Here's a scenario that may sound familiar: someone not generally considered to be in a position of power - a student, say, and female - propositions someone who technically does have power. A male lecturer, for example.

The proposition? That he join her for a threesome somewhere exotic. She likes him and she wants to get to know him on an intimate level, with everything that implies. The message is clear.

Is that sexual harassment, or do the unusual, "reverse" power dynamics make it a case apart? Speaking more broadly, is emailing someone in your organisation with a sexual proposition manipulative and self serving, or simply forward and adventurous?

Every situation has its complexities and one that made the headlines this week is no different. However, it has prompted a discussion about what constitutes harassment.


The first thing to cover off here, and in any scenario, is consent. Saying "no" must always and actually mean "no", taken as a legitimate response by one person to the other. This is no matter their gender, status, ethnicity or religion.

Then it's about looking at what harassment actually is: aggressive pressure or intimidation to engage in unwanted behaviour. Keep in mind that where harassment exists, you will usually find an abuse of power, too.

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This kind of power play is as old as time itself, and stalks the corridors of workplaces, homes, schools, and neighbourhoods.

But what if the power imbalance tips in favour of the recipient, who wants no part in the sexual advances?

Even here there will often be hidden layers upon layers of nuance. A male lecturer, for example, may fear the consequences of any implied sexual involvement with his student, and feel very vulnerable for that reason.

But it is also important that staff, especially male staff toward female, remain mindful of the power relationship that exists between them and students. After all, there is very little threat to male figures of power from women, especially in terms of danger and safety.

Sometimes, asserting power by harnessing bureaucratic systems can appear a power play in itself.


I was once the unwelcome target of advances from an older academic who was teaching my course at university. I felt threatened; no surprises there.

In those days, though, there was really nowhere to go with a complaint of that nature. So the comparatively recent sexual harassment laws were a very welcome antidote to the all- too-common power imbalances that were left to fester otherwise. Sex was often used as a bargaining chip by men towards women: sleep with me and you'll get ahead, don't and you won't.

Of course, life is full of desire. Mix that sexual desire with freedom of expression and you get hundreds, if not thousands of approaches being made every day, right across the country in every possible scenario.

And if the recipient of an advance says no, but the behaviour continues, then he or she is within their rights to call harassment.

But ultimately, the guidelines around our interpersonal behaviour in the workplace, and other organisations and institutions, will always be blunt instruments. And that's probably the best we can expect.

The fact that power plays are not tolerated at all, whether they are of a sexual nature or otherwise, is a huge advance overall, which has taken place in a relatively short space of time. For that, we should probably feel lucky and grateful. Not all countries place importance on regulating abuses of power.

On a personal level, only very thoughtful consideration of the power dynamic will provide a more nuanced, and therefore more accurate, understanding of what harassment actually is, and if it has genuinely occurred.

Vulnerability, whether it's a result of gender or position of authority, does tend to slant in one direction. Working out which way it slants, and why, is where we find the answers.