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People who felt flattered as teenagers or young adults by sexual advances from older authority figures grew to see such pursuits as “gross” or an abuse of power as they aged.
Survivors of verbal harassment were sometimes wary of naming it as such if it never escalated into anything physical.
By legal definition, sexual harassment is unwelcome or unwanted; if it’s welcome or wanted, it’s not harassment.
The baked-in subjectivity of this definition, combined with the large-scale recalibration of this moment, has allowed space for some people to wonder whether cracking down on sexual harassment will put an end to all friendly flirtation.
To these survey respondents,sexual violations in the context of romantic relationships have been some of the hardest examples to recognize as assault in the moment, but they’ve also done some of the deepest and most lasting damage to both survivor and perpetrator.
The variety of behaviors people corralled into the two gray areas identified here—“borderline but ultimately OK” and “borderline but ultimately not OK”—is telling, too.
We also asked our respondents to offer examples of incidents that, for them, fell into a “gray area”—a category of behavior that isn’t unequivocally harassment, whether because of the intent of the perpetrator, the reception of the target, or the severity of the offense.
If men are worried that they are constantly on the verge of unwittingly violating someone in the post-#Me Too era—which, good, they should be—it’s because, in a society that rarely takes claims of clear-cut sexual assault seriously, there’s usually little room for open discussion about the more nuanced social norms that define the boundaries of sexual harassment. Room for survivors to dig up and display the rotting garbage they’ve been toting around for years, to explain aloud, for the whole world to hear, where they draw the line between right and wrong.What seems like a gray area to one person is outright harassment to another.Many of the anecdotes that respondents described, especially those that involved unwanted physical touch, could easily be filed under the graver labels of sexual abuse or assault.A friend’s father, who I’ve known for years and hugged at least a dozen times, paused and asked for consent before putting an arm around me at a party this month.“It’s just—you never know how people will feel about being touched these days,” he said with a laugh.
To anyone bearing witness, #Me Too is writing an alternate history of the workplace, the classroom, the corner store, the dance club, the sidewalk, the friend’s party, and the intimate confines of the romantic relationship.