Skip to main content
Go to homepage

Print Page

Sexual Harassment

Harassment and bullying are abusive ways of treating others.

People who harass or bully use cruel comments, gestures, threats, or actions. They try to insult, demean, exclude, shame, or hurt others.

Sometimes people who harass and bully do it with sexual comments or actions. This is sexual harassment, or sexual bullying.

What Are Examples of Sexual Harassment?

Sexual harassment and bullying include things like:

  • joking about someone’s sexual orientation or making sexual jokes, comments, or gestures
  • spreading sexual rumors (in person, by text, or social media)
  • posting sexual comments, pictures, or videos
  • taking or sending sexual pictures or videos
  • asking someone for naked pictures of themselves ("nudes")
  • asking for sex or offering to have sex
  • touching or grabbing someone in a sexual way

This can happen in person or online. But no matter who does it or where it happens, it’s never OK. There’s no excuse for behaviors like these, even if they come from a friend acting in a joking way, by saying it’d be fun or funny. The person who’s being harassed or bullied is not to blame.

How Does Sexual Harassment Affect People?

Being the target of these behaviors is hurtful. How much they affect a person can vary. Most people can cope with a one-time rude comment. That doesn’t mean it’s OK. It just means it may cause less stress. But these behaviors can be harder to cope with if:

  • They happen more than once.
  • It feels like the bully has more power (the person is older or stronger, for example).
  • The person being bullied or harassed has other stress in life.

When this is the case, someone being harassed may feel unsafe or attacked. The person may avoid going to places where it happens, such as school or work. The person may feel sad, scared, or angry — or all of these. The stress of being harassed can lead to poor sleep, worry, depression, or lower grades.

Sexual harassment and sexual bullying can cause problems for the bully too. Some of these behaviors are against the law. Sexual bullies may not realize how these behaviors could affect their lives, including arrest and possible jail time.

What if Sexual Harassment Turns Physical?

If things get physical, it goes beyond sexual harassment and bullying.

Forcing another person to do sexual things is sexual assault or rape. This is a serious crime. This includes unwanted kissing, touching, oral sex, or intercourse.

It’s also a crime if an adult (or much older teen) asks someone underage to pose for sexual pictures or take part in sexual acts via a webcam or smartphone. This is called online child sexual abuse.

If someone forces, tricks, or asks you to do things like this, tell a trusted adult right away. Or report it to the police. Don’t be alone with the person.

What Should I Do if I’m Sexually Harassed?

If you or someone you know is going through this, tell a trusted adult like a parent, friend’s parent, relative, coach, teacher, school counselor, or doctor. This isn’t something you should try to handle on your own. It might feel awkward to talk about at first. But don’t let that stop you.

When you speak up — and get the right adults involved — it can help stop harassment and bullying. If talking with the first adult doesn’t work, keep telling other adults until it does stop.

Here are some things that can help in most situations:

  • Know the truth. Remind yourself that it’s not your fault. No matter what the harasser might say, there’s no such thing as “asking for it.” You have a right to feel safe.
  • Tell the person to stop. When it happens the first time, let the person know the behavior is not OK with you. Be brief, calm, and clear. Then walk away. In some cases, that will be enough, but not always. The person may not stop and might even laugh off your request, tease you, or bother you even more.
  • Report it. If this happens at school or at your job, report it to an adult in charge. Most schools and workplaces have a sexual harassment policy or a bullying policy to protect you. They need to know about the problem so they can help you — and stop it from happening to others.
  • Get support. If this has you stressed, feeling depressed, anxious, or losing sleep, talk with a therapist or counselor. That person can help you find ways to cope and recover from the stress.

How Can I Help Someone Who Is Being Sexually Harassed?

Bystanders can play a big role in stopping harassment and bullying. When people do nothing, shrug it off, or look the other way, it sends a message that it’s no big deal to harass. If people say something, it sends a social message that it’s not OK.

If you see someone else being harassed, you can help by doing these things:

  • Speak up to help. 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’s OK to let the bully know people are watching and will get involved.
  • Report what happened. Let a trusted adult know what you witnessed. This isn't tattling. It's standing up for what's right. No one deserves to be harassed. Adults need to know so that they can help.
  • Offer support. Check in with the person who was harassed. Ask “How are you doing?” Say that you think what happened is not OK. Listen and show you care. Encourage the person to report what happened to a trusted adult. Explain that the harassment isn’t the person’s fault.

Reviewed by: Lonna P. Gordon, MD
Date Reviewed: Apr 9, 2024

Lea este articulo en Español

What next?

By using this site, you consent to our use of cookies. To learn more, read our privacy policy.