Sexual harassment is unwanted and inappropriate sexual attention. This can include staring, sexual body language, touching, comments about someone’s appearance, unwanted advances, and more.
It can be a form of bullying. Bosses and people with lots of money might sexually harass people, believing they’re too important to get in trouble. It’s also possible to sexually harass a friend or peer.
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. The important thing is to not make anyone feel unsafe.
Recognizing when everyday behavior crosses the line into harassment can confuse people. 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 can make them feel harassed. So can talking to someone who is not responding, or trying to ignore you.
What behaviors count as sexual harassment?
What is and isn’t sexual harassment can change. Some people welcome sexual attention from someone who they’re dating or interested in. However, the same attention from someone who they don’t feel close to can feel bad. It’s important to look at the situation 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
Some forms of sexual harassment depend on certain situations. For example, a boss could sexually harass their employees by forcing them to wear a revealing uniform that they’re not comfortable with. They might tell their employees that they will be fired if they don’t do this. While lots of workplaces have dress codes or uniforms, these policies should be respectful.
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”.
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 can be expected to know, that what they’re doing is harassment.
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 or bullying. 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 who’s being harassed if they’re okay, or what they need. If you’re afraid that getting involved could be unsafe, it’s okay to wait until later to talk about it.