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Sexual Harassment and Sexual Bullying

Reviewed by: Allison T. Dovi, PhD
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What Are Harassment and Bullying?

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 called sexual harassment or sexual bullying.

Sexual harassment and bullying include things like these:

  • 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

Sexual harassment and bullying can happen in person or online. But no matter where they happen, sexual harassment and bullying are not OK. There is no excuse for behaviors like these. And they are not the fault of the person who is being harassed or bullied.

If you or someone you know is going through this, tell a trusted adult. When you speak up — and get the right adults involved — it can help stop harassment and bullying. If the first adult you tell does not stop the harassment and bullying, keep telling other adults until it does stop.

How Does Sexual Harassment Affect People?

Being the target of these behaviors is hurtful. How much they affect a person can depend. 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 (they're older or stronger, for example).
  • The person being bullied or harassed has other stress in their lives.

If this is the case, a person being harassed may feel unsafe or attacked. They may avoid going to places where it happens, such as school or their job. They 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. A sexual bully may not realize how these behaviors could affect their lives.

What if Sexual Bullying 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 is also a crime if an adult (or much older teen) asks someone underage to pose for sexual pictures, or to take part in sexual acts via 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 Harassed or Bullied?

There’s no one right way to respond. Each situation is different. That’s why it’s best to talk with an adult you trust. They can help you know what to do.

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 them 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. They may not stop. They might even laugh off your request, tease you, or bother you even more.
  • Tell an adult. This is not something you should try to handle on your own. Talk to a parent, a friend’s parent, relative, coach, teacher, school counselor, or doctor. It might feel awkward at first to bring it up. But don’t let that stop you. If the adult you talk to doesn't listen and help, find someone else who will.
  • 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 in order to help you. And to stop it from happening to others too.
  • Get support. If this has you stressed, feeling depressed, anxious, or losing sleep, talk with a therapist or counselor. They can help you find ways to cope and recover from the stress.

How Can I Help Someone Who Is Being 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 is OK to let the bully know people are watching and will get involved.
  • Report it. 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 they're doing. Say that you think what happened is not OK. Listen and show you care. Encourage them to report what happened to a trusted adult. Remind them that the harassment is not their fault.
Reviewed by: Allison T. Dovi, PhD
Date reviewed: June 2021