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.    



  • I totally agree with this article, but it doesn't address the darker, scarier side of the situation: that when women try to stop 'light' harassment, it often leads to darker, angrier, more threatening harassment. This is NOT the woman's fault, and more effort needs to be made to educate men about their role in this escalation.

    Date and time
    October 31, 2013, 7:06AM
    • YES! I agree 100%.

      To everyone who comments "just say no", or "just tell them to go away", 9 times out of 10 it will turn into an ugly situation where your polite refusal will turn into series of counter-accusations and escalations of unwanted behavior. I've experienced it myself and have seen it in others. If you say nothing and "go along" with it, it ends up minimizing the situation, which unfortunately works in the harasser's favor.

      Stop putting all the onus on the person being made uncomfortable (not always a woman) and put it on the aggressive attention seeker.

      Date and time
      October 31, 2013, 10:55AM
    • "If you say nothing and "go along" with it, it ends up minimizing the situation, "

      Or escalates, and it's difficult to find the point at which it's appropriate to say 'stop'!, without being treated as a tease.

      Politely tolerating some mildly inappropriate behaviour is just that: good manners, not an invitation to ramp it up.

      I don't mix with any men who don't absolutely know the difference.

      Date and time
      October 31, 2013, 11:49AM
    • "Stop putting all the onus on the person being made uncomfortable (not always a woman) and put it on the aggressive attention seeker."
      How exactly does one do that without telling the 'aggressive attention seeker' that they are making you uncomfortable in the first place? If you are putting on a big public face that you are happy to hug the person, how is anyone but you to know that you don't actually want to do so?

      And 9 times out of 10? Seriously?
      Yes, if they are a particularly unpleasant person they might call you a bitch, but surely being called a bitch by some person you don't want anything to do with is a whole lot better than spending weeks suffering the discomfort of sweaty shirtless hugs from them?

      Date and time
      October 31, 2013, 11:49AM
    • I'm supposing the context of the article (and my reply) is going to be lost and we'll start talking about how hard it is saying no to rough jerks at 3am in nightclubs, which I agree is FAR more problematic. Here though we are talking about far more trivial social interactions, where the ongoing issues stem more from their initial inability to prevent the situation from progressing. How hard is it to slip an unwanted hug or not listen to someone's sex life? Not bloody hard AT ALL.
      Completely different to weirdo's on an empty train carriage (had to deal with this one myself when I was too young to realise how to deflect it) or an idiot not taking no for an answer in a club (had to "rescue" a stranger being followed on the street by a guy from the previous club by chaperoning her - at her insistence - to the next one).These things trouble me too. I get it I really do. I feel bad for the poor girl who had to lie to me and say her boyfriend was at the club when I asked if it was ok to dance with her, I really wished we lived in a society where she could tell me no plainly (for the record I plainly told her I had no interest in her whatsoever I was just out dancing for dancing sake and she was immediately relieved and did actually dance with me knowing I wouldn't start grinding on her).
      Let's not conflate these issues with social faux pas so far down the totem pole the only thing is your own embarrassment at having to deal with awkward interactions at all.

      Date and time
      October 31, 2013, 12:12PM
    • While I agree with much of what you say, it happens the other way too, but it is never seen in the same light. Many women are huggers. I've been in a position where a female workmate wanted to hug me everyday. I started to avoid her like the plague as a result. Other people would joke about it because she didn't hug others in the same way. Eventually I told her to please stop the daily hugs (in a nice way). It wasn't long before every female staff member, and some of the males, thought of me as a complete %^&^$. Was she sexually harassing me?

      Date and time
      October 31, 2013, 12:28PM
    • Clearly, "Kate" was uncomfortable with the situation, but nowhere in this article does it indicate she has expressed this feeling to MAMT ("middle-aged male tourist"). Is it not reasonable to believe that he thought "Kate" liked him?

      I think it is unreasonable to throw blame of harassment on to MAMT when Kate's actions are completely contrary to her feelings. I'm reasonably confident he cannot read minds.

      I understand there may have been fears of retribution for rejecting his advances, but why should he, as an individual, be expected to bear the responsibility of blame for a gender-based stereotyped behaviour that is really accountable only to a minority of primitives that tarnish the reputation of many innocent men.

      Date and time
      October 31, 2013, 12:37PM
    • Straight men commenting here should think about how they would feel if gay men regularly greeted them with a big hug & kiss on the lips.

      Date and time
      October 31, 2013, 1:08PM
  • Hell,
    why not just redefine harassment to any behaviour you simply don't like?

    it worked for misogyny, why not here?

    Freddie Frog
    Date and time
    October 31, 2013, 7:49AM
    • Absolutely right, Freddie. The dictionary definition of harassment is "aggressive pressure or intimidation". Was he aggressive or intimidatory? Doesn't sound like it. The legal definition is "Behaviour intended to disturb or upset, and it is characteristically repetitive" Is the man intending to disturb or upset? Note that it does not say "disturbs or upsets the victim", it's the intention that makes it harassment.

      If she had already made it clear his behaviour is not acceptable and he continues, it's harassment, plain and clear. But as it has been described, it's just unwanted behaviour. Nothing creepy, nothing illegal about it.

      Date and time
      October 31, 2013, 11:39AM

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