What is sexual harassment?

This page was last updated on: 2021-01-27

What is sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment can be defined as unwelcome and unwanted sexual advances, requests for sexual favours, and other verbal or physical contact of a sexual nature that creates a hostile or offensive environment. It can also be seen as a form of violence against women (and men, who can also be sexually harassed) and as discriminatory treatment. A key part of the definition is the word “unwelcome”.

Sexual harassment can take a variety of forms. It includes both physical violence and more subtle forms of violence such as coercion – forcing somebody to do something they don’t want to. It can take a long-term form – repeated sexual “jokes”, constant (unwanted) invitations to go on a date, or unwelcome flirting of a sexual nature. And it can be a one-off incident – touching or fondling somebody inappropriately, or even sexual abuse or rape.

Is the sex of a person directly linked to their harassment?

Yes – sexual harassment is behaviour which relates directly to the sex of the person who is being harassed. This is why it can be seen as discriminatory.

According to a study conducted by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), ”Sexual harassment is inextricably linked with power and often takes place in societies which treat women as sex objects and second-class citizens.” A common example of this is when women are asked for sexual favours in return for being given a job, or a promotion, or a raise. Another example is street harassment, which can range from cat-calls and whistling through to unwelcome and offensive language and also sexual abuse and rape.

Importantly, sexual harassment is not the same as a mutually-agreed flirtation or relationship. It is an action which is unwelcome, causes offense and distress, and can, in some situations, be physically and emotionally dangerous. The victim can feel intimidated, uncomfortable, embarrassed, or threatened.

What can be categorised as sexual harassment?

There are different legal definitions of sexual harassment in different countries and jurisdictions, but the most common forms of sexual harassment include:

  • Telling sexual or dirty jokes
  • Displaying or distributing sexually explicit drawings or pictures
  • Letters, notes, emails, telephone calls, or material of a sexual nature
  • “Rating” people on their physical attributes
  • Sexual comments about a person's clothing, anatomy, or looks
  • Whistling or cat-calling
  • Sexually suggestive sounds or gestures such as sucking noises, winks, or pelvic thrusts
  • Direct or indirect threats or bribes for unwanted sexual activity
  • Repeatedly asking a person out for dates, or to have sex
  • Name-calling, such as bitch, whore, or slut
  • Staring in an offensive way (staring at a woman’s breasts, or a man’s buttocks)
  • Unwanted questions about one’s sex life
  • Unwanted touching, hugging, kissing, fondling, brushing up against somebody
  • Stalking a person
  • Touching oneself sexually for others to view
  • Sexual assault
  • Molestation
  • Rape.

Where does sexual harassment take place?

Sexual harassment can take place anywhere – at work, at university, on the street, in a shop, at a club, while using public transport, at an airport, even in the home. Basically, it is unwelcome sexual attention that can take place in any public place, and also in private spaces.

Do only men harass women?

No. Women can sexually harass men as well, men can sexually harass other men, and women can sexually harass other women. There is no gender bias in harassers.

Harassers can be an employer, a work colleague, a client, a customer, a stranger, a relative, a so-called “friend”, a gang of people, or a person interviewing you for a job. There is no “blueprint” for who a harasser is, there are many different perpetrators.