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Harassment is any unwelcome behavior or comments made by one person to another. Sexual harassment is a term usually used to describe unwanted sexual contact or behavior that happens more than once at work, home, or in school. It includes any unwelcome sexual advances or requests for sexual favors that affect a person’s job, schoolwork, or housing. Street harassment is behavior or comments that can be sexual but are not always and may target your sex, gender, age, religion, nationality, race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation.Expand all|Collapse all
What is sexual harassment?
Sexual harassment happens when someone in your workplace, home, or school makes unwelcome sexual advances to you or requests sexual favors. It also includes verbal or physical behaviors that may affect your job, home, or education. These acts are sexual harassment when they are without your consent, or are unwanted, and interfere with your work or school performance or create a hostile or offensive environment.
Sexual harassment violates most work, housing, or school policies and may be illegal. Sometimes sexual harassment is also sexual coercion. Coercion is when you are forced in a nonphysical way into sexual activity. Sexual harassers can be anyone — men or women — and can be managers, co-workers, landlords, teachers, or other students. Sexual harassment does not mean you are in a sexual relationship with the person doing it.
How common is sexual harassment?
The exact number of people who are sexually harassed at work, home, or school is not known. This is because many people do not report sexual harassment.
Surveys show that more than half of women have experienced sexual harassment at work.1 However, only one in four who experienced harassment reported the behavior to a supervisor or human resources representative. Reasons for not reporting the behavior included fear that their supervisor wouldn’t believe them or wouldn’t help them. It also included fear of losing their job, especially if their supervisor was the person harassing them.1
Studies of sexual harassment in housing are not common,2 but one study shows that sexual coercion by someone in authority like a landlord is the most common type of sexual harassment experienced by women in rental housing.3 Recent studies also show that sex and gender minority women may have a harder time finding housing compared to other women.4
What are some ways that women can be sexually harassed?
There are many different types of sexual harassment that happen at work, home, or school:5
Verbal or written sexual harassment
- Making comments about your clothing, body, behavior, or romantic relationships
- Making sexual jokes or comments
- Repeatedly asking you out on a date after you have said no
- Asking you to engage in sexual acts, such as kissing, touching, watching a sexual act, or having sex
- Requesting sexual photos or videos of you
- Threatening you for saying no to a sexual request
- Spreading rumors about your personal or sexual life
- Whistling or catcalling
- Sending online links or photos with explicit or graphic sexual content
Physical sexual harassment
- Being uncomfortably close to you
- Blocking you from moving or walking away
- Inappropriate touching
- Coercing you into sexual activity by threatening to hurt your career, grades, home, or reputation (this is a type of sexual assault) if you do not engage in sexual activity
- Physically forcing into sexual activity without your consent (rape and sexual assault)
Visual sexual harassment
- Displaying or sharing sexual pictures, texts (sexting), computer wallpaper, or emails
- Showing you his or her private body parts (called “flashing”)
- Masturbating in front of you
Sometimes you may experience other types of harassment that may be difficult to document or prove but that can still be threatening. These can include someone staring at your body in a sexual way or making offensive sexual gestures or facial expressions.
What can I do to stop sexual harassment?
As with all other types of abuse, if you are being sexually harassed, it is not your fault. You can take steps to alert others to the harassment and protect yourself from the person harassing you. Many types of sexual harassment are against the law. If you are being sexually harassed, try one or all of these actions:
- Say “no” without saying anything else. If a harasser asks you for dates or sexual acts, just say “no.” You do not need to offer excuses like “I have a boyfriend,” or “I don’t date people I work with.” If you give a reason or an excuse, it gives the harasser a way to continue the conversation or to argue with you. Physically leave the situation if you can. If the person continues to ask you for unwanted dates or sexual behavior, report them to someone in authority whose job it is to help you stop the harassment, such as a human resources manager.
- Tell the person to stop the harassment, if you feel safe enough to do that. If someone is harassing you by making sexual comments or showing sexual images, tell them that the comment or image is not OK with you. Saying “Stop it” and walking away is a good way to respond also.
- Keep a record. When you experience harassment, write down the dates, places, times, and any witnesses to what happened. Store the record in a secure place, such as your phone. If the harassment happened online, save screenshots or emails of the interactions.
- Report it. It can be difficult to talk about personal topics with someone at work or school, but you should tell your manager, human resources department, local legal aid group, rental company, or school about the harassment. Describe the harassing experiences and explain that they are unwelcome and you want them to stop. If you can, it’s best to make your report in writing so you can save a record of it. Keep copies of everything you send and receive from your employer, landlord, or school about the harassment.
- Research your company’s or school’s complaint procedures. Most employers and schools should have a specific procedure on how to respond to sexual harassment complaints. If at work, get a copy of your company’s employee handbook so you can use these procedures to stop the harassment. At schools that get federal funding, you can get a copy of the sexual harassment policy. Follow the complaint procedures and keep records of it.
- File a government agency discrimination complaint. You can take your workplace sexual assault case higher by filing a lawsuit in federal or state court, but note that you have to file a formal sexual harassment complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) first. To report sexual harassment in housing, call the Department of Justice at 1-844-380-6178 or email email@example.com. You can also file an online complaint with the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) or call your local HUD office. You can file an online school-based sexual harassment complaint with the U.S. Department of Education.
What is street harassment?
Street harassment is unwanted comments, gestures, and actions forced on someone in a public place without that person’s consent. It may or may not also be sexual harassment. The harassment usually comes from strangers and is often directed at someone because of sex, gender, religion, nationality, race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation.
You may have experienced street harassment if anyone has ever:
- Whistled or catcalled at you
- Made negative comments about your sex, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or sexual identity
- Continued to ask for your name, phone number, or other personal information after you’ve said no
- Followed you or stalked you
- Showed you his or her private body parts (called “flashing”)
- Masturbated in front of you
- Physically touched you in private areas
How can I respond to street harassment?
You may have only a few seconds to decide on the best way to react to someone harassing you or someone else. Because street harassment often happens between strangers in a public place, you may not have the same legal protection that you have for sexual harassment that takes place at work or school or in rental housing. But no one has the right to physically touch or hurt you. Physically hurting someone or touching someone else without their permission or consent is always illegal.
It’s probably safest to leave the situation as quickly as possible. If you cannot physically leave the situation right away, you have some other options:
- Ignore the person. It can be difficult to ignore someone who is saying insulting or demeaning things, but talking or arguing may lead to physical violence. Your safety is the most important consideration.
- Move closer to someone in uniform. Most people unconsciously associate uniforms with authority or power. If there is anyone in your area in any type of uniform, like a security guard, doctor, police officer, or bus driver, try to stand or sit near them. Then leave the situation as soon as you can.
- Start talking to someone else. Harassment can be easier to ignore if you are in a group or talking to someone else. If you are alone, look for someone around you to talk to. Many people around you in public places will be willing to call 911 for you if you feel unsafe.
- Call someone on your phone. Pretend to talk on your phone even if the person doesn’t answer. Tell the person on the phone where you are, like “I’m at the Pine Street stop on the number 42 line and should be there soon.” This may discourage a harasser from continuing the harassment if they think you can tell others about it.
- Report them. If the harassers are in a car, write down their license plate number and call the police. If the harassers are wearing a shirt or driving a vehicle that identifies their company, call or email the company to report what the employees did. You can also report street harassment online. If you have a smartphone, record a video of the harassment and let the person being harassed know that you are doing so.
If you see someone else being harassed, and feel safe doing so, try to help. You can support the person being harassed without talking to the person doing the harassing. Ask the person being harassed if they’re OK, or if you can help them move away from the situation. Offer to record the harassment with a smartphone.
Did we answer your question about harassment?
For more information about harassment, call the OWH Helpline at 1-800-994-9662 or check out the following resources from other organizations:
- Facts About Sexual Harassment — Fact sheet from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
- Know Your Rights: Workplace Sexual Harassment — Information from the American Association of University Women.
- Sexual Harassment — Legal Standards — Information from WorkplaceFairness.org.
- National Street Harassment Hotline — National hotline to report street harassment from Stop Street Harassment.
- What Is Street Harassment? — Information from Stop Street Harassment.
- U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. (2016). Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace (PDF file, 1.3 MB).
- Reed, M.E., Collinsworth, L.L., Fitzgerald, L.F. (2005). There’s No Place Like Home: Sexual Harassment of Low Income Women in Housing. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law; 11(3): 439–462.
- Tester, G. (2008). An Intersectional Analysis of Sexual Harassment in Housing. Gender & Society; 22(3): 349–366.
- Seelman, K.L. (2014). Transgender Individuals’ Access to College Housing and Bathrooms: Findings from the National Transgender Discrimination Survey. Journal of Gay & Lesbian Social Services: The Quarterly Journal of Community & Clinical Practice; 26(2): 186–206.
- Equal Rights Advocates. (2013). Sexual Harassment At Work (PDF file, 142 KB).
- Stop Street Harassment. (2014). Unsafe and Harassed in Public Spaces: A National Street Harassment Report (PDF file, 4.1 MB).
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The Office on Women's Health is grateful for the medical review in 2017 by:
Kathleen C. Basile, Ph.D., Lead Behavioral Scientist, Division of Violence Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
Kathryn Jones, M.S.W., Public Health Advisor, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
Sharon G. Smith, Ph.D., Behavioral Scientist, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) Staff
All material contained on these pages are free of copyright restrictions and may be copied, reproduced, or duplicated without permission of the Office on Women’s Health in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Citation of the source is appreciated.
Page last updated: April 24, 2018.
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