If a younger woman asks an older and more professionally powerful man for job advice, and that man ends up hitting on the woman, is that on its own harassment? Is it always wrong when a man is attracted to a woman at work, and acts on that attraction? If that man tries to, say, kiss the woman he is attracted to, and she’s not into it, and they leave it at that, was that forcible kissing? If a woman is not attracted to a man who comes on to her, and that man is in a position of any sort of power, is that clearly a fireable offense? I don’t think the answer to these questions is definitively yes. And yet, these tales and others like them have been stitched into the narrative of behavior that’s truly beyond the pale, and at times punished accordingly.
Several women have written recently that they fear a coming backlash—that one false allegation against a famous man will bring this whole new reality crashing down, or that in the understandable urge to name names, women will be seen as the aggressors, out to tar every man’s reputation. I have those fears too, but I also fear the consequences of overcorrection, of the concept of harassment ballooning to include perfectly legitimate attempts at seduction—the initial touch, the scooting closer in the booth, the drunken sloppy first kiss, the occasional bad call or failed pass. Writing in the New Yorker, Masha Gessen has talked about the risks of classifying these as actions that, if unwanted, could land you on a viral spreadsheet or be used to establish a pattern of abuse that can get you suspended or fired.