In boardrooms and locker rooms, some men are asking themselves and each other: “Was I a sexual harasser? Is that me?”
Actions once seen as flirtation might today be regarded as sexual harassment — or worse.
With the promise of anonymity, I played True Confessions with 10 men I know — a cross-section of age, race, class. The majority said they had done something in the past that could land them in trouble today.
Only one, a construction worker at the time, admitted to touching women. “I did it to them, and they did it to me,” the 70-year-old says without regrets. No other men admitted to touching, but most used coercion on a date, made sexual innuendos, or flirted with co-workers.
On-the-job flirting is a big no-no in the opinion of management consultant S. Chris Edmonds, author of The Culture Engine.
“Flirting and seduction have no place in a purposeful, positive, productive work culture — then or now, nor in the future,” he declares.
Banning flirting in the workplace may be good in principle, but unrealistic. I know married couples who met and began dating on the job. Don’t you? How is a ban going to stop that, when one person finds another attractive?
Are there workplace rules? Sure. Supervisors should not date subordinates.
Although voluntary relationships between peers is acceptable, forcing anyone to date or to provide sexual services is illegal, says Debra Casey, assistant professor of human resource management at Temple University’s Fox School of Business.
Harassment is unwanted sexual attention, but it’s tricky.
“When I told my secretary she looked pretty, was that harassment?” asks a retired TV executive who is 68. I think not, but compliments can crash you on the rocks today.
The 38-year-old CEO of a nonprofit charity in the suburbs, tells me he was “very forward” when he was dating, maybe bordering on aggressive. He wonders if he crossed a line.
A 77-year-old restaurateur habitually stopped women on the street, but thinks that was OK because it was always “non-threatening, almost playful,” he says.
A man can’t know if his attention is unwanted until he makes a move. It’s OK to step to the plate, it’s not OK to be a pig.
A 62-year-old attorney in Philadelphia and the suburbs says that when he asked for a date and was rejected he would ask again. Up to five times, he says. Yes, he actually has a number.
Casey says, “You can ask five times for a date without being creepy,” as long as you’re not following her home or texting her 40 times a day.
Half the men I spoke with said they bowed out if turned down. “Rejection was my default position,” says a 39-year-old marketing strategist based in Philadelphia.
Some rules seem fuzzy, but we can agree on this: No touching, especially the way Al Franken and George H.W. Bush are said to have touched.
But “no touch” was unfair to Garrison Keillor, dismissed by Minnesota Public Radio for supposedly touching a woman’s bare back as he tried to console her. That firing was “not reasonable,” Casey says, based on facts we have.
The current uproar will not lead to a permanent change in male behavior, Casey believes, but it will “lead to a change in female behavior.They will come forward more.” That would be a good thing.
In the meantime, for men in the dating game, Casey suggests a rule to determine if you’re acting appropriately around women: Ask yourself how you’d feel if someone else acted the same way with your sister.