Flirting vs. Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment can be a confusing issue—one person may be flattered by a comment about their appearance while another may be offended by the same comment.  The majority of teens do not sexually harass their peers to be harmful or malicious.  Rather, they are testing boundaries or attempting to establish dating relationships without realizing their behaviors are unwanted.

The difference between flirting and sexual harassment can be determined by the following:

  1. How the behavior feels to the recipient—is it wanted or unwanted?
  2. The amount of freedom a person has to act—can the recipient walk away and no longer be bothered? Can the recipient tell the harasser “no” and the unwanted behavior stop?
  3. The power difference between the two parties—do both people have equal power or does one have more power than the other?  This may be determined by size of the individuals involved, number of people doing harassing, grade level (junior vs. freshman), or the authority the harasser has over the recipient such as employer/employee or teacher/student.
  4. The comfort level of any physical contact—when flirting, the contact is comfortable for both parties involved.

The “Eye of the Beholder”
Rarely does the person accused of sexual harassment view their behavior as offensive.  Rather, they dismiss it by saying “a lot of people are doing it” (and therefore it is acceptable); view the behavior as being “no big deal” or “we were just joking around”; or, identify it as flirting.  Regardless of the harasser’s intention or perception, it is the recipient’s interpretation of the action or behavior that is important.  This interpretation is known as the “eye of the beholder” standard.  It takes into account the effect the behavior had on the recipient rather than the intent of the harasser.