When Does Being a Jerk, or Just a Guy, Become Sexual Harassment?

First, a caveat that is totally non-controversial: Real sexual harassment is never OK.

But what is real sexual harassment?  To my mind, sexual harassment exists when a predator, generally but not exclusively male, uses power – either physical power or the power of position (a boss, for instance) – to force a victim to submit to sexual activities.  Important to note, this definition includes even those in positions of power who are unsuccessful in using that power over someone's livelihood.  This also always includes any attempt by an adult to seduce or pressure a minor (girl or boy) to submit to and participate in sexual activities, even if nothing takes place.

However, except in those boss-subordinate and adult-minor scenarios, sexual harassment has to involve more than two people talking.  It has to be more than a guy complimenting a woman on her good looks, nice new hairstyle, fetching dress or outfit, or something else along those lines.  Also, when a guy asks a woman on a date, unless sex is explicitly part of the date, that is not sexual harassment, either.

Things are out of balance, and research has documented several ways in which this is the case.  Here are examples of real sexual harassment.  Everything Harvey Weinstein has done to those whose careers he can advance or crush is sexual harassment.  Everything Kevin Spacey did to a fourteen-year-old boy at a party (at Spacey's home), where liquor and drugs were being used, especially lying on top of him to initiate sexual activity, is sexual harassment.  Al Franken was being sexually harassing when he forced a deep-tongue kiss on that unwilling (and rightfully disgusted) woman.  Those are all clear-cut cases of sexual harassment.

However, if an adult man asks an adult woman on a date, just because there is an age difference between them, that is not evidence of sexual harassment.  For proof of this, consider that there are many positive, healthy, and loving May-December relationships.  Even more extreme are those who consider compliments to be prima facie cases of sexual harassment.  Absent any intimidation, when a man asks a woman to go out for dinner or a drink or a date, that is not by any realistic standard a case of harassing her.

Why is drawing such lines important?  Because both society and the media have lost any sense of balance between what is sexual harassment and what isn't.

Several new studies conducted by YouGov have uncovered a remarkably out-of-balance view of what constitutes sexual harassment.  First, in one study addressing the experience of sexual harassment, 70 percent of women believe that other women have been harassed, but only 21 percent believe they themselves have been harassed.  Assuming that the number is solid, then that number is 21 percent too high.  Still, it shows a vast gulf between perception and experience.  More important, consider what a YouGov poll cited by Fox News's Laura Ingraham on Monday defines as sexual harassment, which varies widely between younger and older Americans.  More than one third of Americans under 30 think it is sexual harassment when a man (who's not in a relationship with the woman) compliments a woman's looks, and 25 percent of women under 30 says it's sexual harassment if a man who's not in a relationship with her asks her out for a drink.

This is where reason must step in.  Sexual harassment exists where sex acts are involved or threatened, especially when the sex involves a minor or is linked to job- or career-related power coercion.  But are civil compliments or an attempt to start a dating or social relationship sexual harassment?  If so, by their own standards, a third of young American women are going to wind up being spinsters because they offer no opening for men of their age, men who don't have positions of career power over them, to create relationships.  Instead, these men are branded sexual harassers merely because they were trying to be nice or to open the door to a possible consensual relationship, starting with a social drink in a safely public place.

It has gotten so bad that Democratic strategist and Al Franken apologist Richard Goldstein (whom I've never before agreed with on any subject) told Laura Ingraham that "any single woman can get any senator kicked out of office.  You allege it, and they're out," which he defined as the new standard.  In that environment, where the charge becomes the fact, it is time to rethink the difference between real, hurtful, hateful sexual harassment that might be criminal and is certainly life-altering to the victim and innocently intended behavior that might nonetheless offend a sensitive woman who has been taught that the world revolves around her.

Where do we go from here?  First, the inner views of an overly sensitive young woman who harshly judges innocently intended compliments and invitations should remain her inner views and not reach the light of day.  For if she goes public with charges conflating innocent actions with rape, molestation, and real sexual harassment, her target will become the real victim.  Second, there need to be real consequences for a woman who turns something innocent into the public equivalent of forcible rape or brutal molestation.  Finally, there needs to be an awareness, in America, that the accusation does not equal automatic conviction, as happened in the Duke lacrosse case (and thousands of other false charges that didn't go public but still created devastation in their wakes).

Something must be done, since any bogus sexual harassment charge horrifically damages the man so accused.  This is especially true in our current societal state, where, as noted, the charge is the conviction.  Everyone so charged seems to be assumed guilty – by the press, by political opponents, and by activists eager to tar the reputation of any man who fails to live up to their standards.

Ned Barnett is a political campaign expert, military historian, and communications professional.  He owns Barnett Marketing Communications in Las Vegas.

If you experience technical problems, please write to helpdesk@americanthinker.com