Sexual harassment

Harassment pyramid: In 2016, a survey found that 64% of UK women had been harassed in public.

With the rise of #MeToo, accusations of sexual harassment, assault and rape are everywhere — and many famous faces are involved. What do these words mean and what needs to change?

  • Why are we hearing so much about this now?

    There has been a huge cultural shift in the way people talk about, and respond to, allegations of sexual assault. In the past, many famous figures were able to continue working despite accusations of sexual misconduct.

    That all changed in October 2017, when a series of allegations were made against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein. His company collapsed, and his reputation was left in tatters.

    In response, other women began sharing their stories about sexual harassment using the hashtag #MeToo. Many more celebrities, politicians and media personalities were exposed. Harassment, once seen as a part of life for working women, is now seen as unacceptable.

  • So, what counts as harassment?

    Harassment is a very broad term which includes many different types of behaviour — from touching someone’s knee to pressuring them into a date.

    Sexual assault is a form of harassment, which generally involves physical contact with someone who does not want it. That could mean groping, kissing, pinching — anything that could be seen as sexual.

    Rape is a form of assault. In the UK, it means forced penetration of someone’s mouth, anus or vagina with a penis. There is a corresponding offence called “causing sexual activity without consent”, which includes a woman forcing a man into intercourse.

  • Who is affected?

    All of these things can happen to men and women. In the UK, women are five times more likely than men to have been sexually assaulted. More than half of women, and one-fifth of men, say they have been harassed at work. But it is difficult to know true numbers, as many cases go unreported.

  • Is all harassment illegal?

    Rape and sexual assault are against the law. But other forms of harassment are a grey area. It is not illegal to wolf whistle or catcall someone. However, some types of harassment are illegal under other laws. And if any harassment happens at work, the victim can make a claim to an employment tribunal.

  • So, is flirting illegal?

    Definitely not. Flirting — if you think someone likes you and they flirt back — is an important part of a relationship. But if someone does not like you and you keep doing it, then it can turn into harassment. If you kiss or touch someone when you know they do not want you to, it is assault.

  • How can you tell if something is unwanted?

    This is a difficult area. Sometimes, it is very clear: if the person tells you to stop, or says they have a boyfriend or girlfriend, or repeatedly turns down your advances, then clearly your behaviour is unwanted. Also, if a person is very drunk, they are not able to consent to sex — not even if you are already in a relationship with them, or if they said they wanted to have sex when they were sober.

    But, sometimes, a situation is less clear. Someone might not tell you to stop because they do not feel safe and are worried about making things worse. Or they might flirt at first, and then decide they do not want to take things any further. Try to pay attention to their body language.

    If you are ever unsure, ask how they are feeling. And before having sex with someone, you should always get their consent.

  • What should I do if I have been harassed or assaulted?

    If someone is harassing you or touching you when you do not want them to, you can tell them to stop.

    If it was assault or rape, you can go to the police. You can also tell a parent or a trusted teacher who might be able to give you advice.

    If you are under 16 and have been assaulted by an adult, this counts as a separate offence, and it is very serious.

    There is more advice and information under Become An Expert.

You Decide

  1. Should all forms of sexual harassment be illegal?


  1. Create a poster for your school which explains how to avoid harassing or assaulting someone else.

Word Watch

Harvey Weinstein
More than 85 women have accused Weinstein of sexual harassment or assault.
Broad term
In the UK, it is defined as “violating someone’s dignity, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment”.
Five times
According to figures from the Crime Survey for England and Wales, released by the ONS in February, 3.2% of women had reported sexual assault compared with 0.7% of men.
More than half
According to a ComRes poll for BBC 5 Live last year, which interviewed over 2,000 people.
Employment tribunal
A independent body for settling disputes between employees and employers. It involves civil rather than criminal law.
Separate offence
This comes under the “offences against children” category of the Sexual Offences Act. Any form of sexual activity with someone who an adult knows or suspects is under 16 is illegal, regardless of consent.

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