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What Is Sexual Harassment?

How teens can recognize and deal with sexual harassment.
By Eric Metcalf, MPH
WebMD Feature

A new girl starts at a high school and soon begins dating a guy. They break up. Other students start calling her names and spreading sex-related rumors about her. Even though her teachers know what's going on, they ignore it.

This isn't just bullying. It's sexual harassment. And if this happens to you, you shouldn't put up with it.

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Here's what you need to know about sexual harassment, and how to deal with it.

What Does Sexual Harassment Look Like?

Sexual harassment comes in many forms, says Susan Fineran, PhD. She's a professor at the University of Southern Maine who studies this problem.

Sexual harassment includes:

  • Name calling. Insults related to a person's sexuality are a form of sexual harassment. This includes calling someone a "slut," "gay," or a "fag," Fineran says. It doesn't matter who's saying it, or whether the person being harassed is gay or straight, male or female. What matters is that you're using those words to insult them -- that makes it harassment.
  • Unwanted touching. If someone touches a girl's breasts and she's not OK with it, it's harassment. If someone grabs or hits a guy in the genitals -- even as a prank -- that's harassment, too.
  • Unwanted behaviors. This includes someone asking you on a date or pressuring you for sex repeatedly after you've said no. If someone stalks you, gets in your personal space, or acts threateningly, that may be a form of sexual harassment, too.
  • Pressure from authority figures. Harassment doesn't just come from other teens. Adults may sexually harass you, too. If a teacher offers to give you a better grade -- or a boss offers a better work shift -- in exchange for sex or some kind of physical favor, that's harassment. It's still "absolutely" harassment if a teacher is just looking or making comments "in a sexual way that makes the student uncomfortable," says Melissa Holt, PhD, an assistant professor at Boston University.
  • Hassling. If a classroom is mostly made up of guys who start picking on one of the few girls during class and making her life uncomfortable, that could be termed sexual harassment, Fineran says.

Harassment often takes place in person. But it happens online too -- like if someone emails or texts photos of you in which you're not dressed or you're in a sexual situation, Holt says.

Take Action to Protect Yourself

If you feel like you're being sexually harassed at school, here's the first step to making it stop: Call it sexual harassment, not bullying, Fineran says.

The government has clearly told schools that they are responsible for stopping sexual harassment at school, she says. You could file a federal lawsuit if a school doesn't do its job to protect you from sexual harassment. That's a very big deal. So your school may take your concern more seriously if you call it sexual harassment.

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