Sexual Advances That Aren't Welcome Are Harassment, Not 'Sexual Liberation'

What David Foster got wrong in his commentary in The Guardian about sexual freedom.

Photo Credit: aerogondo2/

“Hey, baby, wanna ride?” a man said to me, just yesterday, as he hung his body outside of a passenger window while I waited to cross the street.  My eyes darted left as the car passed right, and I then crossed the street when the coast was clear. By the time I got to the next block, the embarrassment I felt had worn off, and I didn’t tell anyone about my experience because it’s so common that, in some ways, even I have come to normalize the demeaning occurrence. And even though the feeling of humiliation, degradation, powerlessness and sometimes fear still emerges with every catcall, who is going to care if I talk about such a typical experience in women’s lives?

That’s what the Everyday Sexism Project is for — though its intentions were clearly confused by David Foster in his recent piece in The Guardian. The Project is a space where women could stop remaining silent about sexism.

The creator of the Project explained her goal in an interview:

Again and again, people told me sexism is no longer a problem—that women are equal now, more or less, and if you can’t take a joke or take a compliment, then you need to stop being so ‘frigid’ and get a sense of humor … Even if I couldn’t solve the problem right away, I was determined that nobody should be able to tell us we couldn’t talk about it anymore.

But Foster continued this notion that women need to stop being so frigid in a recent commentary. In some twisted logic, Foster wrote that the Everyday Sexism Project asserts that “directly propositioning somebody for sex is automatically condemned as misogynist.”

This is completely false — the Project does no such thing. Scour the Everyday Sexism site, which has now reached more than 50,000 entries, and it’s doubtful you’ll find any woman mechanically calling “misogyny!” on every male encounter. Instead, the Project allows women to report the range of sexism they experience everyday — from street harassment to sexual assault.

Foster, however, attempts to divide this spectrum of sexism women experience by distancing sexual assault from street harassment. He claims that the Project is guilty of  “lumping together sexual assaults and genuinely threatening behaviour with casual propositions.” Foster completely fails to recognize that while sexist acts may vary in severity, they are still all sexist, stemming from the systematic oppression of women. Plus, giving street harassment a pass would only aid in sustaining a sexist culture that fosters acts of sexual assault.

But perhaps the biggest flaw in Foster’s argument is hisconflating of sexual liberation and sexual harassment. While Foster claims that the Project “risks conflating deplorable and even criminal acts with sexually liberated expression,” he fails to see his own mix-up. Direct sexual advances are welcomed … if they are welcomed. Consent is not just for the bedroom — you need consent to flirt as well. Otherwise it’s harassment.

Author Victoria Dahl once described the difference remarkably in a Tumblr post:

There are so many men who have a damaging and violating idea of what flirtation is. Flirtation is not aggression. It is not acting out and pushing until you find the woman who gives in to it. Flirtation is an interaction. …Flirtation starts out small and slow. A look. A laugh. A shared smile. And then you wait and see what the response is to that smallest of overtures. You wait for a second look or laugh. A tiny nudge that says, “We are in this together, isn’t this fun?” You wait for that tiny nudge…You err on the side of patience and care. In flirting, you don’t plow ahead. You don’t skip steps. … You wait. You watch. You respond to signals. You see if she reciprocates. …This is a conversation. Two people are involved. … When you skip steps of flirting, when you pursue, it is a warning to women. A warning that you don’t see or acknowledge resistance. … It is actually fucking scary. … It’s harassment.

Underlying Foster’s argument is the idea that women can’t perceive this difference — and he’s come to help us poor prudes figure it out. Or, he thinks we should just deal with the harassment because, as he writes, “behind some of the crude and boorish conduct catalogued by the Everyday Sexism project is repressed sexuality.” Foster, then, essentially proposes that women should feel imprisoned in their own bodies while men figure out how to properly behave for a sexually liberated society. Instead of calling for an end to patriarchy so a fully sexually liberated society could be reached, Foster wants total sexual liberation first and seemingly trusts men to simply learn to be more respectful.

Foster’s commentary has sparked outrage, and people have even taken to Twitter to mock the piece using the hashtag #notalldavidfosters to play on his ‘not all sexual advances are misogynist’ cry. And the anger is rightfully deserved. The Everyday Sexism Project pushes to end the normalizing of sexism by allowing women to speak up about it. Foster may not want to listen, but we’re still making our voices heard.

Alyssa Figueroa is an associate editor at AlterNet.