In the the last few days several articles have asked the question, what's the difference between flirting and harassment? My favourite response to the question is by Political philosopher Becca Reilly-Cooper at Warwick University, it can be read here.
It's a thoughtful response to a tricky and divisive question. However, the article fails to fully recognise one important complication that is at the very root of the controversy surrounding this question.
As the article points out, harassment can be flirting "gone wrong" or flirting in and un-"sensitive" manner, but then surely it can also be unintended? There is a huge grey area here that is not mention, between flirting and harassment, a grey area usually occupied by ugly, unfortunate or mislead men. The clear line draw in the article, between the two, is only clearly visible in the eyes of a woman. The perpetrators of harassment simply can't see it in some cases... leading to them crossing over from flirting and into harassment territory.
Rightly of wrongly, in the endless dance we call flirting, the man is often the proactive agent. So, he is far more likely to act in an unwanted manner if he miss-reads or miss-interprets the body language / situation. If every time a mislead sexual advance is rebuffed, we call it harassment, then men start to feel victimised.
I'm not talking about those who try and pass off harassment as "harmless flirtation" or those who harass because they do not try to understand the woman. I'm talking about those who thought they read the woman correctly, and genuinely intended on flirting, but were interpreted as harassing. Reading body language is notoriously difficult and hopeful, hetrosexual men are probably more prone to it that most. Unintended harassment is still harassment and the woman has a right to defend herself and criticise it. But it is not the same as intended, malicious or aggressive harassment. As I've maintained, there is a blurry line between the two, so both parties have a right to disagree.
Sexual harassment is clearly a huge huge problem, but there will always be instances when it was unintended as such. We must allow for the grey area and the mislead men who find themselves in it. Failing to engage with the male perspective leads to ugly, arrogant articles like the one in the Guardian yesterday, "Flirting or sexual harassment? A six-pint checklist?" Such articles only serve to give feminism a bad name, particularly in the eyes of sexist men who need feminism the most.