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Sexual harassment

3-minute read

Sexual harassment is any unwelcome sexual advance or behaviour that you find offensive, humiliating or intimidating. It must be unwelcome – flirting that you agree or consent to is not sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment is against the law in Australia, including at work, school, when dealing with government departments or looking for accommodation, at a club or when looking for a job. It is your right to be free of sexual harassment. You can take steps to protect yourself and you can report it.

What is sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment covers a range of unwanted or unwelcome sexual behaviour. It does not include normal, pleasant sexual activity you and a partner have agreed on, such as flirting, kissing or sex.

It includes a person or group:

  • touching or grabbing your body in an unwanted way
  • demanding you have sex with them
  • asking, emailing or texting you for sexual favours
  • leering or staring at your breasts, genitals or other body parts
  • showing or sending you pornographic or offensive material
  • making sexual jokes, comments or gestures that cause you discomfort
  • asking intrusive questions about your sex life
  • insulting you sexually
  • displaying sexual material, such as posters or screensavers
  • indecently or sexually assaulting you, which is when the sexual harassment makes you feel humiliation, pain, fear or intimidation

It is common in Australian workplaces, with 1 in 5 women and 1 in 20 men reporting sexual harassment. As many as 1 in 5 university students report they have been sexually harassed.

It is illegal in Australia for a person to sexually harass anyone else at work, in school or when providing goods, services or accommodation, under the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act 1984 and state anti-discrimination laws. Extreme forms, including sexual assault and indecent exposure, are also crimes.

Effects on physical and mental health

Sexual harassment can make you feel anxious, stressed, powerless, angry and afraid. It can lead to depression and, in severe cases, post-traumatic stress disorder. If you are a target of sexual harassment, you may start avoiding work and find your self-esteem drops.

The harassment can seriously affect your ability to function at school or work and make you less productive. You may have physical symptoms, such as headaches.

What can you do?

You should not tolerate sexual harassment. You have a right to work and live in an environment free of harassment.

Your first option may be to tell the person that their behaviour is unpleasant, and ask them to stop. You may prefer to raise it with your employer, manager, supervisor, human resources department, head teacher, professor or other senior person and ask them to act against the perpetrator. Alternatively, ask a lawyer, trade union representative or human resources professional to take up the complaint on your behalf.

It is a good idea to keep a diary of the sexual harassment and to keep any evidence, like text messages, social media comments and emails.

You can also make a written or online complaint about sexual harassment to the Human Rights Commission. The commission hears both sides of the story and when appropriate resolves the matter through conciliation. Call the Human Rights Commission complaints information line at 1300 656 419 or email for advice.

If you feel your complaint is not adequately dealt with, you can take it to the Federal Court of Australia or the Federal Circuit Court of Australia.

Employers and schools

Steps that employers, organisations and schools can take include:

  • drawing up a clear policy on sexual harassment
  • having a process for dealing with complaints
  • training employees or students to deal with sexual harassment
  • promptly correcting any perpetrators

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: August 2019

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