Sexual assault and harassment are not the same thing. Both are forms of unwelcome sexual attention from another person or people. But let’s take a look at the two main differences between them.
The first is that sexual harassment is not necessarily a crime and, in that case, you are not obliged to report it to police. This is more of an issue you would take up with your employer or your superior or, if at university, an educator or counsellor.
The second is that sexual harassment is often verbal, while sexual assault is physical. If either of these happens to you, when should you report it and what kind of support is available to you?
The Human Rights Commission’s legal definition of sexual harassment can be read here.
Sexual harassment is uncomfortable, can be frightening and can make you feel that your safety is threatened. Commonly, it refers to when someone makes comments of a sexual nature about you to someone else or to you. This could be in person, behind your back, to your face, via email or even on social media.
It is not exclusively a female or male problem. Men can sexually harass women, women can sexually harass men and within each gender, same-sex sexual harassment can occur.
Basically, if you are subjected to comments about yourself around sexuality, body type, body parts, your sexual preferences or you receive other unwelcome comments of a sexual nature and they make you feel uncomfortable, humiliated, offended, intimidated or fearful, then you may be a victim of sexual harassment.
There are many, many more examples of sexual harassment, and some that may seem relatively harmless but what matters is how they make you feel.
Suppose you were in a part of the office where you work and two people were telling sexually explicit jokes or were outlining sexual behaviour and you could hear. Or, suppose one of your colleagues was being sexually harassed and you were able to hear everything. By definition, this also makes you a victim if it made you uncomfortable.
If you feel like you are on the receiving end of sexual harassment, the first thing to do is to tell the person who is doing it to stop. Explain that it makes you feel uncomfortable and that his or her advances are unwelcome. The next step is to take up the matter with your superior or your boss.
You may be asked to fill in a formal complaint or the situation may be handled with a meeting where the harasser will be warned about his or her behaviour and given consequences for their actions if it continues. Escalating your complaint further may be necessary if the problem is becoming too difficult for you to do your job, and in that case, a higher superior will be called in to attend to the matter. Sexual harassment doesn’t usually result in police involvement unless it becomes serious and your safety is threatened.
Sexual assault may or may not begin with sexual harassment. It involves unwanted physical contact such as kissing, touching, fondling and grabbing and at its worst, culminates in rape, either digital or genital.
It includes ‘indecent assault’ which is unwanted touching of intimate parts of a person’s body by another person. A greater outline of the definition can be found here. Sexual assault is a crime and police intervention may be necessary.
You may be surprised to know that you may have been a victim of sexual assault if someone simply touches you on the backside or kisses you on the cheek. The incident may not be particularly troubling to you and it may never happen again but if it made you uncomfortable, then it can certainly be considered sexual assault. Other examples of mild sexual assault are:
Remember, even if these instances are mild and seemingly innocent, if they cause you to feel uncomfortable, and they involve physical touch, then it could be sexual assault.
If you feel you are the victim of sexual harassment, first take it up with your employer or a person of authority at your university so that action can be taken to make it stop. If you are sexually assaulted, it is important that you report this behaviour immediately, even if it is minor. Volunteers, unpaid workers and students are entitled to the same rights as anyone else where sexual harassment and assault are concerned.
Serious acts of sexual assault must be reported to the police. Serious incidences of sexual harassment can be reported to the Australian Human Rights Commission or the relevant authority in your state:
No matter where you are from, where you work or study, who you are, your religion or your beliefs, you never have to put up with uncomfortable sexual-based behaviour. It is important that you speak up to the appropriate person or department as soon as possible so that it stops.