Young people are confusing flirting with abuse

Over 50 per cent of Brits aren’t sure where the line is between flirtation and sexual harassment, according to a Sky Data poll. But who can blame them? The hysteria surrounding the Harvey Weinstein scandal, ‘Pestminster’ and the #MeToo movement has led to instances of flirtatious text messages being discussed in the same breath as rape allegations, as if flirting is on some kind of spectrum with serious crime.

A recent YouGov survey provides further worrying insights. It reveals that two-thirds of women aged 18 to 24 view wolf-whistling as ‘always or usually’ sexual harassment. And 28 per cent of that age group view winking in the same way. There is also an interesting generational difference. When it comes to wolf-whistling, only 15 per cent of women aged over 55 see it as ‘always or usually’ sexual harassment. Similarly, winking was seen as sexual harassment by just six per cent of the over 55s.

No doubt many of today’s feminists will say this is down to older women having lived with misogyny for so long that they have internalised it and no longer recognise sexual harassment when it happens to them. But unless a man is persistently following a woman around winking and wolf-whistling at her when she has made it clear she would like him to stop, these are not instances of sexual harassment. Most women (and men) know this. The reason older women find it easier to say so is because they came of age at a time when society wasn’t so mistrustful of male-female interactions. Today, by contrast, society seems to be encouraging women to treat all exchanges with men as potentially suspect.

In the Sky poll, 46 per cent of those surveyed said the issue of sexual harassment has become more confusing over the past 20 years. This is unsurprising. The term sexual harassment has always been unwieldy and poorly defined – and there is no specific crime of sexual harassment defined in law. But in recent years the term has been stretched beyond all recognition. Nottinghamshire Police now regard wolf-whistling as a hate crime, and many of the Westminster allegations amount to nothing more than clumsy come-ons.

What these two surveys really reveal is the damage that is being done to relationships between men and women by the sexual-harassment panic. This hysterical climate is corrosive, and will damage how men and women interact. If young women start to view innocent behaviour such as winking as a form of abuse, they will be constantly wary of men at work and in the public sphere. And young men will be terrified of entering into any kind of lighthearted conversation with women, lest something they say be misconstrued. This freezing of male-female relationships will benefit no one.

Naomi Firsht is staff writer at spiked and co-author of The Parisians’ Guide to Cafés, Bars and Restaurants. Follow her on Twitter: @Naomi_theFirsht

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