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Flirting verse sexual harassment

What is the difference between flirting and sexual harassment? It is important to know because our sexuality is a core part of our personal identity. Bullying behaviour can include sexually based content and overtones. This creates an overlap between sexual harassment, sexual discrimination and bullying behaviour. Bullying behaviour users will sometimes argue that no harm was intended and they where just joking. When it involves being sexist or sexually based content they might argue they where just flirting. So here is the difference.
Barbara Coloroso's 2004 book The Bully, the Bullied, and the Bystander has some good information on this subject. While it focuses on school sexual bullying behaviour it is useful for other situations and offers some ways of telling the difference between flirting and sexual harassment/bullying behaviour. The following list is what to look out for:

  • Flirting allows both people to easily swap roles and invites the other to join in. Sexual harassment uses a one sided difference in power that is unwelcome by the target and is not reciprocated. Flirting is not invasive or trying to assert the dominance or status of the user.
  • When flirting it expresses a desire with no intention to hurt, harm or exploit the person. It is an invitation to enjoy each others company and have fun together.
  • Flirting invites sexual attention. This is communicating to the target a signal that there is sexual interest. It is consciously aimed at establishing two way communication. Flirting is never an attack on the target.
  • The basic dignity and respect of both parties is maintained. So it does not degrade or demean the target, violate their boundaries or express control or domination over them.
  • Flirting is "intended to make the other person feel wanted, attractive and in control." (Coloroso, 2004 p36) It does try to not make the target "feel rejected, ugly, powerless or uncomfortable".
  • Flirting stops if the target is not interested or becomes upset or objects to the flirting. Harassment occurs when it occurs or continues against the targets wishes.

Remember you might need to check you own organisations policies and the laws in the state that you live. They might have definitions which you will need to consider. When it comes to having a discussion about appropriate behaviour, Coloroso's ideas provide are great starting point in spelling out the difference.
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