Sexual harassment

Sexual harassment is defined as any form of unwelcome sexual behaviour that is offensive, humiliating or intimidating and it is against the law. Being sexually harassed affects people in different ways. If you are experiencing harassment, there are many things you can do.

This might help if you:

  • Want to know more about sexual harassment
  • Believe you are being sexually harassed
  • Want to know what you can do if you're being sexually harassed

What is sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment is any form of unwelcome sexual behaviour that is offensive, humiliating or intimidating. It can be written, verbal or physical, and can occur in person or online. Both men and women can be the victims of sexual harassment.

When sexual harassment occurs at work, school or uni, it may amount to sex discrimination. Sex discrimination happens when you are treated less fairly than another person because of your sex, marital status, or pregnancy.

What does it include?

Sexual harassment can include:

  • Unwelcome touching, grabbing or other physical contact
  • Comments that have sexual meanings
  • Asking for sex or sexual favours
  • Leering and staring
  • Displaying rude and offensive material
  • Sexual gestures or body movement
  • Sexual jokes and comments
  • Questions about your sex life
  • Sex based insults
  • Criminal offences such as obscene phone calls, indecent exposure or sexual assault

If sexual harassment includes behaviour that causes humiliation, pain, fear or intimidation, it can amount to sexual assault. If you have been sexually assaulted, you may want to read more information in our sexual assault fact sheet.

How it can affect you

If you are being sexually harassed you might:

  • Feel stressed, anxious or depressed
  • Withdraw from social situations
  • Lose confidence and self-esteem
  • Have physical symptoms of stress such as headaches, backaches, sleep problems
  • Be less productive and unable to concentrate

What can you do?

No one deserves, or asks, to be sexually harassed. Everyone has the right to work and live in an environment free from harassment, bullying, discrimination and violence. Sexual harassment is illegal (under the Sex Discrimination Act 1984).

Things you can do include:

  • Resolving the situation quickly yourself by explaining to the person who is harassing you that their behaviour is unwanted.
  • Make sure you're informed – if you are being harassed at work, school or uni, find out what the policies and procedures are for preventing and handling sexual harassment.
  • Keep a diary documenting everything that happens, including when it occurred and the names of any people who saw what happened and what you've done to try and stop it.
  • Save any evidence, like text messages or emails. This can help if you make a complaint.
  • Get external information and advice, for example, Lawstuff. the union representing your industry. These organisations can give you advice on your options and your rights. Some of them can also act on your behalf if you don't feel comfortable pursuing the issue alone. They should also respect your confidentiality; though if you are concerned about this, ask them what their official privacy policy is.
  • Tell someone. Sexual harassment is not something you need to deal with on your own. In the workplace, it might be worth going to talk to the HR manager who will be able to help you decide what to do. You might also want to talk to a trusted friend or family member about what's going on.
  • If the situation continues, you might need to make a formal complaint. In school, uni or the workplace, the person sexually harassing you might be officially warned, and be required to have counselling. If the sexual harassment continues, there might be a mediation process and, if all else fails, the person sexually harassing you might be fired. If you end up having to leave, you might be eligible for outstanding wages and entitlements.

If you’re not happy with your school, uni or workplace response to your complaint, you can make a complaint to either the Australian Human Rights Commission or your State/Territory’s Commission (but you can only complain to one or the other). It is free to make a complaint to the commissions; however each state has a different time limit for making a complaint. Contact your local State/Territory’s Commission or check out the Australian Human Rights Commission website for more information.

What can I do now?

  • Talk to someone, whether HR at work or a friend or family member at home.
  • Visit Lawstuff to find out more about your rights.
  • If the situation continues, make a formal complaint.
Last reviewed: 04 May, 2016
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