What Is Sexual Harassment?

How teens can recognize and deal with sexual harassment.

Medically Reviewed by Hansa D. Bhargava, MD on December 04, 2011
From the WebMD Archives

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.

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.

And remember, the law protects you so that no one can retaliate or take revenge for you reporting him or her.

You can take these other steps to confront sexual harassment at school, Fineran says:

  • Speak up. Tell your harasser to stop. Say that the words or actions are making you uncomfortable.
  • Keep a record. Take note of who harassed you, what the person said or did, and how you responded. Write down when and where it happened. Keep any harassing emails, texts, or online postings, too.
  • Tell a parent or trusted adult. Sometimes it's hard to know whether events cross the line from teasing to sexual harassment. Talking to an adult can help you figure out what's happening and how to deal with it. If a boss starts scheduling you for early in the morning or late at night so the two of you are working alone, an adult in your life should know.
  • Report it. Tell a teacher, staff member, or your school principal. Share your records of what has happened. If the people at your school aren't helpful, then tell the school's superintendent. Your parents can help with this.
  • Go legal. If you don't get relief, consider whether a lawsuit is necessary. Again, your parents should be involved in this.
  • Tell your boss. If your boss is the problem, then tell his or her boss. Businesses can be sued for sexual harassment, too, and many will take action if they're concerned about a lawsuit. If you are afraid to do this alone, get your parents or another trusted adult involved.
  • Consider quitting if you feel unsafe.

How You Can Avoid Being the Harasser

If you're checking someone out, joking with your friends, or being persistent in asking for a date, is that harassment? It may sometimes seem tricky to tell. Here are some pointers:

  • Remember where you are. Jokes or comments that you could make with your close buddies may not be OK with someone you don't know as well, Holt says.
  • Don't label people. Never call anyone a "slut," and never use "gay" as an insult.
  • Hands off. Don't touch people -- especially in a personal or sexual manner -- unless they have told you it's OK to do so.
  • Be respectful. If someone asks you to stop doing something that's bothering them, stop immediately. It doesn't matter if it's someone you're dating or someone you don't know -- if they say "stop," stop.
  • Don't spread rumors. Respectfulness also means not spreading rumors. Don't share personal details or sexy photos that would embarrass someone.
  • Watch for signals. If someone seems uncomfortable or afraid when you're trying to start a conversation or ask for a date, stop.


Show Sources


Susan Fineran, PhD, professor of women and gender studies; director, School of Social Work, University of Southern Maine.

Melissa Holt, PhD, assistant professor of counseling psychology, Boston University.

United States Department of Education Office of Civil Rights: "Dear Colleague" letter, Oct. 26, 2010.

AAUW: "Crossing the Line - Sexual Harassment at School."

Fineran, S. Violence Against Women, August 2002.

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