How do you know if someone is sexually harassing you?

Woman holding up her hand to stop someone

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Sexual harassment is one of the most common forms of abuse in America today. Sexual harassment is a serious issue that might dress itself in the misleading cloak of casual conversation, humor, or even flirtatious behavior. This fact causes a certain blurring of lines between innocent interactions and predatory behavior that can make harassment, at least initially, difficult to detect.

What is sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment is a type of discrimination that occurs when someone is subjected to unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature.

Harassment of this nature can be perpetrated by anyone of any gender, age, or relationship to the victim, but it is most often committed by someone in a position of power or authority over the victim.

Sexual harassment can have a devastating impact on the victim, both emotionally and professionally. It is important to understand what constitutes sexual harassment and how to report it if you experience it.

What does sexual harassment look like?

Many people do not know what to look for when it comes to sexual harassment. What are the red flags that you should be on the lookout for?

Sexual harassment can take many forms, some more obvious than others. For instance, sexual harassment can include touching, lewd comments, or even unwanted sexual advances that are made without consent.

Other common signs of sexual harassment may take the form of someone spreading rumors about your sex life or making lewd comments about your body.

Let’s take a look at the most common forms of sexual harassment:

Unwanted attention or physical contact of a sexual nature

Harassment can take the form of unwanted attention or physical contact

When it comes to sexual harassment, many people think of unwanted touching or advances. However, there are other forms of harassment that can be just as damaging and scary. Verbal sexual harassment, for example, can be just as bad as physical contact. Comments about someone’s body or sex life, unwanted flirting, and persistent requests for dates or sex can make someone feel uncomfortable and unsafe.

In addition to verbal sexual harassment, there is also nonverbal sexual harassment. This includes making sexually charged gestures, or leering and staring at someone in a sexual way. Any type of behavior of this nature that makes someone feel uncomfortable because it is based on their gender or sexuality is considered sexual harassment.

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Unwanted text messages, calls, or email

  • How often is this person messaging/calling/emailing you? If it’s only once or twice, they may just be obnoxiously persistent. But if it’s happening multiple times a day or week, even after you’ve made it very clear you are not interested, then it is headed in the direction of harassment.
  • Does the individual contacting you ignore your boundaries? If you have made it clear that you are not interested in receiving more communication from them, and they press on anyway, it may be a problem.
  • Do the messages you receive seek to control you, your whereabouts, or your activities? People who harass others are often controlling and invasive. If you find yourself receiving texts, calls, or other communication from an acquaintance who crosses your comfort line or who will not respect the boundaries you have made clear, it is a red flag that something more serious is going on.
  • Do the messages contain sexually explicit content or images? If you have requested that the sender not send explicit content and they continue to do so, this likely constitutes harassment.

Jokes or comments about your sexuality or gender

Sexual harassment couched in humor can be difficult to detect. It can be hard to know when you are being sexually harassed or when someone is just making an off-color or tasteless joke. In moments like these, you may fear looking like the prude or the one lacking a sense of humor, but if someone is making jokes about your body or your sexuality and you are uncomfortable with the joke, it may be crossing a line that should not be crossed.

Communicate your feelings on the joke in a straightforward, calm manner. Give the other person the benefit of the doubt, initially, and say something to the effect of “Hey, I know you probably didn’t mean it this way, but when you said ‘X’ it came across pretty [fill in the blank of how it made you feel]. I would rather you not say that to me.” This is often enough to draw a clear boundary and put a stop to the unwanted jokes and comments.

There are, however, times with an offender will persist, and comments may even escalate or become more uncomfortable. In situations like these, where another person is clearly ignoring your requested boundaries, you will need to ratchet up the directness and pointedness of your requests. This is not the time to mince words. Make it clear to the individual that you feel uncomfortable with the comments or humor, that you want it to stop in your presence, and that if it does not, you will consider it harassment.

It is important to remember that you do not have to tolerate this kind of behavior. You have the right to feel safe and predatory behavior by others does not need to be tolerated. While you can’t ultimately control others, what they think or what they say in their own time, you do have a right to ask that things harassing statements about you not be said in your presence or in your place of work. If someone is making you feel uncomfortable or unsafe, speak up and tell them to stop. If the behavior continues, then it has likely crossed into the realm of harassment.

Quid pro quo harassment

Quid pro quo harassment occurs when an employer or person in a position of power promises something in exchange for sexual favors or acts.

A typical example of quid pro quo harassment is an employee being promised a promotion, raise, or new account in exchange for a sexual favor. The common theme in these situations is a promise of advancement, gain, or protection in exchange for inappropriate attention that would not otherwise be given.

Harassment of a quid pro quo nature is particularly insidious due to the very vulnerable and disadvantaged position of the employee or direct report being harassed. For example, imagine a single mom who is the sole breadwinner for her family and who may feel extraordinary pressure to acquiesce to sexual requests by a manager in order to secure her income or maintain her employment.

Circumstances like these may sound extreme to some in today’s Western society. However, abuses like these are more common than many may think. In a study from Cornell University’s The Worker Institute, research on sexual harassment in the State of New York found “more than 1 in 10 New Yorkers (10.9 percent) above age 18 report experiencing ‘someone in a position of authority at [their] workplace trying to trade job benefits for sexual favors,’ including 12.2 percent of women and 9.5 percent of men. This translates to some 1.7 million people across the state having experienced workplace sexual harassment that involves a quid pro quo dimension.” With nearly half of those experiencing quid pro quo harassment stating that the resulting circumstances had an impact on their career or employment, the dramatic significance of this category of harassment should not be underestimated.

What isn’t workplace sexual harassment?

Many things are considered when a court or governmental agency makes a ruling on what is and is not workplace sexual harassment. If what happened was not expressly illegal or is in a gray area, then workplace sexual harassment may be hard for you to prove in court or the EEOC.

Some circumstances and behavior that would generally not be considered sexual harassment are:

  • One-off jokes or individual, isolated incidents, unless they are very serious, very threatening, or very offensive.
  • Reasonable conflict within a consensual relationship. Most workplaces have policies regarding interwork relationships, and navigating those can be tricky. However, disagreements within those relationships generally do not fall within the purview of sexual harassment law.
  • Asking a coworker on a date. As long as a coworker respects a “no” and is not unreasonably persistent, harassing, or insistent, expressing an interest in dating someone else at work is generally not considered harassment.
  • Anger, a social slight, or critical assessment of work being done. While a boss may play social favorites, have a bad temper and display rude but not unreasonable anger, or may have an unfavorable opinion on an employee’s work quality, none of these generally constitute sexual harassment.

All of these scenarios can cross into an instance of harassment if taken too far. Just because an employee has experienced these situations at work does not mean they have no voice. Addressing unwanted behavior before it escalates into a harassing situation may be the best strategy. If a situation has escalated into questionable territory, other laws pertaining to assault or stalking may protect you from a coworker.

Differences between sexual harassment and flirting

The key differences between flirting and harassment come down to respect and communication. Examples of flirting are:

  • A coworker gives an isolated, non-explicit compliment about another’s appearance.
  • An employee playfully suggests a coworker wants to have dinner or spend time with them.
  • A coworker makes comments that are positive but non-threatening and non-sexual in nature.

Flirting is a two-way process, involving some give and take to continue. The key to such comments is that if the recipient of the comments makes it clear that they are not interested or do not want to continue the flirting, the giver of the comments must respect these wishes and discontinue the flirtatious behavior.

When comments and flirtatious behavior continue on a repeated, insistent behavior or become explicit or increasingly suggestive despite being turned down, the interaction may become a threatening or uncomfortable exchange which could constitute harassment.

What to do if you’re being sexually harassed

If you or someone you work with are being sexually harassed, it can feel like an overwhelming and never-ending experience. It is important to remember that you have the right to take whatever actions are necessary in order to stop the harassment.

It can be hard to know when or whether something is crossing the line, but in situations like these it is more important than ever to speak up. If the perpetrator is willing to sexually harass you, it is likely they are harassing others as well and reporting the behavior may protect more than just yourself. When you courageously take steps to stop the behavior, you are helping yourself and future victims too.

When it comes to sexual harassment, sexual assault, or rape, you are not alone. If you are scared to speak out about your harassment and/or feel that nobody will believe you, know that there are many people who have gone through similar experiences and can support you.

Steps to stop sexual harassment

Steps to stopping harassment should start with simply confronting your harasser, telling them that you’re uncomfortable with their behavior and that you want it to immediately stop. Now is not the time to worry about people’s feelings or for subtle messaging. Make exactly what you want clear. It may be helpful to enlist a friend or group of friends to support you in this step or to act as an intermediary if you feel unsafe or unsure of how they will react. In many cases, simply communicating to the harasser that you’re uncomfortable with their behavior will be enough to end the cycle of harassment.

If harassment continues, enlist the help of your supervisor (or their supervisor, if your supervisor is the offender). This is best done in writing, in order to keep a written record of all related communication regarding the incident. It is wise to request any response from your supervisor or employer also be in writing, for recordkeeping purposes.

The next step, if remediation from your employer is not prompt and thorough, is to file a charge of discrimination. In many cases, your local state, county, or city may have their own agency and channel through which to file a charge. These local agencies are called “Fair Employment Practices Agencies” (FEPAs). When you file a charge of discrimination with a FEPA, your charge will often be dual filed with the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), though you will need to validate that at the time of your filing.

If your local state or region does not have a FEPA, then you can file directly with the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) through the EEOC Public Portal. All of the laws enforced by EEOC, with the exception of the Equal Pay Act, require that a Charge of Discrimination be filed with the EEOC before a job discrimination lawsuit can be filed against an employer.

There are also time limits that apply to filing a Charge of Discrimination with the EEOC. A Charge of Discrimination needs to be filed within 180 calendar days from the day the discrimination took place. If a state or local agency enforces a law that prohibits employment discrimination, the time limit is extended to 300 calendar days. Additional EEOC time limit regulations can be found on the EEOC website.

How to report sexual harassment to police

If you feel that you are in immediate danger or if you are unsure of your safety, contact local law enforcement immediately and explain your concerns. Involving law enforcement will be particularly important in cases of harassment that have crossed the line into direct threats, violence, or stalking.

For an immediate threat to you or someone you know, call 911. This may feel extreme, but if you have any concerns about your safety or suspect that someone could commit assault, violence, or intimidating harassment, err on the side of calling 911.

For situations which you do not believe are an immediate danger, but which could become a danger in the future, contact the local police through non-emergency channels. This could include a trend of increasing harassment, stalking, or threatening phone calls. You may feel you’re being a nuisance or wasting the law enforcement officer’s time, but rest assured that they want to know about these situations before they escalate to violence or assault, and they will assess the situation based on protocols for similar harassment threats.

>> Read more: How to report sexual harassment in California

Should I report harassment?

The definite answer is: Yes. Whether you know the perpetrator well, it is a new acquaintance, or a complete stranger, you should always report sexual harassment. Harassment of any kind, and sexual harassment in particular, is a serious and potentially dangerous situation. If you are being harassed or know someone who is being harassed, do not remain silent.

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