Sexual harassment

What is sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment is any unwanted verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature. It can be a single incident or may happen over time. Examples of sexual harassment may include:

Did You Know?

42%-80% of high school students will experience sexual harassment at some point.

  • Inappropriate staring
  • Asking questions or talking about someone’s sexuality, sex life, or body
  • Telling sexual jokes
  • Demanding hugs, dates, or sexual favours
  • Making unnecessary physical contact, including unwanted touching
  • Using language that puts someone down on the basis of their gender (for example, “sissy”, “bitch”, “not acting like a man”) or sexual orientation (for example, words like “fag”, “slut”, or “dyke”)
  • Showing or sending sexual pictures, cartoons, or other sexual images (including online)
  • Spreading sexual rumours (including online)
  • Threatening to fire or punish someone if they don’t accept sexual advances (this is known as reprisal)
  • Stalking (behaviour that makes someone feel unsafe, including unwanted visits, phone calls, texts, emails, or letters; leaving presents; watching someone’s home or school)

Anyone can be harassed

Harassment can happen from men to women, women to men and between people of the same sex. Sexual harassment has nothing to do with whether or not someone meant to harass another person. If the person was embarrassed, humiliated or otherwise bothered by the behaviour, then it is unacceptable.

If you are being sexually harassed

Sexual harassment can make you feel embarrassed, offended, intimidated or unsafe. You might also have physical and emotional side-effects, including anxiety, depression, fatigue, and insomnia, as well as relationship or self-esteem problems.

If you are being sexually harassed, remember: it is not your fault. You are not responsible for the harasser's behaviour – no matter what.

Here are some things you can do to stop the harassment:

Get information

You need to know your rights and your options for action.

  • At work: Check your workplace’s policies and procedures manual for the section about harassment. It will tell you your options under labour laws and should include who to call if you decide to make a formal complaint.
  • At school: Find out if your school has a sexual harassment policy, anti-bullying policy or code of conduct. Someone in the main office can tell you this.

Keep a record

Write a detailed written description of the incident or incidents, including what happened, where, when, and if there were any witnesses. This record will come in handy if you report the harassment.

Ask them to stop

It can be scary, but confronting people – even adults in positions of authority – can sometimes work. If you feel that your safety is not in danger, consider telling the person in a calm but firm tone of voice that their behaviour makes you uncomfortable, and you are asking them to stop.

Here are some different ways you can say “stop”:

  • "When you look at me like that, I feel really uncomfortable. I’m asking you to stop it.”
  • “I’ve said ‘no’ before when you’ve asked me out, and I’m not going to change my mind. If you don’t stop, I’m going to have to tell the principal (or boss, teacher, etc.) about it.”
  • "I am going to file a report if you touch me (talk to me, say that, etc.) again.”
  • "Yeah, I do have a sense of humour. But what you’re saying isn’t a joke – it’s sexual harassment. If you don’t stop, I will need to speak to our boss (teacher, principal, etc.)."

Report it

If you’ve tried talking to the person but the behaviour hasn’t stopped, or if you’re not comfortable talking to them, consider reporting the harassment.

At work: You can report harassment to your supervisor, the Human Resources/Personnel manager (if your workplace has one), or your union (if you belong to one). They can help you understand your workplace’s harassment policy. Your options may be informal (they can talk to the person for you or help you write the person a letter) or formal (a formal complaint and investigation). If your employer does not take action, you could file a complaint with the local human rights commission.

At school: You can report harassment to a teacher, vice-principal, principal or guidance counsellor.
If you choose to report the behaviour, it is a good idea to:

  • ask a friend, co-worker, or parent to come with you
  • bring any written records with you
  • ask how you will be protected from retaliation from having reported the harassment
  • take notes during the meeting (when it occurred, who was present, the result of the meeting) in case the behaviour continues or you are somehow punished for reporting it

Sexual harassment is a form of discrimination that is a
violation of human rights and, in some cases, against the law.


Call the police

Some types of sexual harassment are criminal offences. These types of harassment can be reported to the police. They include:

  • threats of physical harm
  • actual physical harm
  • stalking (see above)
  • sexual behaviour towards a minor (see Laws and Sexual Abuse for more information)

Did You Know?

57% of Canadian high school students reported experiencing at least one sexually harassing behaviour in the previous two weeks.

Change schools or jobs

This option should only be considered if you:

  • Know you are unsafe
  • Have tried to stop the behaviour with no success, or haven’t been able to try because you felt unsafe

Feeling forced out of your school, job, or neighbourhood because of someone else’s harassing behaviour is difficult; it’s normal to feel angry, sad, or alone. It feels like it’s not fair – and it isn’t.

If you have had to change your life because of sexual harassment, it’s a good idea to get help as you work through these feelings. Try talking to someone you trust, like a friend, family member, or co-worker about what you’re going through. You can always call Kids Help Phone or post online, too. You can also call us if you’re wondering about what sexual harassment is, or if you just want to discuss how you’re feeling. We’re here 24/7 to help.

Last reviewed: September 2012 by the Kids Help Phone Counselling Team 

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