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Kissing a woman against her will isn't harmless. Can we all agree on that?

State Rep. Duane Hall speaks to the crowd prior to former president Bill Clinton's remarks at a Hillary Clinton for North Carolina campaign event Monday, March 7, 2016 in Raleigh, N.C.
State Rep. Duane Hall speaks to the crowd prior to former president Bill Clinton's remarks at a Hillary Clinton for North Carolina campaign event Monday, March 7, 2016 in Raleigh, N.C. jhknight@newsobserver.com

Can we please stop talking about men's bad behavior toward women like it’s an unfortunate byproduct of the confusing rituals of flirting?

It's not OK to kiss a woman without her consent, and it's not OK to excuse misdeeds as jokes, poor judgment, boorishness or misread cues.

The #MeToo movement has empowered women to speak out about men who use their power and influence to intimidate, but nothing is ever going to change if we must continuously defend ourselves against arguments of “boys will be boys.”

That's what is happening in the aftermath of allegations against Duane Hall, a Raleigh lawyer and Democratic legislator who some people, including Gov. Roy Cooper, say should resign.

An unnamed woman told NC Policy Watch, an online publication of the progressive advocacy group NC Justice Center, that Hall tried to kiss her without her consent. A witness quoted by name backed that up. In a different incident, Hall has admitted to inappropriately kissing a Democratic party official while trying to be funny.

Yet another woman, Jessie White, says Hall acted inappropriately toward her on three occasions. In one of them, she says Hall told her he could use a new legislative assistant, but that she would "need to gain 100 pounds first" because she was "too attractive."

The allegations are disturbing, and so too is the dialogue of those defending him. We've heard it before about other men, and it goes like this:

Oh, that silly guy. He’s harmless. He probably shouldn’t have said and done some of that stuff, but dating is such a tough game to navigate. Men are expected to make the first move, and then they have to figure out if women are interested. The line between appropriate and inappropriate sure can be blurry.

It's not harmless, and expressing romantic interest in someone doesn't have to be so complicated. If you like a woman, ask her out. Swipe right. Don't just go up and kiss her, and don't say ridiculous things that make you look like a fool.

Hall says he's a flirt, but that he has never sexually harassed anyone. But talking about what is and isn't legally sexual harassment doesn't move the conversation forward in any meaningful way. Even if a woman on the receiving end of inappropriate behavior isn't a subordinate of the man who's being inappropriate, it's still wrong.

Women hear some version of "oh, just ignore it" their whole lives. Boys who tease and chase us in school probably have a crush on us. We should be flattered when an older man tells us we’re pretty or stares half a second too long. As we get older, we should be grateful when men notice us at all.

In the #MeToo world, women are coming to terms with those ridiculous notions – and the role we play in them. We’re asking ourselves some tough questions, and we might not always like the answers.

Can we push for equal pay and also get a confidence boost from a man who whistles at us? Can we continue to support a cheating husband and also speak out against Harvey Weinstein?

Women are grappling with all of this while still encountering century-old arguments about locker-room talk and silly overtures. The conversation must shift from one in which we downplay sexual misconduct to one in which we take these issues seriously. And men shouldn’t get a pass because they are awkward, harmless or joking.

Kissing someone without prior consent isn't necessarily a crime. But prosecutors could pursue charges if there was evidence of a history of unwanted advances of a "sexual, romantic nature," Wake County District Attorney LorrinFreeman told me.

Under North Carolina law, "A person is guilty of sexual battery if the person, for the purpose of sexual arousal, sexual gratification, or sexual abuse, engages in sexual contact with another person ... by force and against the will of the other person."

Prosecutors would also have to prove the intent of the kisser, including whether the goal was indeed sexual arousal or gratification.

Legal technicalities aside, there's no excuse for violating someone's personal space and sense of security. Hall's actions were unacceptable, and perpetuating this idea that it's no big deal will only hold us all back.

Sarah Nagem is the assistant metro editor at The News & Observer. She can be reached at 919-829-4635 or on Twitter @sarah_nagem.
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