‘WOMEN are now on top. I pray they share power with men, not crush us”

The Telegraph’s Charlie Moore wrote. The headline is telling. Clearly, men are nervous their behaviour is under scrutiny. But this tells us what we already know: that they understand what’s happening and that they don’t want to be treated the way women are.

With the tsunami of sexual harassment comes the threat of exposure. As the wave courses through past indiscretions, it threatens to reveal strategic licentious behaviour for what it is. Not innocent, not flirting, but a clumsy stumble over or wilful overstepping of boundaries. Boundaries there’s no excuse to be ignorant of. Not when laws governing such behaviours have existed as far back as ancient Rome.

The concept of inappropriate behaviour isn’t new. It’s well understood. As is feigned ignorance, which isn’t just old, but absolutely stale.

What’s comparatively new is the mass dialogue. Women have found some small way to start unpicking the web of conditioning that’s long kept them silent. A web of social expectations that keeps them from speaking openly about things they’ve endured. As more women start to dismantle their silence, it’s true that more men will be forced to reflect. And while painful as that might be, it ultimately boils down to one question: which society do you want to be part of? The one where power is shared and respected, or the one where it’s hoarded and abused.

We’re on the cusp of change, so naturally, there is resistance. The protective walls are being erected, fortified. Hot takes ranging from concern to frothing rage over the sanitisation of sex and social interaction. Being told you’ve transgressed, that you need to change, is difficult to hear. But if enough people are telling you -- which they are -- try and do it with grace. Protecting your own feelings by derailing important conversations that will lead to making people feel safer and happier is emblematic of the solipsism at the heart of this problem. Right now we can learn from women’s experiences and make adjustments. Or we can protect the men, and their rights to act in a way that makes women feel depleted.

So, this has all gotten pretty serious. Does this spell death for flirting now a handful of men are being held to account?

If that was the case, every heterosexual man would be accused of harassment. Every relationship, every encounter would be up for an audit. That’s not the case. Most people manage not to be pests – though enough do that we have to talk about it.

Asserting that women and men can’t tell the difference between flirting and harassment is obtuse. For the avoidance of doubt though, let’s look what separates the two. That way no one can plead ignorance as a means of avoiding self-reflection or personal growth.

Broadly speaking, flirting is play. It’s fun, its declare intent and reciprocates an advance. Cues observed and acted upon. It’s an experience built together, essential to bonding, to creating intimacy between individuals. It’s a shared experience. It’s artful. There’s an elegance, even, if done well. If it isn’t reciprocated, if it isn’t warmly received, it stops. If one party persists, it ceases to be a shared experience. At that point, it’s no longer flirting.

To contextualise this in light of current allegations, going straight in with a hand on the knee isn’t the opening salvo of an innocent flirtee. It’s someone who wants a shortcut to getting what they want. It’s like using a sledgehammer to fix a clock.

Sexual harassment, conversely, is about power. Specifically, an imbalance of it. It’s a one-directional, asymmetrical experience where someone behaves in a way that coerces, manipulates, stresses or humiliates another, intended or unintended. And if unintended, you can glean a lot from the feedback the other is giving you, subtly or overtly. Not just have they said “no”. Are they mirroring you or shrinking from you? Are they trying to get closer to you or further from you? Are they playing dead? And again, for the avoidance of doubt, flirting shouldn’t start with a “great tits, luv!” or a suggestive touch. If you don’t read the other person, you make it about what you want, and in doing so, you turn your behaviour into harassment.

This is where empathy needs to take the driver’s seat. You might really want to have sex. You might think of flirting as a tool to get that. But flirting takes two willing parties. It’s a dynamic shared experience. Using sexual behaviour and language as a means of coercion, of affecting or controlling another person, is harassment.

BUT – I’m fairly sure we don’t have to spell that out. Men have always known how to behave themselves around women they don’t want to have sex with. Pretending there’s some littoral zone between the two obscures women’s reality. When men shout from vans, holler from building sites, or grab us in bars, it’s not innocent. And in the workplace, the colleague who corners you makes indecent comments, leers or demeans you for fun, also does so deliberately. There’s no genuine hope of starting up a meaningful interaction. They’re doing it for themselves, for their amusement, to affirm their dominance, to make you behave in a way that gratifies them.

And yes – you can still give compliments. Here, context is everything. Before you open your mouth, check your intent. Do you want to make them feel good? Or are you broadcasting your sexual availability? And please employ some situational awareness. Do you know the person well enough to be confident of the response? Would you say it in front of other people?

There is no grey area between sexual harassment and flirting. Not if you understand that boundaries exist. Not if you understand how power can pollute a seemingly innocuous action. Not if you understand that behaviours have appropriate contexts.

Harassment is not defanged by women who don’t complain. Silence isn’t absolution. If men genuinely don’t know the difference, now is the time to learn.