Is it flirting or is it harassment?

26 January 2022
Young couple

Flirting or harassment? / cottonbro via Pexels

I stumbled across a meme doing the rounds recently. It depicts two men: one is young, svelte, and nattily dressed; the other is older, corpulent, with a receding hairline, and a double chin. Both are quoted saying: “That dress looks sexy on you”.

The first man is captioned “flirting”; the second man is captioned “harassment”.

Here are some social media comments in response to the meme:

  • Sexist garbage
  • Kinda mean for the other guy, but it is technically true. Harassment is super subjective, I'm guessing it's why it's so hard to prove.
  • Yeah, pretty privilege exists. Nothing new. Let's not act like we treat pretty women the same as "unattractive women".
  • this reads like a meme created by an incel

I like researching stuff like this because I find out new stuff which generally messes with people's perceptions,

So, let me tell you a couple of things.

First, a quote from Nicholas A. Christakis who is a professor of social and natural science at Yale, and a physician: “Unattractiveness is probably the leading axis along which there is discrimination in our society, but it’s the least studied. Sexual advances are more likely to be treated as harassment by coworkers and complaints of pain less likely to be taken seriously by doctors.”

A study Professor Christakis refers to in this context is titled: “Oppression or Opportunity? Sexual Strategies and the Perception of Sexual Advances”. Here’s the abstract, where I highlight the relevant point:

From an evolutionary perspective, the perception and interpretation of sexual advances depend on sex-specific mechanisms, individual differences in the perceivers’ mating strategies, and the actor’s attractiveness. In two studies (N = 1516), participants evaluated hypothetical situations of sexual advances from a coworker varying in attractiveness (study 1) and physical appearance or status (study 2). In both studies, men perceived sexual advances as less negative than women, especially when the advances arise from a (physically) attractive actor. Furthermore, the higher the sociosexual orientation of the participants, the less harmful these sexual advances are perceived. Finally, the same behavior from an attractive or physically attractive actor is perceived as less harmful than from an unattractive actor. Results are discussed from an evolutionary perspective on the perception of sexual advances.

In a nutshell, among both men and women, unsolicited sexual advances are considered more disturbing and more discomforting when perpetrated by an unattractive opposite sex colleague than when perpetrated by an attractive opposite sex colleague.

(Here's the meme.)

The meme which sparked this thought process


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