With a flurry of sexual harassment claims in the news and with many well-known people admitting they have sexually harassed others, this topic has probably never been so widely discussed. Believers in Jesus Christ strive to have a biblical worldview in all things, including the issue of sexual harassment.
First, a legal definition of terms. Sexual harassment is any unwanted sexual conduct. In the workplace sexual harassment typically involves unwelcome advances offered as a condition of employment or that create a hostile work environment. Sexual harassment can also occur in academic and religious situations.
Sexual harassment can take the form of personal comments; sexually charged language, jokes, and gestures; indecent exposure; displayed pictures; persistent, unwanted flirting; or threats of physical harm. No matter what form it takes, sexual harassment is a violation of the biblical principles of modesty, purity, and respect for others. Any “sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient” (from the U.S. Department of Justice website) or forced physical contact moves beyond sexual harassment to sexual assault.
It is important to note that sexually inappropriate conduct is always wrong, even when it is not legally defined as sexual harassment. For example, in the United States, acting out in a sexual manner in a social setting is often not a crime. Catcalling and other verbal remarks may not be illegal if they do not pose a real threat to the hearer. Making obscene gestures at a party may not be prosecutable in a court of law, but Christians follow a higher law, and we are to live above such unwholesome behavior.
God designed human sexuality to be expressed in monogamous, heterosexual marriages. All of our sexual attention should be reserved for our spouse only. Ideally, we should not even have sexual thoughts about anyone else, including prospective girlfriends and boyfriends. Paul’s instruction to Timothy is important here: “Treat younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters, with absolute purity” (1 Timothy 5:1b–2). The biblical mandate is for our purity to be “absolute.” The fact is that sexual harassment would never take place if everyone treated everyone else with this type of consideration and respect.
First Corinthians 13 also has strong words for how we should treat each other: with kindness (1 Corinthians 13:4), honor and self-sacrifice (verse 5), and protection (verse 7). Love rules out selfishness and boorishness and works to create an environment free from sexual harassment. The Bible leaves no room for sexual harassment of any kind. There is no way for a believer to justify it, as it disrespects the imago Dei in another person and thus disrespects God.
In recent decades, Christian dating has grown complicated. We’ve fallen into the trap of seeing every single member of the opposite sex as a potential mate instead of a potential friend. That puts way too much pressure on casual social interactions.
Here are some thoughts to consider before making advances toward the object of your affection:
• There is no reason for a Christian to approach anyone with a sexually suggestive comment. Don’t do it. Refrain from speaking to others in a sexually suggestive way. “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths” (Ephesians 4:29, ESV).
• If a person has a particular physical characteristic that is exceptional enough that you want to comment on it, first ask yourself a couple of questions: Is my attraction sexual? Could my comment be construed as having sexual overtones? Will the person feel flattered, or is this inappropriate? Am I basing these answers on my own context or on the other person’s?
• We all have a tendency to judge our actions based on our own motivations instead of how our actions could be construed by others. Our judgment is also tainted by our upbringing. Be aware that at least one out of every six women have been the victim of rape or attempted rape, and at least 60 percent have been the victim of sexual harassment. What you may consider harmless fun may be threatening to the recipient.
• Restricting someone’s movement by blocking a door, cornering someone, or grabbing his arm is abuse. Telling someone her judgment is misguided when she has expressed discomfort, fear, or a desire to be left alone is abuse. Everyone is owed our respect and sacrificial love; no one is owed a positive reception to flirting, whether abusive or not.
The defining characteristic of sexual harassment is that it is unwanted. A lot of people flirt in a harassing way because they don’t have the confidence to be real. They use inappropriate remarks to test the waters and see how their crush will respond. But godly marriages aren’t built on sex or coercion; they’re built on respect, sacrificial love, and dedication to Christ. Godly relationships, pre-marriage, need communication, openness, and a desire to get to know the other person. Resorting to inappropriate comments or actions isn’t conducive to a deep connection. Mutual respect is.