This question still bothers many people around the world. An explicit “No” is often considered as one such line: If a person has made it clear to you that your behaviour is unacceptable to him/her, but you keep it up, then it may be qualified as “sexual harassment”. It’s possible that even a slight reformulation of the question could allow for more clarity: “Where is the line between flirting and forced flirting?” or “Where is the line between admiring someone and admiring someone annoyingly?” seem much easier to answer.
One would think it’s not that difficult to understand - a compliment made in an appropriate manner at an acceptable time and place is generally welcome and pleasing to the one receiving it, but make it at a wrong time and in an unacceptable manner and it can be taken extremely badly. Of course, it also greatly depends on who’s giving you the compliment and what kind of relationship you have with this person.
The examples above are seemingly simple and clear, but as soon as we use the phrase “sexual harassment”, we’re suddenly faced with a wide array of diverging opinions and a whole lot of confusion. Some even get the feeling that it’s just a forced notion that has nothing to do with reality. However, the term “sexual harassment” entered into mainstream use in the 1970’s, while what it stands for has in fact existed for millennia.
Why such a negative reaction? Well, there’s no clear-cut answer to that. However, one of the reasons could be the fact that the world only began studying sexual harassment and related issues a few decades ago, and some countries - even later.
We should also remember that people don’t or can’t always say a strict “no”. They might show that our behavior is unacceptable with their attitude - by reducing the communication between you to a minimum, for example...
In short, whether the “no” is direct or not, the main difference consists in the following: flirting is based on mutual consent and acceptability, while sexual harassment means that one of the parties is not in the least enjoying it.
It’s only natural that conversations about “sexual harassment” cause emotional responses in people - in men as well as in women. Which sometimes clouds our judgement. So, for more clarity, we can take the questions from the beginning of this article and give them an even more extreme form: What if it was about your mother, sister, daughter or girlfriend, would it still be so difficult to see the difference between flirting and sexual harassment?