What is sexual harassment?

Content warning

This article discusses sexual assault.

If you’re currently in distress, please head to 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732) for support.

‘Sexual harassment’ is any form of unwelcome sexual behaviour that’s offensive, humiliating or intimidating. Sexual harassment is against the law. This experience 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 think 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.

Anybody can experience sexual harassment, regardless of their gender. When it happens at work, school or uni, sexual harassment may amount to a form of discrimination.

What does sexual harassment 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

  • behaviour on a phone call that makes you feel uncomfortable

  • indecently exposing themselves to you

  • sexually assaulting you.

What is the difference between sexual harassment and sexual assault?

Sexual harassment is a much broader term than sexual assault, and refers to a wider variety of inappropriate sexual behaviours. Sexual harassment can include sexual contact - like unwanted touching, hugging, or kissing.

But as we have discussed above, sexual harassment doesn’t have to include sexual touching or contact. It can also include sexual comments, inappropriate jokes, or showing offensive material to you or others.

Sexual assault is when you are forced, coerced or tricked into doing some sort of sexual activity, including touching, kissing, sexual acts, or penetrative sex.

Some cases of sexual harassment can also constitute sexual assault. For example, if your boss or colleague forced you to kiss them, or touched you inappropriately without your consent, that could be a case of both sexual harassment and 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. Read our article for more information about what sexual assault is and what you can do if you have been sexually assaulted.

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).

If you have been sexually harassed, here are some things you can do:

Talk to the offender

You can try resolving the situation yourself by explaining to the person who is harassing you that their behaviour is unwanted. However, this is only recommended if it’s something you feel safe and comfortable doing.

Tell someone

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

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. They may have processes in place already to deal with these situations and support you.

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. It can be really useful to bring these records when talking to a manager or HR person so that they know exactly what has been happening, and when.

Save any evidence

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

Get external information and advice

If you are experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace, you can check Youth Law Australia 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.

What to do 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 they fail to get help or stop what they are doing, 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 the harassment continues and you feel you have no alternative but to leave your job.

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

If you think your school or workplace hasn’t responded properly to your sexual harassment, 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 Youth Law Australia to find out more about your rights.

  • If the situation continues, make a formal complaint.