The #MeToo Movement (Volume 1): Defining Sexual Oppression

After the media fallout stemming from the accusations of sexual harassment, abuse, rape, and coercion by Harvey Weinstein and other Hollywood personalities, social media began to see the #MeToo movement. Women who have been sexually oppressed in any manner have been posting the hashtag “#MeToo” on the internet. Some followed it up with a brief explanation of its purpose to spread awareness, some went into detail on their personal experiences, and some simply typed and posted those two words.

The #MeToo movement itself is credited as being started in 2006 by social activist Tarana Burke, encouraging MySpace users to post. Eleven years later, the movement received a rebirth from actress Alyssa Milano, on more updated social media platforms. I gathered with a small group of colleagues to sit down and discuss their thoughts and experiences with sexual oppression, as a means of getting a better understanding and spreading awareness on the topic. This series chronicles that discussion.

Volume I:

Defining Sexual Oppression

What does sexual oppression look/sound like?

Sexual oppression occurs when a pragmatically inappropriate action is interpreted by the receiver, regardless of gender. It becomes difficult to pinpoint at times because those that experience it can interpret these actions in a number of different ways. This interpretation of actions could change over time as they think about them, discuss them with someone, or have a sudden realization that they actually were assaulted or harassed after an extended period of time removed from the incident as the result of suppression, denial, or naïveté.

What does safe flirtation look/sound like?

Context is critical, and the rapport that you have established with the receiver of your actions and the approach you take is vastly important for flirtation to be taken as that, and not as harassment. Let’s start with approach. When flirting, personal space should be respected. If you aren’t sure where someone’s personal space is, keep your distance and let them get closer to you, or invite you to get closer. Walking up to a person at a bar and having a conversation is going to be close by nature, but try to remember that the barstools are set apart from each other, and use that as a means of being mindful of what kind of distance to keep.

While I’m at it: when approaching a stranger at a bar, I’d personally advise to never come straight at someone. Never approach them from behind where they can’t see you. Approach from a frontal angle, and as casually as possible. If you have a look in your eye that shows that you are on a mission, or your pace is too fast, you could really make your recipient uncomfortable and unwilling to talk.

Another means of respecting personal space is to not barge into someone’s office or cubicle without receiving permission to enter. Permission should be requested before sitting next to someone, or on their desk, rather than assuming you can park yourself there. This goes double for the desk thing; if you sit on someone’s desk while they are working, you are literally sitting over them, physically domineering over them. That’s no way to make someone feel safe.  

Then we get to dialogue. If you open up a conversation with a stranger with a compliment about their looks, you might think you are flirting, but chances are that you have already made the other person uncomfortable and already sabotaged your rapport with them. That is where many people run into issues. You may think that you are being cute when you jokingly don’t remember your new co-worker’s name and tell them that you’re just going to call them “Delicious” from now on. However, you are more than likely creeping them out and establishing that they can not feel safe at work, especially around you.

If you already know the person and already have a playful and safe rapport with them, then continuing that may be safer. If a co-worker and you consider each other “work-spouses” and that is public knowledge, then complimenting them on their looks may be more acceptable, as long as you don’t cross the line.

Where is "the line"?

Once again, we run into context, interpretation, and rapport; in all cases, sensitivity is key. If you walk up to said “work-spouse” and gave a general complement such as, “There you are, the only person I know who was disqualified from a good looks contest because they were overqualified,” this may fall in the “green zone” as long as your rapport and mutual understanding with said co-worker is strong.

Personally, I try to imagine what a sassy friend might say, like, “You’re making those shoes work!” Maybe add a *snap* for good measure. In my experience, this is typically received well, and more importantly, understood as non-threatening. If you say, “Your booty is rocking in those pants today,” it is quite likely you have crossed the line.

Since workplace flirtation is a common context— and while we are discussing rapport— if you are a superior in any way to the person you are flirting with, this advice goes double. Asking for permission before engaging in flirtatious language or behavior is extremely important. Flirtation could not only make an employee feel insecure but could have a myriad of underlying thoughts and suspicions as to how they react. Those who map out dozens of potential scenarios that could play out from the current situation could very well be worried about how their response might impact their job security. Ask permission, and don’t lead them to feel that you are using your power over them. Without permission, that’s exactly what you are doing— whether you intended it that way or not.

How can you tell if the line has been crossed?

Body language is one way of identifying when you’ve crossed the line. Crossed arms, crossed legs, stiffness or tenseness in the body language, furrowed brows, looking away (especially towards a door or window, which is a means of identifying an escape) are all means of showing discomfort. If the other person isn’t physically engaged in the conversation in obvious ways like leaning towards you slightly and being physically open, chances are they are being defensive because they are completely uncomfortable.

The most straight-forward way to find out if you are crossing or approaching the line is to simply ask. Start with, and maintain an open conversation about how you are each interpreting the situation and your relationship. By establishing an understanding with each other, you end up deepening your rapport, which can lead you to a greater respect for each other, or even a deepening of the relationship you are intending to develop.

A piece of advice once given to me was, “Don’t say something to a someone on the street that you wouldn’t want someone in prison to say to you.” Simply put, if you aren’t sure about whether or not your flirtation is innocent for the person you are trying to flirt with, you probably shouldn’t continue.

For more resources about Sexual Assault, Violence, Victim Assistance, and other forms of Sexual Oppression visit or call (800) 656-HOPE (4673)

"The #MeToo Movement" series continues Sunday, November 19th, 2017.
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