Any form of harassment is usually degrading and threatens the physical and mental integrity of a person. Sexual harassment is any form of unwanted verbal, non-verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature with the purpose or effect of violating the dignity of a person, in particular when creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment. Sexual harassment includes verbal and non-verbal cues as well as physical touch.
Verbal examples of sexual harassment may include:
- making sexual comments about a person’s body or about a situation where the person was involved,
- asking about sexual fantasies, preferences or history,
- asking personal questions about someone’s social or sex life,
- making sexual comments about a person’s clothing, anatomy, or looks,
- repeatedly trying to date a person who is not interested,
- telling lies or spreading rumours about a person’s sex life or sexual preferences
Non-verbal harassment includes:
- looking a person up and down (‘elevator eyes’),
- following or stalking someone,
- using sexually suggestive visuals,
- making sexual gestures with the hands or through body movements,
- using facial expressions such as winking, throwing kisses, or licking lips
Instances of physical harassment include:
- giving someone a massage around the neck or shoulders,
- touching another person’s clothing, hair, or body, hugging, kissing, patting, touching or rubbing oneself sexually against another person.
The key principle in understanding harassment is that any overtures that are unwelcome and without the consent of the other person. A person may welcome and accept a sexist remark or a comment about their body, but this is likely to depend on the particular situation and circumstances. However, even if someone accepts – or welcomes – the behaviour, or at least does not verbally object or call out the behaviour it may still be degrading and humiliating.
How do we know if a person accepts the behavior? If the person does not actively engage, confirm or positively react to a sexual remark/act, we should expect the person to disagree with behaviour. More importantly, often the acceptance of harassment is not really voluntary but rather a result of often invisible pressure, power relations within the situation or a dependency on the harasser. For example: an employee who is being harassed by their supervisor but fears about their job, if they report the incident. In other cases it may be a teacher or professor harassing a student, who needs good grades to pass the exam and therefore feels she has to accept unwanted behavior. All cases that remain unreported or not addressed, are often out of a combination of fear of losing something important (a job, an exam, a social status, a friendship etc.).
Read more about sexual harassment and what to do here.