Definition of Sexual Harassment


Sexual harassment is a type of personal or institutional abuse that uses sexual behavior to alarm, control, demean, intimidate, bully, belittle, humiliate, or embarrass another person.

Sexual harassment can occur between anyone, regardless of sexual or gender orientation.

Sexual harassment is rarely purely related to sexual desire. It is often a misuse and abuse of power and position, whose perpetrators use sexual behavior as a tool or weapon.

It is predatory and manipulative, often used to assert the superiority or dominance of one person over another person.

Sexual harassment is any unwelcome behavior of a sexual kind and can take many forms, including making unnecessary, unwanted, or unsolicited physical contact; complimentary or derogatory comments; unwelcome comments about a person’s physical appearance or clothing; commenting on a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity; asking questions about a person’s sex life; engaging in unwelcome sexual propositions, invitations, and flirtation; making somebody feel uncomfortable through displaying or sharing sexual material; giving unwelcome personal gifts; wolf-whistling; catcalling; following; leering or stalking.

Sexual harassment does not always occur in person. It can take the form of emails, visual images, social media, telephone, text messages, or any other media. The abuser need not recognize their own actions or words as sexual harassment in order for it to be considered as such.

The victim of sexual harassment may know the perpetrator well, or may have only just met them. The behavior may occur once, or numerous times over a long period. The victim may encounter the perpetrator at work, socially, or through personal connections. The victim may engage in a professional or social relationship with the perpetrator. The victim may outwardly appear to consent or agree to the act (of harassment), and may be, or appear to be, maintaining a relationship with the abuser. The victim may participate in an encounter that may not be welcome, and may constitute harassment, even if victim and abuser had previous consensual encounters.

This does not mean the sexual behavior was welcomed or solicited. If the behavior is unwelcome, uninvited, or unsolicited, it is sexual harassment, regardless of the circumstances of their meeting, or type of relationship. The victim should never have to offer any kind of reason for refusing to participate.

Sexual harassment is highly destructive to the victim and can cause serious psychological damage. If it occurs in a work, school, or institutional environment, it can be detrimental to their ability to perform their work, and harm the victim’s achievements, career, and reputation. Diminishing a person’s value to their sexuality undermines their professional skills and contributions.

Victim shaming, blaming, and outright dismissal of the victim’s experience, often by the very people the victim turns to for help, contributes to a culture of silence and secrecy. Such an environment enables the continuation of the original abuse of power.

Sexual harassment is often used by those in power to assert dominance and control over subordinates. For this reason, it can be difficult and risky for the victim of sexual harassment to speak out. Because of the sexual nature of this type of abuse of power, this risk is often compounded with shame or embarrassment.

Sexual harassment may not be reported for months or years, if ever, and victims may not feel able to come forward by name for fear of backlash. Length of time passed since the harassment has no bearing on the validity of their claims.