At least one-third of American young adults think it's sexual harassment if a non-partner compliments a woman's appearance. As a sexual assault survivor myself, they're wrong.
The Economist recently detailed opinions on acceptable male behavior, and the results were baffling. The survey, in which participants came from the U.S., Britain, France, Germany, and Sweden, asked where the line is drawn for sexual harassment. The survey asked participants if they “would consider it sexual harassment if a man, who was not a romantic partner, did the following to a woman?”
I assumed most respondents would accurately label sexual harassment. I was wrong.
Roughly 1-in-4 American young adults say it’s “always/usually” sexual harassment if he asks her out for a drink. If this data suggests anything, it’s that many young people are misinformed about this issue. The first step toward fixing this problem is to stop trivializing sexual abuse.
By broadening the definitions of sexual abuse to include innocent, non-malicious, flirtatious behavior, our society trivializes the issue. I’m not the only one who has noticed this alarming trend, and it’s beginning to face mainstream backlash.
I can almost guarantee you that no one in the sexual assault “survivors club” wants to be a member. I know that I don’t. But by so broadly defining sexual abuse, we are adding people to the pool of victims that don’t necessarily belong there. More importantly, we’re then unable to properly address legitimate cases of abuse.
In the 1999 Supreme Court case Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education, the court defined peer-on-peer harassment in the educational context as conduct that is “so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive, and that so undermines and detracts from the victims’ educational experience, that the victim-students are effectively denied equal access to an institution’s resources and opportunities.”
When one comes forward as a victim of sexual abuse they are accusing another individual of a heinous crime — one worthy of jail time. By claiming to be the victim of sexual abuse, the accuser asserts that a predator robbed them of their autonomy and safety.
In contrast, being offered a drink is a voluntary exchange and nowhere near a coercive sexual attack. It doesn’t even remotely reflect the Supreme Court’s definition of “objectively offensive.”
For months, I struggled with disclosing the horrible truth about my assault. I feared that people would not take it seriously. Having such a lenient definition of what constitutes sexual abuse is incredibly dangerous. By considering every minor compliment or flirtatious comment as “harassment,” victims of sexual abuse face greater challenges bringing their attackers to justice.
Now, just after the explosive #MeToo social media movement, which has been posted nearly 5 million times, I’m concerned people are seeking out victimhood. The #MeToo movement was a brilliant way to let survivors of sexual abuse know they aren’t alone. However, the importance of this social media campaign empowering sexual abuse victims to tell their stories was diluted by trivial claims from people seeking attention.
Of course sexual harassment and sexual assault are real issues, both on college campuses and in our society as a whole. However, by looping together objectively offensive or even violent behavior with innocent, trivial flirting, it’s a slap in the face to the millions of sexual abuse survivors across the country.
And it raises many questions: Are so many young people misinformed by our education system that they're now afraid to compliment their peers? Do one-third of young people genuinely believe that by offering to take their crush out for a drink that they're engaging in predatory behavior?
Demonizing innocent men for flirting with women is simply not acceptable. Cases of legitimate sexual harassment must be taken seriously and dealt with accordingly. Those actions are committed maliciously and are criminal.
However, women must not consider every male that compliments them a potential sexual predator. Chances are, a guy who wants to buy a girl a drink just wants to learn more about them as well. In this consensual interaction, the woman is free to say “no, thank you” and move on.
If the goal of the #MeToo movement is to empower sexual abuse survivors to tell their stories and hopefully make their predators face justice, we must separate sexual crimes and unsavory remarks.
By blurring that line, we hurt the cause.
Savannah Lindquist serves on the North American Executive Board of Students For Liberty, and is a student at Old Dominion University.
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