The Difference Between Flirting and Sexual Harassment

Flirting? Everyone has done this at one point or another during their lives, before having a relationship, even if they already had one, or after separation, since we live in an extremely social world. We engage in flirting as a way of “testing to see if we can make it work” and also to signal to someone we are attracted to that we may be interested in pursuing something further, but some risks lurk under the hood. Harassment is usually disguised by the over-aggressive, playful, and dramatic aspect of flirting, or more specifically, by people who claim that they’re playing even though the other person is not having it.

Flirting and sexual harassment can often be viewed as the same thing, but they are two distinct terms. 

The distinction between sexual harassment and flirting is fuzzy; both are viewed as violent, insensitive, or inappropriate. To determine the difference between these two types of behavior, it is essential to establish a clear distinction.

What Is Harassment?

Sexual harassment occurs when a person makes unwelcome sexual advances toward another person. Other than sexual advances, it can include making inappropriate remarks and touching the person. The act of touching someone’s private areas or body parts, like hands, can be considered sexual harassment.

In the working environment, sexual harassment refers to sexual advances made by a person. It’s physical or verbal behavior that is sexual in nature; any request for sexual favors can also be considered to be harassment. If a supervisory staff member tries to persuade a junior employee to engage in sexual activity to receive favors in the workplace, this could be considered sexual harassment.

Federal legislation provides guidelines for what is legally considered to be sexual harassment. Sexual harassment is a form of discrimination in employment based on verbal or physical violence; specifically, that is sexual in nature. Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibits two specific categories of sexual harassment:

  • Quid Pro Quo: “Quid pro quid pro” sexual harassment typically originates from a supervisor and entails a career benefit given in exchange for sexual favors. It could be positive – “If you do THIS for me then I’ll do THAT for you” or negative “If you do not perform the THIS I ask for, you will suffer as a result.” The victim of quid-pro-quo sexual harassment doesn’t have to be financially disadvantaged due to the harassment; the harassing behavior simply needs to be directed at the victim, not welcomed, and impacted a particular aspect of the victim’s work.
  • Hostile Environment: Sexual harassment that is so serious or widespread that it could make a reasonable person consider it to be unacceptable or interfere with the victim’s ability to perform a job is a “hostile environment” sexual harassment. This could mean physical contact or sexual advances, making sexual comments, sending sexually explicit materials, and many other things.

Harassment behavior:

  • Unwanted
  • Power-driven
  • Illegal
  • Non-consensual
  • One-sided

Harassment is perceived as:

  • Demeaning 
  • One-sided
  • Invading
  • Uncomfortable and scary

Harassment makes the receiver feel:

  • Ugly
  • Demeaned
  • Bad
  • Sad and angry
  • Powerless
  • Helpless
  • Disrespected

Harassment results in:

  • Negative self-images
  • Self-esteem issues

What Is Flirting?

It is a form of behavior that involves making a few snide remarks or gestures toward someone you feel attracted to sexually. A person is said to be flirting if performed in a playful way and not with a serious motive; the person who is flirting is referred to as a flirt and could be considered as a result of being overly friendly with someone, and this kind of friendliness is usually seduction.

Some examples of flirting include blowing kisses or offering a telephone number. Eye contact or making gestures of affection can be regarded as flirting; if you are constantly looking at someone’s body or touching them, you could be considered to be making a flirting gesture too. Complimenting someone to the extent that it makes them feel uncomfortable is often interpreted as flirting.

Flirting behaviors include:

  • Wanted
  • Respect motivated
  • Legal
  • Consensual
  • Reciprocal

Flirting is perceived as:

  • Flattering and complementary
  • Mutual
  • Open
  • Fun

Flirting makes the receiver feel:

  • Attractive
  • Flattered
  • Good
  • Happy
  • In Control
  • Confident

Flirting can result in:

  • Positive self-image
  • High self-esteem

When Does Flirting Become Sexual Harassment?

According to experts, flirting can become sexual harassment when a person takes it too far, either by what they say or by acting when the other person is clearly not interested. Contrary to flirting, which can be welcomed and desired, sexual harassment is unwelcome and not appreciated; when flirting turns into sexual harassment, it becomes one-sided.

Sexual harassment, according to the EEOC, includes unwanted and unwelcome sexual advances. Since flirting is a sexual act, if it is unwelcome and undesirable, it’s considered sexual harassment.

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Sexual Harassment is Unlawful

Although flirting is legal, sexual harassment is not. As per the EEOC, the law prohibits harassment cause it is abusive and causes the impression of or creates a hostile workplace. If you’ve been nervous about going to work because you aren’t sure what your coworker will say or do next, or your coworker’s behavior makes your job difficult, then you’re likely a person who has been the victim of harassment. The coworker you work with isn’t playing games with you; instead, they’re sexually pestering you.

Sexual Harassment vs. Flirting

If you know the difference between sexual harassment and flirting, you can guard yourself from being abused by someone. We live in a time where flirting is often interpreted as harassment.

It is important to recognize that boundaries between acquaintances or coworkers must be established properly; this will allow you to avoid being involved in unneeded situations that may be misinterpreted.

There is a fine distinction between flirting and sexual harassment; however, the distinctions are very clear and easily discernible.

The main distinctions between flirting and sexual harassment are outlined in the following manner:

Meaning of Sexual Harassment vs. Flirting

Sexual harassment refers to making inappropriate sexual advances or signals to someone else, such as making offensive remarks, sending sexually explicit messages, or causing unnecessary contact with the body’s parts. 

Flirting is, however, any act that suggests that someone is attracted sexually or in a more casual, not serious manner.

Sexual Harassment vs. Flirting Form

Most of the time, flirting attracts appreciation and goes both ways. It is okay if it happens between two people who are okay with each other doing it, but it is not okay for an adult to do it with a child.

Sexual harassment is, however, not acceptable and can make one of the parties feel guilty and uncomfortable.

The Nature of Sexual Harassment vs. Flirting

Sexual harassment is one-sided, while flirting is mutual; it can also involve wanted touching, while sexual harassment involves unwanted touching.

While flirting with someone can make you feel happy, sexual harassment, in most instances, causes the person affected to feel resentful, devalued, and angry.

Sexual harassment is also considered to be demeaning, unwelcome, and infuriating. On its side, flirting may be wanted, open, and flattering.

The pleasure of flirting usually boosts the self-esteem of those who are enjoying the act.

Results of Sexual Harassment vs. Flirting

The act of flirting, generally, can make one feel loved and attractive when carried out in a moderate manner and with positive intentions. Sexual harassment, however, makes people feel uncomfortable and disrespected.

More ways to Differentiate between Flirting and sexual harassment


Flirting is only done between people who are both comfortable and willing to participate in the act. Sexual harassment, on the other hand, can be characterized as behavior that is unwelcome and indecent and is often carried out without permission.


A flirting relationship is usually characterized by open and transparent communication, and sexual harassment typically involves covert or secretive methods.


Flirting can occur between people involved in a sexual or romantic relationship, but sexual harassment is usually not a part of any romantic relationship.


Flirting is typically a once or occasionally occurring behavior, whereas sexual harassment can be a regular and consistent behavior.

Coercion or threats:

Flirting is not related to threats or coercion, but sexual harassment typically involves threats or intimidation to press the person who is victimized into complying.

Physical touch:

Although flirting can involve physical contact, like a light touch or playful gesture, sexual harassment often involves unwanted and unwarranted physical touch.


It is not acceptable to flirt in professional settings, for example, at work, while sexual harassment is illegal and can be a cause for serious penalties in these types of settings.


Flirting should always be based on mutual respect; sexual harassment violates the rights of the person on the receiving end.

If you consider these aspects, you can identify situations where behavior may be considered sexual harassment and take the appropriate actions to stop it. Always remember, it’s essential to put the comfort and well-being of others first and maintain professional and welcoming social interactions.

Sexual harassment is a crime in many countries; it is viewed as a form of discrimination and a human rights violation.

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How to handle Sexual Harassment

Handling sexual assault is a very serious issue that requires empathy, sensitivity, and the right action. If sexual harassment has victimized you or someone else you are aware of, here are the steps to take in other to deal with it:

Recognize and Understand

It’s crucial to be aware of and comprehend what is considered sexual harassment. Sexual harassment may range from obscene comments, gestures, or advances, to more serious types of sexual harassment that are unwelcome.

Speak Up

If you’re feeling safe doing this, think about contacting the harasser directly, and be clear about why their behavior is unwelcome and indecent; be calm and firm in your communications.

Document the Incident

If you witness or experience sexual harassment, record your details as quickly as you can. In the notes, include times and dates, location, people who were involved, and any related interactions or conversations.

Seek Support

Speak to someone you trust, a friend or family member, a supervisor, or a colleague to discuss the issue. Their help could provide emotional assistance and direction regarding how to move forward.

Report to the Relevant Authority

If the harassment persists or gets worse, you should notify the responsible authority in your company or institution. This could include a supervisor, human resource department, school manager, or a designated person responsible for handling these issues.

Know Your Rights

Know your rights when it comes to sexual harassment at your workplace or an educational institution. The area of your jurisdiction, the laws, and the policies differ, and knowing your rights may allow you to take action in the right direction.

Formal Complaint

If the informal solution isn’t efficient, you should make a formal complaint to your institution or organization. Follow the guidelines to file a formal complaint, which typically involves filing an official complaint in writing detailing the incident.

External Resources

If the internal options aren’t offering a satisfactory solution, you should go looking for other options, such as law enforcement agencies, government agencies, or advocacy groups that specialize in sexual harassment.

Maintain Documentation

Throughout the process, keep a record of all correspondence, documents, and other interactions related to the harassment; this is crucial in the event that legal action is required.


Sexual harassment can be stressful and emotionally exhausting; be sure to prioritize your health by seeking out therapy or counseling when needed and engaging in self-care practices that help in managing stress.

Keep in mind that each circumstance is different, so the best actions to take could differ. If you’re not sure about the best way to handle a particular situation, consulting an expert or a lawyer is a good idea. It’s crucial to stand up to sexual assault and work towards creating safe environments for all.


The line between flirting and harassment should be discerned; if you can distinguish between both, you can shield yourself from abuse. However, flirting can be interpreted as harassment, so it is important to be aware of your boundaries and that of your coworkers or friends; this will allow you to avoid many cases that could otherwise be misunderstood and end in the wrong direction.

Is This Sexual Harassment?
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