts conversation to a place of pure physicality which is why the harassee will often feels like other components of themselves are belittled. That, of course, can make them feel degraded and powerless. In your situation, however, the platonic touch is not really being done to assert power or belittle you. If you feel that is the purpose of the touch, then that is harassment. If, however, the touch happens either out of the persons different perceptions, or out of a non-sexual attempt to connect, it is not harassment, it is more of an annoyance which you can ask them to stop. Again, if they don’t, it could be harassment. You have to decide how you feel about it.

      In conclusion, when discussing sexual harassment, we are talking about a highly nuanced occurance. It is not simply about the words spoken, the gestures made, the physical contact. It is about an assertion of power, the loss of control for the victim, the feel of objectification, the loss of dignity, and the sexual or dominating motives of the propagator. One of the reasons it is so difficult to discuss sexual harassment is because it is so nuanced. In your case, you have to examine the motives of the person touching your arm, shoulder, etc. You should see how they react to being asked not to do it. You should try and get people in general to think about boundaries and different peoples comfort with physical touch. It is definitely something that should be talked about: a healthy conversation to have that would be good for both people like yourself who are uncomfortable with physical touch, and people who sometimes make physical contact without thinking about how the other person will feel. But I do think it might be a slightly different conversation than the one about sexual harassment.

      Hope that helps!

  • Stephan J

    Hm, I don’t think the topic is this easy. As I don’t see flirting as unproblematic as maybe the author does. I think that flirting is something which can be interpreted, as the author of the guardian calls it: performance or to put it even more directly: marketing. It’s marketing of your gender, character etc. A lot of things play a role if you use flirting as a way to create the atmosphere for sexual contact, and this things are highly linked with relations of power and what is considered norm. So for me for a long time I thought if you actually do want Sex its better to directly ask, its more honest and it’s a less manipulative way were you market yourself. However I agree with the author of feministing that one has to keep the power relations in mind and from this view it makes total sense to me that even when a guy just asks friedndly: “Do you want Sex with me?” can feel very uncomfortable. So I don’t have the perfect solution, other than if you want Sex go to a pro-feminist Sex Party where people know that they might be asked for Sex. And on other occassions you should make clear that the other person knows you respect them and find then a way to ask if Sex might be an option. However I still don’t think that flirting is something which is not shot through with relations of powers even if both people feel comfortable and if you want to avoid this performance sex one needs to find other solutions.

  • Rebecca Griffin

    The way Foster conflates harassment and sexually liberated behavior is truly bizarre. If you can’t tell the difference between those 2 things, you’re doing something wrong. He obviously doesn’t understand the sex-positive feminism he’s claiming to align himself with. I wrote a bit more about it on my blog:

  • M Raymond Torres

    I’m reminded that Gloria Steinem called the sexual revolution the “more sex for men revolution.” Much yet to be done.