Sexual Harassment: Beyond Abstinence Education

19 Oct 2013

This comes from personal experience and observations, but also my background in sex research. If you don’t believe in sex and gender differences, or in sex being important in the evolved and cultured human mind, please move along. This will only make you mad.

So you’re about to walk into some professional situation--a conference, a collaborative project, a mentorship, a contracted blog--in which you might end up being sexually attracted to or by the other party. What should you keep in mind?

  1. Sex in humans often gets wrapped up with resource exchange, especially in women’s minds. As a consequence, when resource exchange is at play (as it often is in the professional realm) and the two parties could potentially be sexual partners, the situation may carry an erotic charge. One or more of the parties may view the situation as sexual. That doesn’t make it okay to solicit sex from or offer sex to the other party. But it does make a good reason to pick mentors who could never in a million years be your sex partner.

  2. Women and men on average think about sex differently. Men, on average, are more comfortable with casual sex, and women, on average, are more likely to find sexual encounters to be meaningful, confusing, and complicated. Even when a man isn’t conscious that he’s sending a message “you can have this resource if we have sex,” a woman will often find herself (not unreasonably) reading that message onto a resource exchange conversation. All this means that, even if the two parties are the same gender, two parties can experience the same encounter very differently.

  3. So don’t expect the other party to see the signals being passed the same way you do. If you’re worried the other party is misinterpreting what you are saying or signaling, be blunt and name it to avoid further confusion. If you don’t want to say “I”m not offering you sex,” because that would mean you’re naming sex, say with a serious face, “I just want to clarify what we are going to be doing together,” and name the professional activities you will engage in together. Do that as often as you have to.

  4. Many reasonable, decent people have met their partners through work. Therefore, many of the people you meet in the professional arena will not think it is the case that romance or sexual relations should never emerge from professional encounters. Moreover, people don’t just remove all interest in sex and romance because they’ve walked through some double glass doors. So don’t assume they have. Insisting that people arrive at every professional endeavor with absolutely no potential interest in sex or romantic is asking people to be super-human.

  5. That said, when you are walking into a professional situation, you should walk into it as a professional would, not as a cruiser would. To be clearer, it is critical that all people in professional and educational environments feel safe and not subject to cruising. Therefore, if there is any suggestion whatsoever that someone you might be interested in romantically or sexually is not interested in going there, you must absolutely back off, take a cold shower, and do everything to avoid becoming the source of unwanted attention or implicitly or explicitly punishing the other person because she or he doesn’t want that type of attention from you. Grow up or get out of the field. Classes, conferences, and job searches are not your personal OKCupid.

  6. If you solicit romance or sex from a colleague, especially a junior colleague, and she or he accepts your solicitation, recognize that that may not mean s/he actually wants to accept. It may mean s/he feels s/he has to. Figure out a way to have a sober conversation about why this person is accepting. Coercive sex may be hot according to your genitals, but it’s only okay in reality as role play.

  7. When, in the professional realm, one woman observes another woman engaged in a sexual relationship with a third colleague, even if it is a socially legitimate relationship, the observer may find that her unconscious sense of sexual competition is invoked. Consciously she may become aware the meritocracy is now playing out partly via sex. This may lead to her becoming angry at the other woman or to feel sexually and professionally inadequate. This situation sucks. Especially when it goes unprocessed, it often leads to women attacking each other.

  8. If you are in a position of “mentorship” of any sort, take time daily to tell the juniors what a good job they are doing, how smart and talented they are. In order to stop our juniors from being vulnerable to predators, we must make sure that they don’t hear “you’re talented!” only when someone is using it to hit on them. We don’t want them feeling like they have to put out to receive praise, or that, when they receive praise, they have to put out.

  9. Channeling my mom here: “You think you’re so special because he paid some attention to you, told you about his marital problems, made you feel desired by him? Well, let me tell you that whatever a man does, he’s done it with the last woman he was with, and he’ll do it with the next one, too. Ask yourself, if you were watching him act exactly this way towards the next woman, how would you feel? Like you had been with a gentleman who had now moved on, or that you’d been with a jerk with a smooth m.o.?”

  10. Channeling my husband: Two drinks, and you won’t remember any of this.