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Sexual harassment

Sexual harassment is unwelcome sexual behaviour that could make a person feel offended, humiliated or intimidated. It can be a symptom of gender inequality and most often – but not always – affects women. Sexual harassment can be a single incident or repeated behaviour; a suggestive comment or an offensive joke. It may happen in the office, a work party or at school. It doesn’t matter what the intention is, sexual harassment is against the law.

What is sexual harassment?

The law defines sexual harassment as unwelcome sexual behaviour that would cause a reasonable person to feel offended, humiliated or intimidated. It includes:

  • an unwelcome sexual advance
  • an unwelcome request for sexual favours
  • any other unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature.

Sexual harassment can be physical, verbal or written. Examples include:

  • comments about someone’s private life or the way they look
  • sexually suggestive behaviour, such as leering or staring
  • brushing up against someone, touching, fondling or hugging
  • sexually suggestive comments or jokes
  • displaying offensive images or objects
  • repeated requests to go out
  • requests for sex
  • sexually explicit emails, text messages or posts on social media
  • sexual assault
  • suggestive behaviour.

What if it was just a joke?

Sometimes people accused of sexual harassment say they were only joking. But jokes can still be insulting, threatening and unwelcome.

It doesn’t matter what the intention is: sexual harassment is against the law.

In the workplace, training can help staff and colleagues understand the difference between a harmless joke and sexual harassment.

How does the law protect me?

The Equal Opportunity Act 2010 makes sexual harassment against the law in certain areas of public life, including:

  • at work
  • at school
  • getting or using services
  • renting or buying a house
  • in shops.

The Commission can help resolve complaints of sexual harassment.

Some types of sexual harassment may also be offences under criminal law, such as indecent exposure, stalking and sexual assault, as well as obscene or threatening communications, such as phone calls, letters, emails, text messages and posts on social media.

Sexual harassment at work

Nearly all sexual harassment complaints that come to us are work related (91 per cent in 2018-19). Women are also more likely to experience sexual harassment than men (25 per cent of women have been sexually harassed at work in the past five years.)

While a person who sexually harasses someone else is primarily responsible for their own behaviour, in some cases employers can also be held responsible.

Under the Equal Opportunity Act, employers have a positive duty to provide a safe workplace and to take all reasonable steps to prevent sexual harassment at work. This applies to employers of all sizes, regardless of whether they are a major company or a small cafe, and covers all types of workers:

  • full-time, part-time and casual employees
  • agents and contract workers
  • trainees and apprentices
  • volunteers and unpaid workers.

It applies to all stages of employment, including:

  • recruitment and advertising for jobs
  • returning to work after injury, illness or pregnancy
  • dismissal and retrenchment.

Action employers can take to prevent sexual harassment:

  • Making sure they have a sexual harassment policy for staff and a complaints procedure in place
  • Ensuring staff have adequate training on these policies and procedures. They need to have faith that they are taken seriously, and that action will be taken
  • Reviewing policies to make sure they are up to date and accessible
  • Actively encouraging reporting in the workplace, for example by giving managers credit for taking action to encourage reporting and modelling appropriate behaviour.
  • Promoting standards of behaviour through discussion, leadership and modelling.
  • Having staff Contact Officers who can provide confidential information about rights and the company’s complaints procedures.

What can I do if I’m sexually harassed?

You can make a complaint

Get help from the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission.

You can make a complaint to us if you think you have experienced:

If you wish, someone else can make a complaint for you.

Find out how the Commission helps people resolve complaints.

We can also give you information about your rights.

It is also against the law to victimise a person, which means treat them badly or unfairly, because they have made a complaint about discrimination, sexual harassment or vilification, or have helped someone else to make a complaint.

Related resources

Practice Guidance: Understanding your rights in the workplace and Victorian anti-discrimination law – Apr 2019