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Although sexual harassment is often thought of as crude remarks, catcalls, or suggestive whistles, it is actually much more. Sexual harassment can be defined as any deliberate or repeated behavior or action that is unwelcome, hostile, offensive, or degrading to the recipient.
These behaviors or actions have a sexual overtone and can be physical (e.g., grabbing, pinching, or forced kissing) or non-physical (e.g., spreading sexual rumors, flashing, or making sexual comments) in nature. Sexual harassment also includes any kind of behavior directed at—or that has an impact on—members of one sex (e.g., making fun of males who sign up for art class or discouraging females from taking advanced math classes).
Many teens are reluctant to talk about or report sexual harassment. In addition to feeling embarrassed, teens may not want to “tell on” peers, may feel responsible, or may feel unsafe sharing their concerns because of the way sexual harassment has typically been addressed in the school. They may also fear further harassment for not being able to “take a joke” or “causing trouble.”
Teens who are sexually harassed at work may fear losing their job or having their hours shortened because they are not willing to accept harassment as part of their employment. Additionally, they may not know who to tell, particularly if the person harassing them is the owner of the business.
Stopping sexual harassment ultimately begins with defining it. Teens who can identify behaviors and actions that are harassing and distinguish these from behaviors such as flirting, testing boundaries, or establishing dating relationships, may be more likely to choose not to participate in harassing activities.
Additionally, teens who are familiar with the various resources available—including school policies—will be better able to request assistance when needed.
For teens who are being sexually harassed, several steps can be taken to address the harassment. The recipient may want to talk to or write a letter to the harasser stating what actions or behaviors were offensive and asking for these to stop. Encourage the teen to document the date, time, and description of each incident. This will strengthen their case if they file a complaint with school administrators, their boss, or take legal action to address the harassment.
Finally, support the teen in whatever way you can. Remember, things may not improve immediately for them.
Retaliation from the harasser, school, employee, or peers is possible. Help the teen identify other agencies and individuals who can help, such as their local domestic violence/sexual assault program.