What Is Sexual Harassment? What Should I Do About It?


What Is Sexual Harassment? What Should I Do About It?

Sexual harassment is unwanted and inappropriate sexual attention. This can include staring, sexual body language, touching, jokes or comments about someone’s appearance, gender or sexuality, unwanted advances, and more.

Sexual harassment can happen in many different settings. It can happen when there’s a power imbalance, like between a boss and an employee. A person can also sexually harass their friends, peers, or partners. Being in a relationship with someone doesn’t automatically give permission or consent to all sexual attention or behavior at all times!

If any sexual harassment involves actual sexual activities like touching, kissing, or doing sexual things to someone without their consent, it can also be considered sexual assault.

When does attention become harassment?

Sometimes, people worry that they’ll harass someone without meaning to. Most people don’t think of a quick glance or mutual flirting as harassment! But attention and other everyday behaviors can cross the line into harassment when someone feels unsafe or uncomfortable.

For example, you might look at someone who you think is cute and hope they look back at you. This is sometimes how people flirt! But if they look away or ignore you, that can mean they feel uncomfortable. Continuing to stare at someone when they’re sending these signals of feeling uncomfortable can make them feel harassed. So can talking to someone who doesn’t respond to you or tries to ignore you.

What behaviors count as sexual harassment?

What is and isn’t sexual harassment can change depending on the situation. Some people welcome sexual attention from someone they’re dating or interested in. However, the same attention from someone who they’re not comfortable with can feel bad. It’s important to look at the situation and context to tell if something is appropriate!

If you don’t know someone well, or you’re in an environment like a school or workplace, it’s a good idea to avoid these things:

  • Sexual jokes, like rough or vulgar jokes about gender or relationships
  • Demanding hugs, sexual attention, or sexual favors
  • Making fun of how someone looks
  • Comments about someone’s sexuality or gender
  • Asking lots of questions about someone’s sex life or sexuality
  • Suggestive remarks or sexual innuendo, especially if they focus on a specific person
  • Taking a picture of someone without their permission
  • Showing someone sexual images or porn without asking them first
  • Touching someone without asking them first

Even if you think you know someone well, it’s still not appropriate to do the things listed above if it makes them feel uncomfortable.

Sexual harassment isn’t always just about individual actions. It can also be about a larger environment that makes people unable to say no or stand up for themselves. The Ontario Human Rights Commission calls this a “poisoned environment“. For example, lots of workplaces have dress codes or uniforms. But if a workplace forces their employees to wear revealing uniforms that they’re not comfortable with, that can be considered a poisoned and disrespectful environment. This is a type of institutional sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment and the law

It is illegal in Canada and in many other places to sexually harass someone. In Canada, it’s illegal when someone knows, or could be expected to know, that what they’re doing is harassment. That means it’s not illegal to misinterpret someone’s signals, or flirt with someone and then stop when they say they’re not interested. Unwanted attention or advances only become illegal when one person makes it clear that they’re not comfortable, and the behavior doesn’t stop. It’s also illegal in situations where one person can’t consent because of a power imbalance, like a boss flirting with their employee.

There are many possible consequences for sexually harassing someone. Most schools and workplaces have policies for sexual harassment. If you feel sexually harassed, you should be able to tell someone about it! Guidance councilors, human resources departments, and helplines like Tel-Jeunes can help.

It’s never okay to sexually harass someone, especially after they tell you to stop. If someone is sexually harassing you, it’s not your fault! Laws and policies are there to protect people from harassment.

Standing up to sexual harassment

It can be upsetting to see sexual harassment happen. If someone you know says they’re being sexually harassed, you can ask them if they want your help. Sometimes just saying something about it can help stop sexual harassment from happening.

If you see sexual harassment going on, you can make it clear that you’re not okay with it. You can do this by saying something about it. Saying something like “that’s not funny” or “that makes me uncomfortable” can make your feelings clear. You can also ask the person being harassed if they’re okay, or what they need. If you’re worried about your own safety, it’s okay to wait until later to talk about it! At work or at school, you can also see if there’s an anonymous reporting option for witnesses of sexual harassment.

If you witness sexual harassment at school in Quebec, you can call 1-833-336-6623 to make a confidential report and ask about support or resources.

More info

Consent is Sexy

Scarleteen’s post about consent and why it’s important to talk about it.–


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