What’s Harassment? What’s OK? Here are a Few Tips.

| Opinion | January 4, 2018

By Marcy Rothenberg
With men being ousted almost daily from positions of power in every workplace imaginable – national and state legislatures, the courts, the news media, entertainment, corporate America, the technology sector … even the ownership ranks of NFL football – over credible accusations of sexual harassment or assault, I thought it might be a good idea to offer some helpful hints to all those well-meaning, red-blooded American males who suddenly seem terribly confused about what behavior is acceptable and what might get them fired.
As the Gazette’s own publisher Doug Sutton declared in his December 7 column, “I don’t know how to handle women these days; whoops, I probably shouldn’t have used the word handle, but you know what I mean, right? (I really hope so, because I’m paranoid these days.) It’s been said that these days, we guys need to keep our mouths shut, our hands to ourselves, while keeping our pants buttoned up. But, what about compliments as to how nice she looks? (If I tell a woman she looks like crap, does that count as sexual harassment?) Or how I like her new hairstyle or what about a friendly hug? I’m in serious need of advice.”
Happy to oblige, sir.
Tip number one: If any of the following thoughts (or variations on the theme) flit through your brain in the nanosecond before you open your mouth to “flatter” a woman or lean in to hug or kiss a woman who’s not your wife or significant other …
“She looks just like my daughter …”
“Funny…she’s my daughter’s friend …”
“It’d be my word against hers …”
“She’s drunk. Why would she care?”
“I’m drunk. She’ll understand.”
“Hey, she smiled …”
“It’s the holidays. Everyone gets a little crazy …”
“What can she do about it? I’m the boss.”
“I can just tell she wants me …”
“If she didn’t want me, she wouldn’t be wearing those shoes/those slacks/that sweater/that skirt/that makeup …”
… STOP. Do not pass go. Do not “compliment.” Do not steal a kiss or cop a feel. Just don’t.
Tip number two: If you’re really, truly clueless about the difference between a friendly, inoffensive hug and an amorous embrace, here’s one way to distinguish one from the other. If it feels like the hug you would give to your dear old Great-Aunt Sally, it’s probably okay. If it feels like the embrace you shared after proposing to your wife, it’s not.
And tip number three: If you still find yourself in a situation in which you think it’s okay to compliment, kiss or hug a woman but you’re not sure how she’d feel about it … ask her. Seriously. Explain that you don’t mean to offend or behave inappropriately, but you’d like to compliment her on her new hairstyle. You’d like to hug or kiss hello. Most women appreciate being asked, and having the opportunity to express their personal preference.
Some of us are huggers. Some aren’t. Some don’t mind a kiss on the cheek. Some do. Most do NOT want to be fending off wandering hands once a hug commences. Most do NOT want a buss that turns into an exploration of their dental work.
Long story short: Treat us with the same respect you’d expect your wife or daughter to receive from men with whom they come in contact in their daily lives. Treat us as individual human beings. (Not targets.)
And if, despite your best efforts, you realize that a woman was bothered by something you said or did, apologize. Explain your intention. And ask her how she’d like to be treated going forward.
It’s really that simple. And I really can’t believe it needed explaining.
Marcy Rothenberg is a local writer and political activist who advocates on community, environmental and women’s issues, and whose graduate research analyzed endorsement, messaging and financing disparities in women’s and men’s political campaigns in California. As a member of then candidate Barack Obama’s National Urban and Metropolitan Policy Committee in 2008, she served as a rapid response writer for the campaign.

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