The BBC have been circulating a video this week, entitled ‘Is this sexual harassment?’ and the content of this that I found shocking and disturbing was not the depiction of the stimulus, but the answers to the question itself. 

Everyone is bound to react differently to this question; everyone has their own individual limits, and everyone views the video harbouring their own individual experiences. However, what struck me is just how differently the viewers interpreted ‘signals’ of consent, or lack of it. Interpretation of signs and signals, come-ons and back-offs, is the line that seems to have been causing so many people to question whether or not they themselves have been coercive. To me, the woman in the BBC video was making it abundantly clear that she was not interested in the man’s advances. Her body language showed no hint of flirting, she was making little to no eye contact, she politely rejected his offers to get her a taxi home, she shrugged off his hand on her back. These are all signs: they mean no. Excuses made in the perpetrator’s defence were that she didn’t explicitly say no until he kissed her, but this is no excuse. You do not need to say the word no to make your disinterest clear. What’s more, nobody could blame someone for trying to avoid confrontation in the workplace. She didn’t want to make her working environment uncomfortable, so she didn’t explicitly reject him, she just gave clear signs that his advances were unwarranted. This should be enough. He, however, was more than happy to make her potentially feel uncomfortable in the workplace, just in case it could grab her sexual interest. 

I want a clean slate. I don’t wish to brush away, or diminish the impact, of people’s sexual transgressions, but I want to relieve any molecule of doubt in people’s minds. It’s not enough to say that you misinterpreted signs, but perhaps, in light of public thought, nor is it enough to say that someone should have known better.

Apparently, we need a revolution of education. I go about the world believing that everyone just inherently knows better: they should know that uncomfortable body language, lack of eye contact, and polite rejection, is not flirting. They should know that touching someone, no matter how casually, can be enough to make someone uncomfortable, especially in the workplace. But it has become increasingly clear that people just don’t know.

I’m not suggesting that nobody is allowed to flirt, or find a partner at work – obviously these are natural things. The fact is, we should not be put in the position where we feel we’d be risking our job, or the way we are seen by our colleagues, by turning someone down with the finality that is apparently necessary. People need to understand the signals: no isn’t just a word, it’s whether or not my body is angled towards you, the eye-contact I make with you, the closeness sitting with you without leaning away. We must understand that harmless flirting is only harmless when it is reciprocated. Everyone is different, and though it isn’t always 100% clear that someone isinterested, it doesn’t take a genius to see when someone 100% isn’t.