Some Thoughts On Harassment And Consent

How to deal with harassment – street harassment like catcalls, as well as persistent attempts to flirt – is an ongoing topic in feminist circles (as it should be). There are frequently misunderstandings, however, about what harassment actually means, and why it’s considered a big deal.

This Brute Reason post lays out a lot of reasons why the men who say “But I’d love that kind of/that much attention!” aren’t actually talking about street harassment. They fail to understand that harassment is, by its nature, unwanted attention. It’s not an isolated phenomenon, something that happens once in a while and can make you feel good about yourself because it was a simple compliment. It is constant, random, and it adds up. For sexual assault survivors, it can reopen traumatic wounds.

This post by TheFerrett illustrates the point using a metaphor: there he is, sitting in a coffee shop, minding his own business, when a girl asks if she can buy him coffee. As soon as he says yes, she starts talking to him about Jesus. He doesn’t mind the topic so much as he minds the subterfuge. The same thing happens the next day, and the next. He becomes cynical and has trouble enjoying his trips to Starbucks, where he used to be able to focus and actually get work done.

Obviously it’s an unrealistic situation, but hopefully one that demonstrates how harassment, or unwanted attention of any sort, is experienced and perceived. A lot of people having these kinds of discussions seem to miss the fact that the person being harassed identifies the experience as unwanted – and that’s all that matters. No matter how friendly or well-intentioned the person giving the attention is, if it’s unwanted, he or she should back off.

It’s a basic consent issue. People can (and should) consent to social interactions as much as sexual interactions. Even if you feel like talking to you is such a great experience that everyone should automatically consent to it, well, that’s not how it works. Consent requires the agreement and willing, non-coerced participation of all parties involved.

I recognize that this gets tricky because we don’t really have a cultural convention that allows someone to ask the other party’s consent before hitting on them or paying them a compliment. So, we basically have to try to be considerate conversational partners as best we can, and be on the lookout for both subtle and explicit signals that the other person is into the conversation or not (which isn’t always a guarantee of enthusiastic consent, as many women have learned the hard way that refusing or angering a man who appears interested in them can lead to violence against them – here is but one horrifying example of this phenomenon).

In an ideal world, everyone initiating conversations with a stranger would be receptive to the possibility that their attention was not wanted. By making this issue explicitly one of consent, hopefully those of us blogging about it can get more people to consider how the ways they approach others affects their sense of safety and well-being.

About Jeana


Jeana Jorgensen, PhD recently completed her doctoral degree in folklore and gender studies at Indiana University. She studies fairy tales and other narratives, dance, body art, feminist theory, digital humanities, and gender identity.