Is This Really Harassment?

Is this harassment? I mean, is it really harassment? I get this question a lot from folks who have participated in my workshops on bystander intervention and how to be an ally.

Maybe it’s because we don’t want to think about how frequently, and in how many situations, we’ve experienced harassment. Maybe it’s because we don’t want to believe it could happen in this situation with that individual. Maybe it’s because we’ve been told so many times that we’re overreacting, that he didn’t mean it that way, that we need a thicker skin, that if we can’t take the heat . . .you know what I mean, you’ve heard it all. Maybe you’ve said some of it.

I recently received this email after presenting a bystander intervention training for the staff at a nonprofit organization. (Details have been changed to protect the privacy of the sender.)

One thing I wonder about, however, is how to proceed when there are vague boundaries that seem to be crossed but where this is not apparent to bystanders or even to the target herself. For example, last weekend I was sitting on a bench in a public park, minding my own business. Shortly afterwards a man sat next to me and began chatting. It was a normal conversation at first, and I usually don’t mind talking to strangers because it can be a fun way to connect with new people, but he eventually segued into more personal topics – my religious background, my relationship with my parents, etc., and then he was asking me questions like “What are your vices that your parents don’t approve of?” and “Are you a daddy’s girl?” “You look so nice and approachable.” I felt pretty uncomfortable about this, extricated myself from the conversation, and walked away.

I don’t think he was necessarily a predatory guy, but the way he steered the conversation seemed inappropriate since we had never met before. I could see these sorts of conversations happening at places like professional conferences and meetings where some people show up and are looking to make connections – maybe a lonely guy who doesn’t know anyone, and a shy, non-confrontational girl who doesn’t want to come across as being rude or mean. In most cases it’s as simple as just walking away, but is this the sort of thing that should be later reported to anyone? It seems neglectful to just let someone wander around a conference who’s going to be (potentially) repeatedly approaching women and potentially steering them into very uncomfortable conversations, and potentially having it escalate into something more. 

These are the types of grey areas that I’m not sure constitute harassment and that I’m not sure whether they require any sort of response. Should I have told him those were inappropriate questions to ask? If it had happened at a meeting, should I have told anyone else about it? How, as a bystander, could I have recognized this happening to someone else?

Here is my response:

Harassment is unwelcome and unwanted behavior of any kind, and is defined from the experience of the target, not the intent of the harasser. As soon as you started to feel uncomfortable, that encounter went from a conversation to a harassment incident. 

In fact what you experienced was a form of resistance testing - seeing how far he could go before you put an end to it by walking away. The predatory harassers like this guy (yes, he is a “predatory guy”) get a charge out of the distress, upset, shock, etc. that they see in their targets. In addition to things like you experienced, guys like him are the ones who “flash” or masturbate in public, just to see the look of shock it causes. By walking away, you deprived him of that.

I am sorry you went through this; it sucks and really does shake you up. There you are, enjoying a nice day in the park, contemplating your to-do list or the cute sundress on the woman who just walked by or the interesting mix of people in the city and then – BAM! – someone who thinks it is their right to interrupt what you’re doing so they can give themselves a thrill has to come along and remind you that no matter how nice the day, the to-do list, the sundress, or the mix of people, you are not really safe sitting there, in public, minding your own business. 

What you did was a perfectly fine response - just getting out of the situation by standing up and walking away was a great way to ensure your own safety and end the encounter.

Yes, you could have called him on the behavior and labeled it harassment and told him to stop. You could have, but that doesn’t mean you should have. Much of the time, when this kind of thing happens, we’re so startled and shocked (and kinda grossed out) that the only thing we can think of to do is just get the heck outta there, and that is the best response in that situation, at that time.  

As a bystander to a scene like this, you may not have been able to tell what was going on, unless the target looked upset during the encounter or as she walked away. Not all harassment incidents are obvious, and some of them are over before there is time to intervene.

If it happened at a professional society conference or meeting I’d say yes, it would be worth reporting it, particularly if you know who the harasser is. This kind of behavior tends to be a pattern, and he will most likely try it again. Even if you didn’t want to report it, talking to someone about it is worthwhile, if only to get confirmation that what you think just happened is actually what happened. It’s often so surprising and shocking that we have a hard time believing our own experience - telling someone about it helps clarify it in your own mind.

And the other scenario you described - the socially clumsy guy, the non-confrontational girl - are why having an explicit code of conduct for meetings is so helpful. Having and publicizing a policy can help the “socially clueless” get clued in, and it can encourage folks who would be hesitant to complain about this kind of behavior to report it. It really is powerful to have the organization putting on the meeting clearly and publicly say, “This is unacceptable and we won’t tolerate it.” 

One of the side effects of being part of an active bystander intervention training is that you’ll start to notice harassing behavior - either stuff happening to you, or to others - that you might have just glossed over before. Women put up with this kind of thing starting from such a young age, we forget it’s not normal, or we think it’s just something we have to teach ourselves to ignore.