Flirting is part of human nature and is not in and of itself sexual harassment. Men flirt and women flirt. If someone flirts with you and you respond by flirting back, it is a two-way street and not sexual harassment. If the flirting is unwanted and you do not return it in kind, most of the time it stops there. But when you have not returned it and the flirting continues, it may be sexual harassment.
As offensive as the behavior may be to you, some people do not readily pick up on the fact that by not responding you do not want more of their attention. At this point it is necessary to tell the individual directly that you do not appreciate the flirting and would like it to stop.
There is a fine line between flirting and sexual harassment. If you believe you are being sexually harassed, you should confront the perpetrator and tell him you do not appreciate his comments. Tell him in clear terms to stop. Do not mince words or try to spare his feelings. More often than not, he will backpedal by telling you that he was “only fooling around and didn’t mean anything serious” or he was “just kidding.” Occasionally, he may say something like, “What’s wrong with you? You don’t like that? You must be a lesbian.” Regardless of the excuse, repeat your message that you consider the behavior sexual harassment and you want it to stop.
Confronting the perpetrator can be more difficult if he outranks you. Plan what you will say and stick with it. As awkward as it may seem, the problem will not go away by your ignoring it. In fact, it is likely to get worse if the individual assumes that you like the attention or that he has you intimidated. Timing is everything. Your point must be made shortly, if not immediately,after the behavior occurs so there is no mistaking the behavior you are addressing.
Although you are the victim, this is not the time for a loud or emotional tone of voice. Keep your voice level and make your point unmistakable. If your voice is shaky or you are in tears, the bully will know he has you intimidated. Don’t let him win.
Although there are other ways to deal with unwanted flirting, a direct approach is the most effective. You can go to the perpetrator’s supervisor and tell him about the problem or you can talk to an equal opportunity advisor. This may solve the problem. However, it will almost always elicit the response from the perpetrator, “Well, she never said anything. How was I to know she didn’t like it?”
This article is an extract taken from Women on Your Team by Colonel Jo B. Rusin, US Army Retired.