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Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment is defined as an unwelcome sexual advance. If you have received unwelcome suggestive comments, have been touched without your permission, or have been bullied or coerced into complying with a sexual advance, you have experienced sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment can happen to a person of any gender, at any age. Both men and women can be victims; both men and women can be perpetrators. Unfortunately, those who speak up about sexual harassment are often stigmatized, but if we are to offer real help it is essential that victims are heard and taken seriously.

Sexual harassment is a widespread problem. A survey in 2018 found that 81% of women, and 43% of men have experienced some form of sexual harassment during their lifetime. Women are twice as likely to experience sexual harassment, but men tend to have more trouble being taken seriously when seeking help.

The perpetrator of sexual harassment typically has power of some sort over their victim, e.g. greater physical size and strength, or a higher position in a social hierarchy (such as being the manager or boss of their victim). Fearing potential retaliation makes it harder for the victim to put an end to the harassment.

Different forms of sexual harassment

Many different behaviours qualify as sexual harassment—it takes place in public and in private, in casual and official settings, between people who know each other and between complete strangers.

Sexual harassment often constitutes behaviour that would be acceptable and even desired between consenting adults—the key difference is that the behaviour, which assumes intimacy and demands vulnerability, is unwanted. Sometimes an action that could be an innocent blunder turns sinister when the person on the receiving end feels uncomfortable and the perpetrator stonewalls or escalates; other forms of harassment are unmistakably malicious.

The following are behaviours that can constitute sexual harassment:

  • Eyeing someone suggestively
  • Whistling, honking, making ‘kissy noises’, saying ‘hey baby’ or equivalent
  • Telling jokes of a sexual nature, talking about someone’s body inappropriately; explicitly voicing a desire of sexual nature
  • Speaking to someone in a derogatory manner about their sex, gender, or orientation
  • Showing or sending any unwanted photos, drawings, or other images of a sexual nature
  • Purposefully brushing against or touching someone in a suggestive way
  • Suggesting or demanding attention, touch, company, or sexual favours
  • Making unwanted visits, phone calls, sending unwanted texts, letters or emails, especially if repeatedly
  • Leaving unwanted gifts at a person’s home, school, work, or other frequented place
  • Exposing oneself to another
  • Engaging in stalking or otherwise threatening behaviour
  • Coercing or forcing someone to do something suggestive or to engage in sexual behaviour

A common form of sexual intimidation/harassment is spreading rumours of a sexual nature, either in person or online. The term ‘revenge porn’ is used for sharing sexually explicit images or videos without consent, even if there is no revenge involved.


People who don’t feel they have the agency to speak out about their experiences or aren’t fully familiar with the expected social boundaries, both online and offline, are especially susceptible to bullying and harassment. Many teenage victims of sexual harassment are targeted by others in their own age group.

The threat of retaliation keeps many victims silent. For example, if the perpetrator is the victim’s superior at work, he may risk losing his job if he doesn’t endure the advances. If the perpetrator is aggressive or violent, the victim may risk destruction of property, bodily harm, or even death if she seeks help.

How can you tell?

Social interactions can sometimes be ambiguous, leaving you wondering what you should tolerate and what you should object to. You might be laughing at your friend’s crude jokes, but then they go just a little too far. Or you might enjoy going out for a casual drink every now and then with a colleague, but the suggestive messages you receive after one such evening makes you wonder if they might be taking it the wrong way.

Not everyone who engages in intimidating behaviour realises they are crossing a line. It may not have occurred to them that what they are saying or doing could be making anyone uncomfortable. Sometimes unwitting harassers misread responses to their behaviour. For example, people who work in customer service report that their professional friendliness is often mistaken for flirting, which can lead to them having to deal with harassment.

Conversations online leave even more room for misunderstanding as texting lacks non-verbal cues—facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language help us understand the other person’s intentions. Wishful thinking fills in those gaps with undertones that aren’t actually there.

Victims of unwanted intimacy may initially misread a perpetrator’s actions as friendliness. If you wouldn’t do it yourself, you may not recognize it in another. Even if they are aware of what’s happening, they may not speak out because:

  • They don’t know how to articulate their discomfort
  • They don’t think the perpetrator is willing to take it further, and will stop if they just endure a little longer
  • They feel guilty about giving the wrong impression
  • They feel like it’s too late to say anything
  • They don’t want to be labelled ‘troublesome’
  • They fear this will only encourage the perpetrator
  • They fear retaliation for daring to object

It is not uncommon for a victim of sexual harassment to feel intimidated enough for their body to engage the fight-flight-freeze response. This is an instinctive reaction still with us from the days when we lived alongside animal predators—the body engages in an automatic response to maximize our chances of surviving an encounter with a dangerous animal.

To ‘fight’ is to respond aggressively, ‘flight’ is to run away, but the most common response when faced with sexual harassment is to ‘freeze’—to become quiet and passive.

If the perpetrator doesn’t realise that this is what is happening, they may mistake their victim’s lack of objection for consent. If the victim doesn’t recognise their reaction as instinctive, they may blame themselves for not stopping the perpetrator’s actions. They may even convince themselves that they subconsciously wanted to be harassed, or that they deserved it.


To avoid making someone uncomfortable unintentionally, there is one very simple solution—ask if everything is okay.

Many of us follow unwritten social rules that stop us from interrupting a moment so as not to ‘ruin the mood’ (even when the mood has already been ruined for you). Checking in on someone before, during, and after an intimate advance could save them from feeling violated. This is a good thing to remember, even in an established, loving relationship. People have been known to change their minds in the middle of really good sex. There is nothing wrong with suddenly feeling like you should stop, and there is nothing wrong with saying that out loud.


Responding to harassment

There are different ways to respond to harassment. If you feel safe doing so, be direct: tell the perpetrator (loudly, clearly, and concisely) that their behaviour is making you uncomfortable. Specify which of their actions are troubling you.


You may feel the need to apologise when calling out the actions of a sexual harasser. Don’t. You are doing everything right by looking out for yourself. If not you, then who?

In the best-case scenario, the perpetrator simply didn’t realise they were causing you distress, have no wish to cause you distress, and will stop when they realize how you feel. Speaking up gives them a chance to learn from this experience, and not subject you, or anyone else, to that kind of distress in the future.

If you don’t feel safe addressing them in person, or if you have done so and the harassment does not stop, you must consider the possibility that they don’t actually care for your wellbeing and act accordingly. This means assuming they will deny any allegations you make. Write a detailed report of what happened, where and when the harassment took place, whether there were any witnesses, and any other relevant information you can think of.

If the harassment took place via online chat or text message, make a folder for digital evidence such as screenshots of your conversation or any explicit material they have sent you. Save evidence as soon as possible—an intentional harasser will delete everything if they suspect you are calling them out.

Find someone you trust and explain the situation. If you are at school, be sure to tell a trusted adult. If your first choice doesn’t listen, find someone who will. If you wish to remain anonymous, there may be a number you can call and people there who will speak to the authorities on your behalf.

If you were harassed at work, seek help from a trusted colleague, your superior (unless your superior is the perpetrator, or if they are likely to side with the perpetrator), or your superior’s superior. Many companies have procedures to follow in cases such as these—read over your employment contract and internal rules or contact your trade union if you have one.

If you decide to report a case of sexual harassment at school or at work, it helps to:

  • ask someone trustworthy to accompany you
  • bring all the evidence
  • record the meeting (or take notes about when it took place, who was present, and what the outcome was) in case the behaviour continues or if you were punished in any way for reporting it

If those who are supposed to protect you are reluctant to acknowledge your experience, or if they try to silence you, go to the police.

If nobody listens

While perpetrators of sexual harassment should be subject to proportionate consequences, too often the victim is effectively powerless to bring them to justice. The authorities may have an incentive to sweep the whole thing under the rug—to avoid the situation reflecting on them badly or to protect a perpetrator who has influence over them.

If you are a victim of sexual harassment and you aren’t being heard, put your own safety first. This may mean leaving—changing to a different school or looking for another job. There are shelters that can offer a safe haven if you have nowhere to go, and there are support groups that can help you process the experience you have endured. It’s awful and unfair to be forced to sacrifice pieces of your life because of what someone did to you, and it’s okay to be angry about it.

Remember, the most important thing for you is that you move on, heal, and thrive. The sad truth is that not all perpetrators are punished. If you can take action without risking further abuse, act to stop it from happening to others. But you must first be safe.

Sexual harassment can have serious and lasting consequences for the victim—anxiety, depression, headaches, sleep disorders, weight loss or weight gain, nausea, lowered self-esteem, and sexual dysfunction are all things experienced by people who have been through it. Having a friend or confidant who can listen to your experience with compassion and respect is also incredibly helpful. But remember that not everyone has the skill to hold another person’s pain without feeling scared or threatened, even if care about you. If you don’t have a friend at hand who is strong enough to lean on, a trained therapist may be able to help. While we ultimately have to heal ourselves, we don’t have to do it alone. 

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