Sexual Harassment and Sexual Bullying
Even if you’ve never been bullied or harassed, chances are you know someone who has. Harassment can be a big problem for kids and teens, especially when smartphones, online messaging, and social media sites make it easy for bullies to do their thing.
When bullying behavior involves unwanted sexual comments, suggestions, advances, or threats to another person, it’s called sexual harassment or sexual bullying.
Here’s what you need to know and what you can do if you or someone you care about is being sexually harassed or bullied.
What Are Sexual Bullying and Harassment?
Just like other kinds of bullying, sexual harassment can involve comments, gestures, actions, or attention that is intended to hurt, offend, or intimidate another person. With sexual harassment, the focus is on things like a person’s appearance, body parts, sexual orientation, or sexual activity.
Sexual harassment may be verbal (like making comments about someone), but it doesn’t have to be spoken. Bullies may use technology to harass someone sexually (like sending inappropriate text messages, pictures, or videos). Sometimes sexual harassment can even get physical when someone tries to kiss or touch someone that does not want to be touched.
Sexual harassment doesn’t just happen to girls. Boys can harass girls, but girls also can harass guys, guys may harass other guys, and girls may harass other girls. Sexual harassment isn’t limited to people of the same age, either. Adults sometimes sexually harass young people (and, occasionally, teens may harass adults, though that’s pretty rare). But most of the time, when sexual harassment happens to teens, it’s being done by people in the same age group.
Sexual harassment and bullying are very similar — they both involve unwelcome or unwanted sexual comments, attention, or physical contact. So why call one thing by two different names?
Sometimes schools and other places use one term or the other for legal reasons. For instance, a school document may use the term “bullying” to describe what’s against school policy, while a law might use the term “harassment” to define what’s against the law. Some behaviors might be against school policy and also against the law.
For the person who is being targeted, though, it doesn’t make much difference if something is called bullying or harassment. This kind of behavior is upsetting no matter what it’s called. Like anyone who’s being bullied, people who are sexually harassed can feel threatened and scared and experience a great deal of emotional stress.
What Behaviors Count?
Some pictures, images, jokes, language, and contact are called “inappropriate” for a reason. If a behavior or interaction makes you uncomfortable or upset, talk to a trusted adult. It may fall into the sexual harassment or bullying category.
Sexual harassment or bullying can include:
- making sexual jokes, comments, or gestures to or about someone
- spreading sexual rumors (in person, by text, or online)
- writing sexual messages about people on bathroom stalls or in other public places
- showing someone inappropriate sexual pictures or videos
- asking someone to send you naked pictures of herself or himself (“nudes”)
- posting sexual comments, pictures, or videos on social networks like Facebook, or sending explicit text messages
- making sexual comments or offers while pretending to be someone else online
- touching, grabbing, or pinching someone in a deliberately sexual way
- pulling at someone’s clothing and brushing up against them in a purposefully sexual way
- asking someone to go out over and over again, even after the person has said no
Sending sexual messages or images by text, or “sexting,” is not a good idea for many reasons. Sexting can lead to problems for you and the person getting the text, even when you are dating or in a relationship with that person. In some cases these messages can be considered harassment or bullying and can bring very serious consequences. Also, messages or images you intend to be private can get into the wrong hands and be used to embarrass, intimidate, or humiliate. Even if you send someone’s picture just to one other person, it can be forwarded to many other people or posted online for the world to see.
Forcing another person into doing things he or she doesn’t want to do, such as kissing, oral sex, or intercourse, goes beyond sexual harassment or bullying. Forcing someone to do sexual things is sexual assault or rape, and it’s a serious crime.
Flirting or Harassment?
Sometimes people who make sexual jokes or comments laugh off their behavior as flirting, and you might be tempted to do the same. So what’s the difference between flirting and sexual harassment?
Here are three examples of flirting versus harassment:
- You and your crush have been flirting and you both start making jokes about sexting. Your crush asks if you’d ever do that. You say, “No way!” With normal flirting, that’s the end of it. But if your crush starts pressuring you to send sexual pictures, then it’s getting into harassment territory
- Someone in class says your new jeans look great. That’s a compliment. But if they say your new jeans make your butt look great, or they make comments about specific body parts, that’s crossing the line.
- Someone you’re not attracted to asks you to go to a dance. It seems harsh to say you’re not interested, so you make up an excuse. The person asks a couple more times but eventually gets the hint. This is a normal social interaction. But if the person hits on you in a creepy way — like making references to sex or your body, sending sexual messages, always showing up wherever you happen to be, or trying to touch you, hug you, or bother you — that’s harassment.
Some things may be awkward, but they don’t count as harassment. A guy who blurts out a sex-related swearword because he spills his lunch tray isn’t likely to be trying to harass or bother you. But if someone is deliberately doing or saying sexual things that make you uncomfortable, it’s probably sexual harassment.
Not sure? Ask yourself, “Is this something I wanted to happen or I want to continue happening? How does it make me feel?” If it doesn’t feel right, talk to a parent, teacher, guidance counselor, or someone else you trust.
How to Handle Sexual Harassment
If you think you’re being harassed, don’t blame yourself. People who harass or bully can be very manipulative. They are often good at blaming the other person — and even at making victims blame themselves. But no one has the right to sexually harass or bully anyone else, no matter what. There is no such thing as “asking for it.”
There’s no single “right” way to respond to sexual harassment. Each situation is unique. It often can be helpful to start by telling the person doing the harassing to stop. Let him or her know that this behavior is not OK with you. Sometimes that will be enough, but not always. The harasser may not stop. He or she might even laugh off your request, tease you, or bother you more.
That’s why it’s important to share what’s happening with an adult you trust. Is there a parent, relative, coach, or teacher you can talk to? More and more schools have a designated person who’s there to talk about bullying issues, so find out if there’s someone at your school.
Most schools have a sexual harassment policy or a bullying policy to protect you. Ask a guidance counselor, school nurse, or administrator about your school’s policy. If you find the adult you talk to doesn’t take your complaints seriously at first, you may have to repeat yourself or find someone else who will listen.
There’s no doubt it can feel embarrassing to talk about sexual harassment at first. But that uncomfortable feeling quickly wears off after a minute or so of conversation. In most cases, telling someone sooner leads to faster results and fewer problems down the line, so it’s worth it.
It can help to keep a record of the events that have happened. Write down dates and short descriptions in a journal. Save any offensive pictures, videos, texts, or IMs as evidence. That way you’ll have them if your school or family has to take legal action. To avoid going through feeling upset all over again, save this evidence someplace where you don’t have to see it every day.
If You See Something, Say Something
Bystanders play an important role in stopping bullying and sexual harassment. If you see someone who is being harassed, take action. If it feels safe and natural to speak up, say, “Come on, let’s get out of here” to the person you see getting bullied or bothered. You probably shouldn’t try to change the bully’s behavior by yourself, but it is OK to let the bully know people are watching and will be getting involved.
If you don’t feel you can say something at the time you see the incident, report the event to a teacher or principal. This isn’t snitching. It’s standing up for what’s right. No one deserves to be harassed. You could also talk to the victim afterward and offer support. Say that you think what happened is not OK and offer some ideas for dealing with harassment.
If You Suspect Something
You won’t always see sexual harassment or bullying happening. A friend who is going through it might not talk about it.
Sometimes people show signs that something’s wrong even if they don’t talk about it. Maybe a normally upbeat friend seems sad, worried, or distracted. Perhaps a friend has lost interest in hanging out or doing stuff. Maybe someone you know avoids school or has falling grades. Changes like these are often signs that something’s going on. It may not be sexual harassment or bullying (things like mood swings or changes in eating habits can be signs of many different things). But it is a chance for you to ask if everything’s OK.
Reviewed by: Michelle New, PhD
Date reviewed: October 2014