How Flirting Can Become Harassment

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“Oh, I was just flirting” he said, she said.  It didn’t feel like “just flirting”, though.  It felt like harassment.

Two missteps change the flirting dance into one of harassment.

When two people are working on a project they often send each other signals that they are paying attention and are interested in what the other person is saying.  But when are these signals interpreted as flirting and when do they cross the line into harassment? 

Some Nonverbal Signals Indicate Interest

Several nonverbal signals help two people form a cooperative connection, that is important in any relationship. Mutual eye contact, an open posture, and mirroring each other’s movements indicate an interest in the other person. 

Psychotherapists use these signals to encourage a friendly connection.  Sales people use these signals to assure the other person that they are being listened to.  But these nonverbal signals are also the first steps in the flirting dance, which sometimes causes them to be misinterpreted.

Signals of Interest Might Be Misinterpreted as Flirting

Flirting goes beyond showing interest into demonstrating that you are a sexually attractive and available person.  After the initial interest signals, the flirting dance moves into preening.  Men and women both will stroke their hair.  They will highlight parts of their body that can be seen as sexually attractive.   A woman might slightly stroke her thigh or she might push her shoulders back to accentuate her breasts.  Or she might turn the palm of her hand outward or toss her head back to show more of her neck, which indicates harmlessness and submissiveness. A man might extend his strong chin or show off his pectoral muscles, signaling his ability to protect the woman.

A fleeting touch changes the flirting dance from entertainment to overtly sexual. Until this point, the couple may have been having fun and each may feel a boost in self-esteem at having been seen as attractive and interesting by the opposite sex. 

Your Boundaries Are Violated

Oops, the dance has now gone a little bit further than you intended. You did not want to move into touching and being touched.  

So much of flirting behavior is beneath one’s consciousness and is a reciprocal dance.  You send out one signal that then suggests moving to the next part of the dance.  Your partner picks up on this signal and does, indeed, move to the next part of the dance.

Saying Stop

saying noIf you know the sequence, though, you can say “stop” or just not show the reciprocal signal at any point.  If you aren’t aware of the sequence, you may just continue the dance until an uncomfortable touch occurs.  If a private area of the body is touched or grabbed, that is even more sexual.  Or a sexual comment might be uttered, again crossing the boundary of what is verbally appropriate in a non-sexual relationship. Sexting is also a violation of the usual boundaries. 

Sometimes, even indicating you are not interested in a sexual relationship does not stop the other person.  A 2010 study at Northwestern University found that, if a man or woman is in a power position over the other and interested in pursuing causal sex, that person is more likely to believe that the subordinate is sexually interested in them.  This belief then can lead to violating boundaries and it is especially problematic in the workplace.

Flirting Versus Sexual Harassment

If the person whose boundaries are violated wanted a sexual relationship, then it is not harassment.  In fact, a 2012 survey by CareerBuilder of more than 4,000 workers found that 39% said they had dated someone at work.

Sexual harassment occurs when a person skips over the flirting dance and goes directly to the final step of touch.  It is grabbing a sexual encounter instead of earning it and before making sure the recipient is giving consent.  Contacting a person through email or social media with sexual messages when that person does not want them is harassment. Even using sexual or demeaning talk about a gender or about another person is harassment.  And certainly, pursuing a sexual relationship when the other person has indicated “stop,” is harassment.

A person in a subordinate position may feel their job is in jeopardy if they do not submit to a sexual overture.  Yet, being strong enough to say “stop” is now becoming sanctioned.  Sexual harassment has no place in the workplace.

(The complete flirting script can be found in my book, Love Demystified: Strategies for a Successful Love Life.)

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