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Sexual harrasment

Unwanted sexual attention is usually referred to as sexual harassment, which is defined thusly:

“Sexual harassment is unwanted sexual attention given with the intent of being violating, frightening, hostile, degrading, humiliating or bothersome. Sexual harassment can take several forms, including physical, verbal and non-verbal (body language).” (Our interpretation)

Sexual harassment differs from other types of harassment in the way it puts body, sex and gender on the line.

Not welcome or mutual

An important criterion in determining whether something is sexual harassment or not, is for the sexual attention to be unwelcome and nonreciprocal. The word ‘harassment’ makes it easy to believe that the person harassing does so with the intent to hurt. This is not the case. Even if the person displaying the behaviur did not mean to harm or embarrass anyone, the person on the receiving end of those actions might find them harassing. Sexual attention does not need to be motivated by sexual desire to fall under this category either.

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Typical examples

Typical examples of sexual harassment are: comments on body, gender and looks, copying sexual actions (i.e. masturbation, humping, licking), and touching and grabbing at others. Other examples include sexually loaded staring or gazing, as well as laughing about others’ comments to put them in a sexual context and ensuring everyone understands the intention.

One example of this would be a coach or teacher telling children to “take off your clothes before coming inside”, leading to some pupils laughing on purpose and making it seem like the adult means for them to get naked. Someone showing photos or videos containing sexual content to a person against their will, is also a form of sexual harassment.

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Affects people disproportionately

Unwanted sexual attention affects people disproportionately. Some – referring to both groups and individuals – are more at risk than others. We know, for instance, that children who reach sexual maturity early are more liable to receive comments on their bodies and looks than those developing later.

The same goes for people with dark skin compared to people with lighter skin. Being exposed to unwanted sexual attention is connected to having poor mental health, i.e. experiencing a low quality of life, dissatisfaction and low self-esteem.

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Blurred lines

The lines between what is experienced as positive attention to one’s own gender and sexuality, and what is experienced as harassment, can become blurry. This often has to do with the situation: who says or does something, and what is being said or done. In addition, children and young people tend to experiment with what is, and is not, okay to say and do, which adds different nuances to the situation and its interpretation.

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Is not thought of as harassment

Many children and young people report experiencing unwanted or unacceptable sexual attention in school and other places, but say they don’t think of it as sexual harassment. A typical way of managing unwanted attention is to let it slide, because the sender clearly does not mean to hurt anyone. Actually saying “I didn’t like that” can therefore be interpreted as a rejection, and make the sender of the attention very embarrassed – something most people do not want to do, in fear of ruining what they view as a good relation.

It is also normal to refrain from saying anything to avoid seeming easily offended or difficult. Maybe the sender thinks they are being complimentary?

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Creating a safe culture versus testing the limits of personal boundaries

Prevention of sexual harassment is about creating a culture where there is no room for it to occur and escalate. An important question to ask is: “Does this environment feel safe to be in?” rather than “how much can they/we take?” which seems to often be asked instead.

It is important to foster a culture where people feel safe interacting with each other, meaning they should not have to listen to comments about body and gender, be it their own or others’. Safety also includes not having to listen to figures of authority telling sexual jokes between themselves, or to children and young people.

Adults should be models of respect, both in words and actions, to preserve this feeling of safety. Those adults who spend time around children and young people are especially responsible in this case, as they literally model what behaviour is acceptable and what is not.

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