Am I Sexually Harassing You?

In wake of a slew of workplace sexual harassment incidents coming to light, a lot of public discourse has been swirling around this thorny issue. Unsurprisingly, society has swiftly and collectively remonstrated predators like Harvey Weinstein and Al Franken. Consequently, this seems to have created a pressing new topic of discussion for the average, innocent male specimen: How do I tell and where do I draw the line between sexual harassment and compliments? We turn our focus to a blog article providing guidelines for men aptly titled: “Know the Difference Between Compliments vs. Harassment in the Workplace” published on “The Good Men Project“. Whilst being seemingly well-intentioned, I argue that the article is still blindsided by sexism and toes the line of being patronizing to women.

The article’s main thesis is that the key difference between harassment and compliments is the intent of the speaker. Harassment involves the man’s “power and intimidation” as he objectifies and sexualizes his female counterpart. On first reading, it is easy to pick up on the inherent sexism here where men are portrayed as the gender holding all the power in the male-female dichotomy. This is a sentiment raised by Cameron and Kulick (2003) when they wrote of a regular association between “power and masculinity/powerlessness and femininity” that cuts across societies and again by Lakoff (1975) who suggested that “women’s language” first and foremost directly indexed powerlessness and a lack of authority. In language and discourse that emerges from our social relationships, the article accurately points out that men hold more social power than women.

However, a closer inspection will reveal a deeper layer of sexism concealed in the main argument of the article: that the intent of the man determines the nature of the act. There is a glaring hypocrisy here as the article – and society – pays heed to the intention and illocutionary force of the man’s utterance or action and yet wilfully distorts and obscures the illocutionary force of a woman’s ‘no’ in response to verbal and physical advances for sex (Kulick, 2003). Men are almost victimized, having innocent statements misunderstood and misinterpreted. When handling men, the ambiguity behind a simple statement like “You look like you’ve lost weight” is played up.  On the other hand, an explicit rejection of sexual advances by a woman is freely misinterpreted by men. In many cases of sexual assault, regardless of how clearly she says “no”, the man may still not be charged with rape (Tuerkheimer, 2014). Scaling back from the severity of sexual assault, a woman’s “no” to a guy’s romantic advances are very commonly construed as “playing hard to get” (Read: 5 Ways She Plays Hard to Get by MensHealth) and totally ignores the fact that her “no” may very well just mean “I’m just not interested in you”. The problem is this insidious disparity: we are quick to sympathize with men who have their innocent and ambiguous compliments misunderstood but men have no qualms thwarting the unambiguous refusal of women.

But the most glaring issue with this article comes in the next section where the article suggests that “a good rule of thumb these days is that if you wouldn’t compliment a male co-worker on it, don’t try it with a female co-worker.” A confounding statement, given we are now ten years into the progressive fourth wave of feminism. Even with all the flaws and criticisms of the feminist movement, surely society has made enough progress to recognize women as independent humans who deserve to be respected on their own terms – and not pinned to whether it is respectful to a male counterpart. The article seems to do little more than teach men how to cope with this new persecution and scrutiny in the workplace they are now under, rather than implore men to not objectify women and not to see them as sexual objects to be pursued and won. To be fair to the article, problematic arguments and sexist undertones pervade a fair share of the rhetoric surrounding respecting women and is not isolated to this particular article. Many prominent figures and stars had to invoke daughters and sisters to highlight the severity of sexual harassment as if sexual harassment on any woman was not severe enough (Read: Sexual Assault Survivors Aren’t Just Daughters. They’re Actually Humans).

I am aware that the article sets out to deal with the contentious, fine boundary between compliments and sexual harassment. I am also aware that the boundary is not always well-defined and that sexual harassment is not always as obvious as with Weinstein. There are women on the other side of the fence too, with prominent French feminist Catherine Deneuve leading the voices of 100 female writers in denouncing the #MeToo campaign and declaring men’s “right to hit on women” (The Guardian, 2018). Public discussion and education, both of which this article sets out to be, are definitely important and relevant in getting men to deal with this difference between compliments and sexual harassment. But in doing so, this article (and the many others like it floating around the interweb) should not neglect to press home fundamental principles like basic decency and being respectful. Given the volatile nature of the topic, they have the additional burden of ensuring there is no subliminal sexism that would otherwise undermine their conversation. They would also do extremely well to explicitly decry and recognize that sexual harassment is sexual harassment is sexual harassment, instead of coddling grown men who cannot distinguish their ill intentions from genuine compliments.


Cameron, D., & Kulick, D. (2003). Language and Sexuality: Cambridge University Press.

The Guardian. (2018). Catherine Deneuve says men should be ‘free to hit on’ women.   Retrieved from

Kulick, D. (2003). No. Language & Communication, 23, 139 – 151.

Lakoff, R. T. (1975). Language and woman’s place: Harper & Row.

Tuerkheimer, D. (2014). We Preach ‘No Means No’ For Sex, But That’s Not What The Law Says.   Retrieved from