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What is sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment is any unwanted sexual behaviour that makes someone feel upset, scared, offended or humiliated, or is meant to make them feel that way.

Sexual harassment is a type of of sexual violence – the phrase we use to describe any sexual activity or act that happened without consent. Other types of sexual violence include rape and sexual assault.

Victims and survivors of sexual harassment are often told that they are being 'unreasonable’ or 'too sensitive', or that they ‘can’t take a joke’.

But, sexual harassment is never funny and should not be happening.

It can often often make victims and survivors feel upset, scared, humiliated or unsafe. For some, it can have a serious impact on their physical and mental health, and affect their quality of life.

You might have heard people talking about sexual harassment happening at work. But it can happen anywhere and takes many forms.

So, what does the term actually mean? And how do you know if something is sexual harassment?

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If you are affected by anything you read here, you can talk to us.

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No-one ever deserves or asks for sexual harassment to happen. 100% of the blame lies with the perpetrator or perpetrators.

How sexual harassment is defined in law

In England and Wales, the legal definition of sexual harassment is when someone carries out unwanted sexual behaviour towards another person that makes them feel upset, scared, offended or humiliated.

It is also when someone carries out this behaviour with the intention of making someone else feel that way. This means that it can still be sexual harassment even if the other person didn’t feel upset, scared, offended or humiliated.

Sexual harassment

The Equality Act 2010 says someone sexually harasses another person if they:

  • Engage in unwanted conduct of a sexual nature and
  • The conduct has the purpose or effect of either violating the other person’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them.

This unwanted sexual conduct can happen in person, on the phone, by text or email, or online. Both the harasser and the victim or survivor can be of any gender.

Sexual harassment includes a really wide range of behaviours, such as:

  • Sexual comments or noises – for example, catcalling or wolf-whistling.
  • Sexual gestures.
  • Leering, staring or suggestive looks. This can include looking someone up and down.
  • Sexual ‘jokes’.
  • Sexual innuendos or suggestive comments.
  • Unwanted sexual advances or flirting.
  • Sexual requests or asking for sexual favours.
  • Sending emails or texts with sexual content – for example, unwanted ‘sexts’ or ‘dick pics’.
  • Sexual posts or contact on social media.
  • Intrusive questions about a person’s private or sex life.
  • Someone discussing their own sex life.
  • Commenting on someone's body, appearance or what they’re wearing.
  • Spreading sexual rumours.
  • Standing close to someone.
  • Displaying images of a sexual nature.
  • Unwanted physical contact of a sexual nature – for example, brushing up against someone or hugging, kissing or massaging them.
  • Stalking.
  • Indecent exposure.
  • Taking a photo or video under another person's clothing – what is known as 'upskirting'.

Sexual harassment is a form of unlawful discrimination under the Equality Act 2010.

This means that people are legally protected from sexual harassment in certain places – for example, at work, on transport and at schools, colleges and universities.

So, if sexual harassment does happen in these places, victims and survivors have the right to take action to find a solution. This could include making a complaint or making a claim in the civil courts.

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If you're experiencing sexual harassment at work, you can access free employment legal advice by phoning the Rights of Women helpline.

Some important things to know about sexual harassment and the law:

  • It is the person receiving the sexual behaviour who decides if it’s unwanted – NOT the person doing the behaviour.
  • It doesn’t matter if other people think the unwanted sexual behaviour is okay. Or if it’s common in the place it’s happened in.
  • It can be a one-off incident or repeated.
  • Just because certain sexual behaviour was welcomed or not objected to in the past doesn’t mean that it can’t become unwanted. Or that other sexual behaviour is wanted.
  • Unwanted sexual behaviour doesn’t need to be intentionally directed at the victim or survivor – it can be something they witness or overhear.
  • If a victim or survivor of sexual harassment is treated badly or less favourably because of their reaction to that harassment, the Equality Act 2010 says that this is also harassment.

When sexual harassment is a crime

Some forms of sexual harassment automatically break criminal law in England and Wales, and are therefore crimes. These include:

  • stalking
  • indecent exposure
  • ‘upskirting’
  • any sexual harassment involving physical contact (this amounts to sexual assault in English and Welsh law)

Other forms of sexual harassment might also break criminal law, depending on the situation. For example, if someone carries out sexual harassment behaviours on more than one occasion that are intended to cause another person alarm or distress, they may be committing the crime of harassment.  

In cases of sexual harassment where a crime was committed, the following can happen:

  • Police can arrest the person who committed the crime.
  • This person can be charged with a crime and face trial.
  • If they are found guilty or plead guilty then they will receive a punishment. This might include a prison sentence.

Get help and support

Everyone responds differently to sexual harassment and other forms of sexual violence – so whatever someone feels is a valid response.

If you have experienced sexual harassment or sexual violence of any kind – whether it was recently or a long time ago – Rape Crisis is here for you. We will listen to you and believe you.