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ImageWhen does 'consensual flirting' become sexual harassment?

Lisa Rundle, a former Penguin employee, recently crashed into our consciousness when she alleged that Indian publishing poster boy and novelist David Davidar sexually harassed her.

In his defence, with blow by blow details of what-she-did and what-he-did, Davidar called their relationship a consensual flirtation. Have you been yo-yoing about which side to be on? Have you caught yourself thinking back to something you said or did in office that could be construed as harassment? Have you been wondering if something someone said or did was harmless or ill-intentioned?

Relax. The line between flirting and harassment is not as thin as it may appear. It is, in fact, a thick boundary, according to sociologist Maithili Ganjoo, who believes that it is important to address this urban phenomenon.

"We are spending more time at work than home. Traditional norms of behaviour at the workplace are getting more relaxed. You tend to form relationships at office. Even then, the distinction between flirtation and harassment is not amorphous. In case of flirtation, there is a tacit understanding between two people. It does happen that an agreement to flirt, like in a marriage, sometimes breaks down. In case of sexual harassment, one person's dignity gets hurt. But a person in a responsible position should know better than to abuse his power," she says.

It's about power
You've heard this before. Remember the Demi Moore-Michael Douglas starrer Disclosure? Sexual harassment is not about sex, it's about power. Writer Vandana Shah agrees with the adage. "Nine times out of ten it is about dominance. A friend of mine was in a relationship with a superior. After they broke up, he started harassing her. He made her work life miserable. Finally, when he ordered her transfer, she sued him, and eventually won," Shah says. This usually means that you can have a flirtation with an equal but harassment tends to come from someone who has a social advantage over you and can exploit it.

You can tell
Talking about the jungle, you should trust your instinct. It is your basic instinct - when something is not right, you can feel it. The dynamics are nuanced and you have to watch out. An ad professional, who was witness to a harassment case at her workplace, says if it bothers you, then it is harassment. "I keep begging with a colleague to marry me," she says. "But he knows it's a joke." Similarly, if you've cracked a joke with innuendoes and the person who it was intended for is not particularly amused, you must immediately know that you've taken them outside their comfort zone. It's basic etiquette to respect the other person's opinions. What you say or do turns into harassment when it is not accepted in the same spirit that it was intended.

It's unwelcome
What is acceptable for one person may not hold true for another. In the midst of that subjectivity, the only way to keep yourself on the right side is get the social cues. Lawyer Mihir Desai says the single most important characteristic of harassment is that it is unwelcome. "Different people have different comfort levels. The point is not to adhere to some form of Victorian morality but to respect how another person feels," says Desai. That is, if someone says no, get the point.

Be empowered
As for women, you are well within your rights to say no if you don't like something. So, recognise the power. You can flirt in the workplace without feeling that you're becoming an evil person. Feminist Jane Gallop makes a distinction between 'power feminists' who are pro-sex and what she calls 'victim feminists' who are not. She argues that sexual harassment, which used to be about sexism, should not be about anything that's sexual.

Ultimately, you must be your own moral police. Flirting never hurt anyone. But if it hurts, remember it's much beyond flirting.