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           Sexual Harassment versus Flirting  

How do we know if someone is flirting or sexually harassing us?

This begs the question ‘Who is responsible for your feelings’. If you agree with the old saying ‘sticks and stones will hurt your bones but words will do no harm’ then sexual harassment can only be harassment when it involves physical contact of some kind. Those that favour this argument might say that no matter what someone says to you, it is how you choose to respond internally that defines how it affects you. 

A book by Susan Strauss ‘Sexual Harassment and Teens, delivers a set of guidelines that are supposed to enable you to differentiate between sexual harassment and flirting.

Interestingly enough, the guidelines are listed under how the particular action makes the receiver feel. One of the tenets of NLP is that the meaning of your communication is the response you get. Does this suppose that when you communicate you are capable of generating feelings in others or does it mean that when you communicate other people are likely to self-generate certain feelings depending on their database of words and their general emotional

My own view is that ultimately we are all responsible for our feelings and that when we hear or see words or actions from other people, we somehow are programmed to generate certain related feelings. We can re-programme ourselves to block out these feelings. And, with practice we can programme ourselves to generate alternative feelings. If we start to do this, are we then responsible for perpetuating the said behaviours by our very acceptance? And if other people are not as skilled as us in reprogramming their response are we being irresponsible? Does this have deeper moral implications? I don’t know!

To be continued as below...

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Let’s look at the guidelines set out by Strauss and her co-author Pamela Espeland

Sexual harassment makes the receiver feel




Flirting makes the receiver feel





        in control

Sexual harassment results in

        negative self esteem

        Flirting results in

        positive self esteem

Sexual harassment is perceived as





Flirting is perceived as




        a compliment

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Sexual harassment is




Flirting is




If we take the definitions of sexual harassment offered by Strauss are we then opening the door to accusations of sexual harassment each time we feel bad, powerless or ugly when someone throws us a remark? Do feelings of being degraded, demeaned and having negative self-esteem stem just from remarks deemed to be specifically ‘sexually harassing’ or are they endemic to individual psyches and therefore likely to be generated even when the remark might not be considered ‘harassment’ by others?

What are the specific phrases or actions that are deemed to be sexually harassing? How do you know that a remark is sexual harassment? Is it different for everyone? If this is the case, how do we legislate?

I wonder what we would discover. I know that in my case, remarks that some women might consider sexual harassment would be taken by me as a bit of fun. What are the guidelines? When does the border get crossed and who decides all this?

Just a thought!


P.S. - Peta Heskell is author of the book Flirt Coach published in the USA by Harper Collins/Thorsons in June 01. She runs the UK Flirting Academy, and coaches clients privately. She is a frequent media guest in the UK and has run workshops in Florida and Amsterdam, Netherlands. You can access her website


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