What is sexualized harassment?

Sexualized harassment is a catch-all term that encompasses a variety of violent sexualized acts that impact a person or group’s personal boundaries, physical choices and emotional well-being. Sexual harassment is very serious, and all too common.

Sexualized harassment does not have to be sexual in nature. It can also mean that someone is harassing another person simply because of their gender or sexual orientation (or what they perceive their gender identity or sexual orientation to be).

Sexualized harassment happens most often to cis women, and trans, two-spirit and non-binary folks but it can happen to people of any gender. It can also be perpetrated by people of any gender. Usually sexual harassment is a pattern of behaviour that happens frequently over a period of time. However, a single incident can be serious enough to be considered harassment as well.

Examples of sexualized harassment:

  • Verbal name-calling or soliciting sexualized attention
  • Labelling someone (‘slut’, ‘fag’)
  • Spreading rumours about someone
  • Commenting about someone’s body, sexuality or gender expression
  • Physical/emotional/verbal acts of violence based on a label (e.g. slut-shaming) or on sexuality or gender identity
  • Groping someone’s body
  • Creating or facilitating an environment that is perceived as violent by someone through enforcing ideas about gender
  • Physical control of public space and excluding bodies based on gender or sexuality
  • Sharing images or stories about their bodies, sexuality or gender without their consent

A very common form of sexualized harassment is street sexualized harassment. Cat-calling, making sexual comments, leering and public masturbation are all forms of street harassment, something that impacts 80% of women and many LGBTQ folks around the world.

Stop Street Harassment defines street harassment as, “Unwelcome words and actions by unknown persons in public which are motivated by gender and invade a person’s physical and emotional space in a disrespectful, creepy, startling, scary, or insulting way.”

This kind of harassment thrives in a culture and society where violence is common, accepted, and most often said to be the fault of the person experiencing it (victim-blaming). It limits people’s mobility, safety, access to public space and well-being and is a form of gender-based violence.

No one deserves to live in fear, be harassed in public or have to plot out their routes to and from places to avoid being harassed. It is never the fault of the person being harassed, no matter what they wore, who they were with or what they look like. Sexualized harassment and violence is always wrong.

In the workplace, it is the employer’s responsibility to prevent sexual harassment. If sexual harassment occurs and an employer does nothing about it, or is harassing their employees, the employer is liable under the Human Rights Act. An employee can make a formal complaint and the employer may face repercussions such as financial compensation, mandatory training, and/or criminal charges. The Vancouver Island Human Rights Coalition and the Law Centre can support someone who wants to learn more about their rights in the workplace or file a Human Rights Complaint.

We define classroom sexualized harassment is defined as unwanted sexual advances, requests for sexual favours or other verbal contact of a sexual nature. UVIC has policies in place to work towards the creation of working and learning environments that are safe and comfortable for all members of the university community. The policies are reviewed and enforced by the Equity and Human Rights Office (EQHR).

The University of Victoria has harassment policies in place in order to ensure that all members of the University community have a safe and comfortable working and learning environment. The Discrimination and Harassment Policy can be found through the EQHR Department, which aims to provide access to and support for implementing the University’s policies and procedures.

Under the University’s policy, Harassment is further defined under the proceeding forms of harassment:

  • Harassment Based on a Prohibited Ground of Discrimination
  • Sexual Harassment
  • Personal Harassment

UVic’s current policy states:

3.02 Sexual Harassment: behaviour of a sexual nature by a person:
1. who knows or ought reasonably to know that the behaviour is unwanted or unwelcome; and
2. leads to or implies job or academically related consequences for the person harassed; or
3. would be viewed by a reasonable person experiencing the behaviour as an interference with that person’s participation in a University-Related Activity or creating an intimidating, humiliating or hostile environment.

Criminal harassment or stalking refers to any behaviours that causes another person to fear for their own safety, or that of their friends or family. Stalking is NOT a sign of love or devotion – it is about power, intimidation and control, and it is abusive. Criminal harassment can sometimes begin after a relationship ends (e.g. the stalker is an ex-partner) or it can occur when the person who is being stalked has never been involved with the stalker. In neither scenario is the person experiencing stalking to blame – it is never okay to stalk/criminally harass someone.

Stalking behaviours often include threats of violence, repeated phone calls, or harassing letters, emails or text messages, following the person around or damaging their property. Stalking can escalate to physical or sexual violence and is very serious. You can contact emergency services if you are experiencing stalking or criminal harassment.

If you are experiencing sexualized harassment

If you are experiencing sexualized harassment, it is not your fault. Nothing you have done or could do entitles another person to harass you. Documenting the harassment can be important if you are thinking of reporting; carefully record dates, times and details. While one way of dealing with a harassing situation is to tell the harasser what it is that you find offensive and ask that the behaviour stop, it may be difficult or unsafe to confront someone directly with concerns, particularly in situations involving a power difference. Do not feel that you have to handle the situation yourself before approaching someone for help. Please contact us or another community organization for support.

Ideas for safety planning

  • Let your family, friends, employers and neighbours know what is happening;
  • Tell others not to give out any information about you;
  • Keep a record of the harasser’s actions – include dates and times in this record;
  • Try to vary your daily routines;
  • If possible, walk or ride with others;
  • It is often unsafe to meet with the harasser – avoid all contact with this person.

Taking action about sexualized harassment

People who commit sexualized harassment often do so because they think or know they will be able to get away with it. If we shift the culture around violence to be intolerant of all kinds of harassment, then harassers will be less able to “get away with it” and target people who they feel have less power or have no ability to respond or react.

There are ways that we can all take action, individually, in groups and in our communities. Individual actions could include intervening or saying something when you see someone harassing another person (if you feel safe to do so), sharing your experience of being harassed, or talking about why harassment is violent with someone you know.

Community action could include asking people in your community what kinds of harassment they have witnessed and experienced and what they feel needs to be done about it, making a film or writing a song about it, or organizing an event to create awareness and change.

Check out our section on prevention of gender-based violence and on intervening when you see gender-based violence happening.