A spotters guide to not-quite sexual harassment


Photo: Val Loh

Recently a friend of mine, “Kate”, who is at this very moment lucky enough to be lazing on a Thai beach, posted a Facebook status seeking advice. Kate is a bubbly extrovert who always has time for everyone. But even she was unnerved when a middle-aged male tourist she regularly sees at the beach café had unilaterally decided to escalate their relationship from friendly smiles and polite chitchat to all-out hugging.

Kate stressed that she didn’t have an issue with hugging people but was reluctant to do so this particular time because the humidity in Thailand had left this chap more than a little sweaty. Oh and he wasn’t wearing a shirt. But not wanting to make a fuss, Kate complied.

He hugged her for longer than she felt was necessary and looked chuffed as he went about his business while she returned to her bungalow to wash his sweat off her body. Still, she thought, she had done a nice thing and no harm done.

Until the next day when he asked for another hug. And another one. The more hugs she gave the more he wanted. Try as she might to thwart him, he kept asking, until she turned to her Facebook friends for help, “How do I politely let this man know I don’t want to hug him?”


Some friends suggested a politely worded letter, others a friendly but firm request for him to shower first. None, however, mentioned the “h” word.


When I could take it no longer, I jumped in. “Why”, I asked, “is everyone bending over backwards to spare this man’s feelings when he is obviously harassing her?”

While I clearly saw what Kate was experiencing as a form of sexual harassment, it is unsurprising that many others did not, given that we tend to associate it with more obvious behaviour such as sexual innuendo and inappropriate touching.

But sometimes harassment is so subtle it can leave us wondering if it is all in our imagination.

This month the online science world was rocked when a blogger, Monica Byrne, revealed she had been harassed by her editor at Scientific American, Bora Zivkovic. She described a lunch meeting, Zivkovic on her blog:

"He described himself as “a very sexual person”…Then he began telling me about his dissatisfaction with his current sex life with his wife. Then he reminded me that he was “a very sexual person.”" 

Byrne recounts how the encounter had her wondering if she was reading too much into it:

“I tried to listen politely and nod when he paused, but otherwise not engage or encourage him. He seemed not to notice how uncomfortable I was. I was trying to mitigate the situation as it was unfolding—which I later read is a common immediate response to trauma, trying to minimize it or pretend it didn’t happen."

When the meeting was over, Byrne continues:

 "I hugged him, which may seem bizarre; but earlier he’d identified himself as a “hugging person” and so do I, generally, and I was still in shock and trying to smooth over the incident."

Byrne’s revelation resulted in a online pouring of outrage -against her. “Enraged children with a persecution complex are out on a witchhunt”, screamed one Tweeter as another science writer dismissed Byrne’s allegations as “Overkill and inflammatory.” 

But the jig was up for Zivkovic when another writer, Hannah Waters, came forward detailing similar experiences

"Once… he bought a flower for his wife…The seller gave him an extra for free, which he gave to me, joking that I was his “concubine.” I didn’t even know how to respond, awkwardly laughing it off, but fled the scene without goodbyes soon after.”

Zivkovic, who has since been placed on leave from Scientific American, saw no point in denying it and came clean on Twitter. “No need to defend me…I was wrong. I am sorry. I am learning.”

How many times have women had to “awkwardly laugh off” similar situations? Waters calls this, “The insidious power of not-quite-harassment”, which is the sort of behaviour women are expected to shrug off or ignore or go along with. Don’t say anything. Don’t make a fuss. Avoid confrontation. He’s a hugging person. He’s probably just being nice. Be polite. Smile. Jeez, can’t you take a compliment?

Haven’t we all been there, us women? I recall sitting in the cinema one time as a teenager, as the guy next to me kept shifting in his seat. Every so often his leg or his hand would brush against me; too often for it to be an accident but not obvious enough for me to be sure. I didn’t want to make a scene. I was too embarrassed to say anything. Don’t be full of yourself, Ruby. What makes you think he wants to touch you?

Then there’s the boss I had in my first waitressing job as a uni student. He was 60 if he was a day and he’d stand just that little bit too close at the cash register, look at my arse a little too long when I walked by. Like every other waitress I have ever met in my life, I put up with it because that is just the way it is.

Why are we expected to go along with this? And why does a woman who is just trying to enjoy her holiday feel so bad about confronting a man who keeps trying to make her hug him?

The sad reality is men create these uncomfortable situations knowing they can get away with it. What’s the worse that can happen? If the woman confronts them, they can deny it and then turn the tables on her for thinking she was “worthy” of being harassed.

But most women will not say anything because society has decided that it’s women’s behaviour, not men’s, that needs to be restricted. Sure, lip service is paid to tackling sexual harassment the way it’s paid to eliminating rape, but as sure as rape victims are blamed for their own attacks, so too are the women brave enough to come forward about harassment ridiculed as “crazy” and derided as “liars”.

So Kate, don’t feel bad about telling your shirtless friend to keep his sweaty hands to himself because no man is entitled to your body. Women do not owe men hugs or smiles or anything else. It’s time to reverse this toxic culture that attaches so much indignity to simply having a female body that women are conditioned to feel the shame and embarrassment that belongs to the men who think nothing of harassing us.