Sexual Harassment

Learn about sexual harassment and how to support someone who has been sexually harassed. 

What is Sexual Harassment

Sexual Harassment is unwanted, often coercive, sexual behaviour directed by one person towards another. Sexual harassment is a form of discrimination based on gender which is prohibited under the Alberta Human Rights Act.1

In the workplace, the Government of Canada defines workplace sexual harassment as any conduct, comment, gesture, or contact of a sexual nature that is likely to cause offence or humiliation to any employee; or that might, on reasonable grounds be perceived by that employee as placing a condition of a sexual nature on employment or on any opportunity for training or promotion.2

Sexual harassment is any unwelcome conduct, comment, gesture, or contact that is gender-related or sexual in nature that makes the recipient feel uncomfortable, unsafe, offended, or humiliated, whether intended or not.

What does sexual harassment look like?

Examples of sexual harassment: 

  • Offensive jokes, remarks, or gestures
  • Whistling, howling, or cat-calling
  • Unwelcome comments about someone’s body, appearance, gender identity, or sexual orientation
  • Staring, leering, or looking at another person’s body in a way that makes them uncomfortable
  • Making sexual requests, suggestions, or demands
  • Repeatedly asking for dates or sexual favours
  • Non-consensual photo sharing (intimate images once shared consensually now being shared with others)
  • Sending unwanted sexually suggestive or offensive texts or emails
  • Sending sexually suggestive or offensive images to someone or posting them in a shared space
  • Unwanted or sexually suggestive physical contact (such as a shoulder rub or brushing up against someone)
  • Cornering, blocking, standing too close, or following someone

Sexual harassment can happen anywhere – at work, at home, in schools, in public, in social spaces like bars, restaurants and at parties. Anyone can experience sexual harassment. 

The key difference between sexual harassment and flirting is whether the attention is welcome or not.

Sexual harassment is often minimized as if it is just a joke or as if it is just flirting. The intent of the person who is doing the harassment tends to be given more weight than the impact their behaviour has on the person being harassed. Often, those who experience sexual harassment are said to be overreacting or misunderstanding the intent of the person harassing them. 

Flirting or Friendly Interactions:

  • Are welcome
  • Are reciprocal and go both ways
  • Make both people feel in control
  • Are attentive and comfortable
  • Makes a place/situation playful
  • Are consensual

Sexual Harassment:

  • Is unwelcome
  • Is one-sided
  • Makes one person feel like they do not have control
  • Is distant and uncomfortable
  • Makes a place/situation unsafe
  • Is not consensual

It can be difficult to know what to do or how to respond to sexual harassment.

As a result of the minimization and normalization of sexual harassment, it is common for those who are sexually harassed by others or those who witness sexual harassment to:

  • Not recognize what happened to them or someone else as sexual harassment
  • Question their perception of what happened
  • Minimize the experience because it only happened once or because it was not perceived to be an extreme or explicit example of sexual harassment
  • Emphasize or centre the intent of the person engaging in the unwanted behavior over the impact their behavior has on others
  • Feel embarrassed, confused, or responsible
  • Fear that others will not believe them or take them seriously if they seek support
  • Not know how to confront harassment
  • Not want to rock the boat at work or in a family or friend group
  • Not know if they can disclose or report the incident or how to report
  • Be concerned about repercussions if the person who harassed them or someone else is in a position of power and authority (e.g. boss, teacher)

Experiencing sexual harassment can have significant and long-lasting impacts.

What is important is the impact of the behavior, not the intent. Sexual harassment is a form of sexual violence. When experiencing sexual harassment, one’s sense of safety may feel compromised. The experience of being sexually harassed can have significant impacts.

Supporting someone who has been sexually harassed

A positive and supportive first response to a disclosure of sexual violence can be the foundation of someone’s healing journey. 

Responding to a Disclosure of Sexual Violence – If you want to learn more about how to respond to disclosures of sexual violence, AASAS offers First Responder to Sexual Assault and Abuse Training.

Together we can end sexual harassment. 

Visit Ending Sexual Violence to learn more about what we can all do to help bring an end to sexual harassment. 

AASAS’ #momentsmatter campaign seeks to end workplace sexual harassment one moment at a time. Through promoting positive and respectful workplace cultures that keep people healthy and safe, we can also help stop sexual harassment. 

Support is available.

If you or someone you know has experienced sexual harassment, support is available through your local sexual assault centre or Alberta’s One Line for Sexual Violence.