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‘Sexual harassment’ is any form of unwelcome sexual behaviour that’s offensive, humiliating or intimidating. Most importantly, it’s against the law. Being sexually harassed affects people in different ways. If you’re experiencing harassment, there are many things you can do about it.

This can help if:

  • you want to know more about sexual harassment
  • you’re being sexually harassed
  • you want to know what you can do if you're being sexually harassed.
Girl with tattoos in bed

What is sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment is unwelcome sexual behaviour that’s offensive, humiliating or intimidating. It can be written, verbal or physical, and can happen in person or online.

Both men and women can be the victims of sexual harassment. When it happens at work, school or uni, it may amount to sex discrimination.

What does it include?

Sexual harassment can include someone:

  • touching, grabbing or making other physical contact with you without your consent
  • making comments to you that have a sexual meaning
  • asking you for sex or sexual favours
  • leering and staring at you
  • displaying rude and offensive material so that you or others can see it
  • making sexual gestures or suggestive body movements towards you
  • cracking sexual jokes and comments around or to you
  • questioning you about your sex life
  • insulting you with sexual comments
  • committing a criminal offence against you, such as making an obscene phone call, indecently exposing themselves or sexually assaulting you.

When does sexual harassment become sexual assault?

If someone is sexually harassing you in a way that causes you to feel humiliation, pain, fear or intimidation, then this can be considered sexual assault. If you believe you’ve been sexually assaulted, you may want to find out more about what this means as well as the support options available to you.

How sexual harassment can affect you

If you’re 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 or 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 that’s free from harassment, bullying, discrimination and violence. Sexual harassment is illegal (under the Sex Discrimination Act 1984).

Here are some things you can do:

Talk to the offender

You can try resolving the situation quickly yourself by explaining to the person who is harassing you that their behaviour is unwanted.

Be informed

If you’re being harassed at work, school or uni, find out what their policies and procedures are for preventing and handling sexual harassment.

Keep a diary

Document everything that happens, including when it occurred, the names of any people who saw what happened, and what you've done to try to stop it.

Save any evidence

Keep text messages, social media comments, notes and emails. This evidence can help if you make a complaint.

Get external information and advice

For work situations, check Lawstuff to find the union representing your industry. They can give you advice on your options and your rights. Someone can also act on your behalf if you don't feel comfortable pursuing the issue alone. They should respect your confidentiality. If you’re concerned about this, ask them what their official privacy policy is.

Tell someone

Sexual harassment isn’t something you need to deal with on your own. In the workplace, it might be worth talking to your 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.

Your options if the sexual harassment continues

You might need to make a formal complaint

At school or uni, or in 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. If all else fails, they might be fired.

If you end up having to leave

If the harassment occurred in your workplace, you might be eligible for outstanding wages and entitlements if you feel you have no alternative but to leave your job.

If you’re not happy with the official response to your complaint

You can make a complaint to either the Australian Human Rights Commission or your state/territory Human Rights Commission (but you can only complain to one or the other). It’s free to make a complaint; however each state has a different time limit for lodging a complaint. Contact your local state/territory 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.