My writing and speaking teacher said if you write about sex a mixed-gender 50% of those who are about to read the article will hate you before they do so and the other 50% will hate you after they have read it. He confirmed that, nevertheless, everyone will read it. My teacher is long since gone, the world moved on and there is a big question contingent on the current anti-harassment campaign, which I totally support. So I shall risk oblivion.

The question is “What signals may one person give to another person to show that they are (potentially) sexually interested in the other person without becoming sexually harassing?” A friend of mine whose daughter recently left home for the city told me she was worried about her. I immediately assumed sexual harassment. But that was not her concern. She was worried that young men would be scared to make any advance for fear of being thought harassing. She wanted her daughter to have a nice boyfriend.

People are often attracted to each other. Life is a search for kindred spirits. It is good that like-minded people communicate and develop life philosophies with each other provided that there is a balancing communication with those of different opinions. You know when you meet someone who you instinctively like and want to spend time with. You may think your attraction is wholly platonic but it will often have an element of sex in, however small. It usually won’t lead to physical sex but it will manifest itself in shared likes and fun.

And here’s the problem. Sex should be fun for both (or even all) parties. Fun involves exploring, trying, teasing, flirting. You only learn of another’s character when you ‘press their buttons’. Courtship, even in Jane Austen’s day, was and is a time to try. We now call that living together before committing – a totally sensible approach everyone should adopt. But getting to bed is a big decision for both people concerned and the route to deciding to do so is strewn with potential harassment. How can we take a wider view of this difficult subject?

All communication, with whoever it is, has an element of sex in it. That is why I call all communication ‘seduction’. I do not, of course, mean physical seduction. The seduction is no less emotional. Success in life depends on other people admiring what you are trying to do even if they disagree with the way you are trying to do it. Admiration without respect is a flawed success. The criterion for what is harassment and what is not is simply respect.

Pushing the boundaries of a relationship – especially a potentially lifetime one – is part of establishing it. We never know another person totally and it is right that we should not. Each of us has his or her private mind. It should remain private out of respect for others. But two people who want to live together either for life or until they weary of each other have a right to know a great deal about their partner. That means pushing the boundaries and it will sometimes lead to excess. Casualties are not just of war but also of cohabiting.

So how do we teach and enforce respect? Clearly the boundaries of respect have been badly and seriously exceeded. Reading the report of the investigation into child abuse in many Catholic schools is frightening. Discovering the apparent powerlessness of people in authority to stop it is to question what hierarchy, especially in this institution, is about. Of course, in my time at school we all knew of it and most of us experienced it though mercifully for me non-violently. I am sure it damaged a lot of lives, some very seriously. And it has damaged the institution almost beyond repair. Is detailed regulation the only solution?

Looking at how we have dealt with errant bankers and businessmen it would seem so. That is sad. If, however, it is a call to organisations and institutions to regulate themselves properly it will have a useful consequence. But organisations and institutions are you and I. Whatever power we have, whatever demons run round our systems, respect is a result of us thinking first about the other person. And to do that we need to be able to read them.

Reading people is a tough learning but it is the most valuable one you can have.

Read to respect – there’s the challenge for getting rid of harassment of all sorts.

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