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More than 1,200 sexual assault survivors helped since 2023.

Signs of Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment is an all-too-common type of discrimination with potentially serious consequences, yet it is not always easy to spot. Some signs of sexual harassment, such as unwanted touching, can be obvious. Other signs, including online stalking and unwanted flirting, can be more subtle. 

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What is Sexual Harassment?

Sexual harassment is an unfortunate but common issue for people of all genders and sexual orientations. However, it’s not always clear what constitutes this type of abuse. Spotting common sexual harassment signs can enable victims and their family members to recognize problems early on, report them, and escape uncomfortable or threatening situations.

Sexual harassment is a form of discrimination involving unwanted sexual behavior or treatment. It can include the following behavior:

  • Unwanted sexual or romantic advances
  • Suggestive comments of a sexual nature
  • Negative comments on the basis of sex or gender
  • Requiring different duties or activities on the basis of sex or gender
  • Requests for sexual favors, including “quid pro quo” requests
  • Unwanted touching
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Last Date Modified
May 17, 2024

What are the Signs of Sexual Harassment?

Sexual harassment can happen to anyone, regardless of gender and sexual orientation. According to a study by Stop Street Harassment, this form of abuse impacts 81 percent of women and 43 percent of men throughout their lifetimes.

Signs of sexual harassment can be both verbal and non-verbal.

Verbal Signs of Sexual Harassment

Verbal harassment involves written or spoken words of a sexual nature. Perpetrators may continue to make increasingly more inappropriate comments over time. However, even subtle harassment can cause trauma for many victims.

  1. Comments About Physical Appearance

    While a few polite comments about clothing or a new hairstyle might not constitute sexual harassment, personal comments about appearance, including body type, weight, or specific features, often indicate harassment. Harassment also occurs when the perpetrator continues to make those comments despite a request to stop.
  2. Inappropriate Sexual Questions and Comments

    A common sexual harassment sign is a perpetrator who asks inappropriate questions about sexuality, sexual activities, or the victim’s personal life. Improper sexual questions include those about the victim’s marriage or relationship, as well as those that are directly sexual.
  3. Unwanted Flirting or Romantic Advances

    If you ask someone to stop flirting and it continues, or someone makes extreme or unwanted advances, it is harassment. Unwanted advances could include large romantic gestures like expensive gifts, loud gestures of love or attachment, and constant flirting.
  4. Inappropriate Comments About Gender or Sexuality

    Some perpetrators will make persistent comments based on gender or sexuality, such as negative remarks about females and their ability to handle certain activities, including stereotypically “male” activities like manual labor. They may also include references to sexuality or the victim’s relationships.
  5. Asking For or Demanding Sexual Favors

    Some perpetrators will “jokingly” ask for sexual favors regularly, even after getting turned down or hearing that the victim has no interest. Others, especially those in authority, may request sexual favors in exchange for favors of their own or make promotions or special projects contingent on engaging in sexual activities.

Nonverbal Signs of Sexual Harassment

While verbal sexual harassment is most common, nonverbal harassment is prevalent as well. Nonverbal harassment can be physical or visual in nature.

1. Leering

Inappropriate facial expressions can make it obvious what someone thinks even when they do not voice those thoughts. Leering and suggestive expressions and gestures, including things such as miming the grabbing of an attractive body part, flipping someone off, or otherwise making visual sexual advances, are examples of harassment.

2. Unwanted Touching

Unwanted touching in any circumstance constitutes harassment. Touching includes not only sexual contact, such as grabbing the breasts or genitals, but also unwanted hugs, lingering touches, or unnecessary touches anywhere on the body.

In many cases, physical contact the victim did not consent may be considered sexual assault. This can include forced sexual favors or encounters at work.

3. Sharing Inappropriate Images or Materials

Some harassers deliberately share content they know will make others uncomfortable, including pornographic or explicit material. Leaving that material around without intentionally passing it to a specific individual also constitutes harassment.

4. Digital Stalking

Social media makes it easier than ever to find people online. Virtual stalking, including heightened awareness of what you post on social media or excessive contact on such platforms, constitutes harassment. Digital stalking also includes repeated virtual contact.

Ways Victims React To Sexual Harassment

Victims of sexual harassment often show the following key behavioral signs indicating something is wrong.

1 Avoiding the Perpetrator

The victim may avoid contact with the perpetrator, such as never entering a room alone with that person. The victim may also ask someone they trust to accompany them when entering a meeting or another engagement with the perpetrator.

2 Withdrawing

Those experiencing sexual harassment often withdraw from groups or activities involving the perpetrator. They may show decreased interaction at work or in social situations, including speaking up less often or trying not to call attention to themselves.

3 Looking Uncomfortable

Victims of sexual harassment may show visible discomfort. For instance, they may pull away from unwanted touches, give unrealistic laughs, or avoid eye contact with the perpetrator. They might also deliberately make space between themselves and the perpetrator.

4 Suffer Physical and Mental Afflictions

As a result of sexual harassment, those affected may experience lowered self-esteem, increased anxiety or depression, and feelings of powerlessness. Physical symptoms of sexual harassment may include trouble sleeping, headaches, and digestive upset.

Where Does Sexual Harassment Most Commonly Occur?

Sexual harassment occurs in many settings, including at work and school. According to Stop Street Harassment’s survey of around 2,000 American adults:

  • 69 percent of women and 26 percent of men say they experienced harassment in a public space.
  • 38 percent of women and 13 percent of men say they experienced harassment at work.
  • 35 percent of women and 13 percent of men say they experienced sexual harassment in their homes.
  • 46 percent of women and 20 percent of men say they experienced sexual harassment in an educational setting.
  • 37 percent of women and 18 percent of men say they experienced sexual harassment online.

While these are the most common places that sexual harassment may happen, it can occur anywhere, at any time.

Reporting Sexual Harassment

Whether you’re a victim or a witness, reporting sexual harassment can be a way of holding the perpetrator accountable and putting an end to the offense. Coming forward about the harassment you’re experiencing is a brave and often difficult choice, whether it’s happening at work, school, or somewhere else where you should feel safe. Seeking support from someone you trust can ease the stress, emotions, and fear you may feel when you decide to report your abuse.

To report sexual harassment, collect evidence of when, where, and how it occurred. Examples of evidence include the following:

  • Witness statements
  • Emails, voice mails, or text messages
  • Video or audio recordings
  • Logs of when and where the harassment occurred

If the harassment occurred in the workplace, you can report it to a supervisor or the human resources department. For sexual harassment that occurred at school, speak to a guidance counselor, teacher, or principal. You may need to report the harassment to the police if it happened in a public place or other location.

If the harassment continues and your workplace or school does not take adequate steps to stop the abuse, contact an attorney to learn more about your rights.

At Helping Survivors, we help victims of sexual harassment and assault seek the support they deserve. Contact us to learn more about whether you or someone in your family is a victim of sexual harassment and get the support you need to seek justice.

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