Workplace Sexual Harassment

Characteristics & Definitions of Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment is defined as offensive, unwanted and unwelcome behaviour of a sexual nature.

Harmless flirting between consensual parties is NOT sexual harassment. However, when the feelings are no longer mutual and one party persists even though the other party makes it clear that he or she is no longer interested, the other party may be deemed to have crossed the line.

Workplace sexual harassment is not limited to the confines of an office environment. Any misconduct during a work-related activity such as a company function, corporate event, team-building exercise, or out-of-town business trip can constitute sexual harassment.

The harassers need not necessarily be colleagues at work; they can be clients, suppliers, or peers from outside the company. AWARE’s 2008 Research Study on Workplace Sexual Harassment found that 20% of sexual harassment incidents occurred outside the office but during work-related businesses activities like office parties, lunch outings, client entertainment or team-building events.

Sexual harassment can consist of repeated or singular acts that cause the victim(s) to feel uncomfortable and unsafe. It can be verbal, visual and/or physical:

  1. Verbal Sexual Harassment refers to sexually suggestive remarks, or obscene or insulting sounds. It includes unwelcome and offensive names or terms of endearment such as ‘honey bun’ or ‘boobsy’. Other examples of sexual harassment include:
    • Cat calls, kissing sounds, howling and smacking lips
    • Unwanted sexual teasing, jokes, remarks, or questions
    • Referring to an adult as a girl, hunk, doll, babe, or honey
    • Whistling at someone
    • Sexual comments about a person’s clothing, anatomy or looks
    • Turning work discussions to sexual topics
    • Sexual innuendos or stories
    • Asking about sexual fantasies, preferences or history
    • Telling lies or spreading rumours about a person’s personal sex life.
  2. Visual Sexual Harassment is an assault to the sense of sight where someone exposes his or her private parts or repeatedly stares at another person’s body parts in a way that is offensive or uncomfortable for that person. Being made to look at sexually explicit images or being shown obscene sexual gestures may constitute sexual harassment. Some examples of visual sexual harassment are:
    • Obscene or unwanted sexual looks or gestures
    • Unwanted letters, telephone calls, or materials of a sexual nature
    • Emails, text messages, lewd wallpapers or screen savers on computers, nude calendars.
  3. Physical Sexual harassment is the act of being brushed against, hugged, kissed or touched in any way that is unwelcome and discomforting. It could also refer to being forced to touch someone. Some examples of sexual harassment are:
    • Actual or attempted rape or sexual assault
    • Unwanted pressure for sexual favours
    • Unwanted deliberate touching, leaning over, cornering, or pinching
    • Unwanted pressure for dates
    • Touching an employee’s clothing, hair or body in an inappropriate and non-consensual manner
    • Touching or rubbing oneself sexually around another person
    • Making sexual gestures with hands or through body movements.