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Flirting or abuse?

By Angela Reinhardt

Staff writer

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I don’t watch the Today Show, but before Matt Lauer was fired over sexual harassment allegations the image I had of him was that of a genial, boyish, All-American-type I enjoyed seeing cover the Olympics.   

At first all we had was the vague “sexual assault” claim, then details emerged – in one incident he pulled down his pants and showed his genitals to a woman, then berated her for not engaging. All allegations of course, but when I found a video of Lauer looking down his co-host’s shirt telling her, “Pretty sweater. Keep bending over like that. I like that view,” I was convinced the guy is a jerk - not at all who I’d imagined.  

Many people are calling the rapid-fire toppling of high-powered men a sexual revolution and a sea of change in our nation’s history. I’ve personally tried to take the allegations a case at a time, while being hopeful positive changes can come from it. Just last week, for example, a rape charge against a man was thrown out in local courts. I also recall covering a story about a local professor after he was exonerated from sexual assault charges a few years ago - false allegations have and will be made. But the truth is sexual harassment and assault are real, and we can use this historic moment to keep the momentum going by talking to our kids and implementing and enforcing protocols in the workplace. 

The only problem is sex is complicated and emotionally charged, and solutions aren’t clear cut for men or women. 

Matt Lauer’s termination came up with some male friends last week, one of whom said his acts and those of comedian Louis C.K., who admitted to getting nude and performing certain acts in front of two non-consenting women, were so outrageous he didn’t see how they could be true. 

I relayed a few of the experiences I’ve had to put things into perspective for my male friend. When I worked at a golf club in another county, a man I’d never met offered me several hundred dollars to flash him on the back nine. It was completely unprovoked. I hadn’t been flirting and wasn’t wearing skimpy clothing. I’ve also had a man forcibly put my hand on his genitals. When I refused to engage him, he told me I was uptight, and made a few explicit comments trying to guilt me into sex. 

The #MeToo movement shows that most women have experiences of their own.

My son overheard me talking about the wave of allegations and asked what was happening. I told him, “Men with very powerful positions are getting in trouble because they abused and touched women when they didn’t want to be touched.” He said that was awful and shook his head, then after a second said, “Well, all those girl pop singers who sing about wanting to be touched, I guess they don’t mean it.”  

My son is in middle school and doesn’t know anything, or much of anything other than vague concepts, about sex or intimacy. In his prepubescent 11-year-old brain I could see how he would make that connection, and his observation is valid and touches on this idea that women who tease and flirt are asking for it. My friend, and other men, have wondered what led to those instances like Lauer and Louis C.K., where men felt it was okay to pull out their privates. Was everyone drunk? Did the woman initiate flirting? But there’s a difference between flirting and genuine abuse, and men should know what’s what, and when to stop. 

Like the LA Times’ Cathy Young, I’m concerned about the sterilization of healthy flirting and courtship in the workplace, and men who fear that “careers may be destroyed over minor misconduct and ambiguous transgressions.” I certainly wouldn’t want to live in a “sterile society,” as one NY Times reporter questioned if that’s not where we’re headed. For the time being, I’m going to talk to my kids in hopes of changing the future landscape to one that’s not devoid of sex (where’s the fun in that?), to one where there is “nuance,’ as Ms. Young writes, where we distinguish between healthy flirting, “abuse, minor bad behavior, and innocent miscommunication.”