Be Careful Equating Unwanted Sexual Advances with Harassment

October 2017 saw a series of allegations of sexual harassment, abuse, and assault in Hollywood spark a conversation about sexual misconduct in society. I don’t object to that conversation happening, but I do object to one concerning trend: people and outlets conflating unwanted sexual advances with sexual harassment.

(Length: 800 words.)

1. Examples of conflating unwanted advances with harassment

USLegal says “[u]nwanted sexual advances are also known as sexual harassment” (no legislation is cited). This 2014 article in Slate uses “unwanted sexual advances” and “harassment” interchangeably (compare title and subtitle), as does this 2017 article in Entertainment Weekly (compare title and first sentence). This 2017 article in The Hill uses “unwanted sexual advances” and “inappropriate and unwanted sexual advances” interchangeably (compare first sentence and second sentence). This 2016 article in Business Insider uses “unwanted sexual advances” and “unwanted, inappropriate sexual advances” interchangeably (compare title and first sentence).

2. Why is this wrong?

The basic point, from Laura Kipnis in Slate:

Even the wording itself is problematic—it seems to imply that the outcome of the advance should be known prior to the outcome occurring. But do we all wear our desires written in neon letters on our foreheads?

“Sexual advances” include normal actions that are necessary for sex and relationships to happen, like asking someone on a date or back to your apartment for sex.

(Here are other people defining the term. Sexual advances are “gestures made towards another person with the aim of gaining some sort of sexual favor or gratification”—USLegal. A user on Quora gives an example of “[w]anna come over to my place tonight for some fun?” but says that subtler things may also count, “because indirect communication is common in courtship”. Another user groups romantic advances in with sexual advances, which makes sense because romantic interest usually includes sexual interest. Example: “Bob made a sexual advance on Jill when he bought her dinner at that fine restaurant”—Urban Dictionary.)

Importantly, you don’t always know whether your advances are wanted until you make them. The reason people stress about asking someone on a date is that they don’t know for sure if they’ll get a yes. And if they get a no, they’ve made an unwanted sexual advance. Classifying that as sexual harassment is implicitly expecting people who make advances to be mindreaders, and never misread interest. That’s not realistic.

3. What are the consequences?

I don’t expect that simply getting rejected will land someone in legal trouble. Legal definitions of sexual harassment have specific and generally reasonable requirements.

(The Alberta Human Rights Act specifically mentions harm to a person’s job security, working conditions, etc. The Ontario Human Rights Code specifies conduct that is “that is known or ought reasonably to be known to be unwelcome”. Australia’s relevant legislation requires that a “reasonable person […] would have anticipated the possibility that the person harassed would be offended, humiliated or intimidated”.)

What concerns me is the message that is sent by the widespread practice of, intentionally or carelessly, conflating unwanted advances and harassment.

First, I worry that internalizing the message that unwanted advances are harassment could easily cause someone, especially if they’re already anxious or inexperienced, to be even more timid and afraid of expressing interest. If failure means rejection and felling like as a sexual harasser, that’s one more reason to not even try.

Second, I worry that this obscures the problem of sexual misconduct and harms victims. Kevin Spacey is accused of attempting to have sex with a 14 year old boy. In his apology he came out as gay. Sarah Kate Ellis, president and CEO of gay rights group GLAAD, criticized him for making it a coming out story, saying that it is instead “a story of survivorship by […] those who speak out about unwanted sexual advances”. But this obscures Spacey’s wrongdoing. The problem isn’t that his advances were unwanted, it’s that they were done to a teenage boy who was under the age of consent. It’s not a story about unwanted sexual advances, it’s a story about attempted statutory rape.

4. What should we do?

Many factors can make sexual advances become harassment, abuse, or assault. This includes if the target of the advances is underage, has already said no, or is too intoxicated; also if the existing relationship makes it inappropriate (e.g., teacher–student) or if the escalation happens too fast (e.g., groping is fine during sex but not on the street).

If someone does one of these things, refer to what they actually did wrong. If you need a catch-all term, use “inappropriate sexual advances”. Don’t frame the problem in terms of “unwanted” advances” because that’s not what makes them wrong. And if the only problem is that the advances were unwanted, perhaps the person didn’t do anything wrong? They misread interest but they haven’t wronged or mistreated anyone.

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