What is sexual harassment?

Understand the definitions of sexual assault, sexual harassment and consent, and what constitutes sexual misconduct.

What is sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment is any unwanted or unwelcome sexual behaviour which can make a person feel offended, humiliated or intimidated. Sexual harassment can take many different forms – it can be obvious or indirect, physical or verbal, repeated or one-off. It is perpetrated by males and females against people of the same or opposite sex.

Sexual harassment may include:

  • staring or leering
  • unnecessary familiarity, such as deliberately brushing up against you or unwelcome touching
  • suggestive comments or jokes
  • insults or taunts of a sexual nature
  • intrusive questions or statements about your private life
  • sending sexually explicit emails or text messages
  • inappropriate advances on social networking sites.

What is sexual assault?

Sexual assault is any uninvited sexual behaviour that makes a person feel uncomfortable, frightened, threatened or harassed.

It includes any sexual acts that occur:

  • without the consent of the other person
  • after consent has been withdrawn
  • when the other person may be unable to give consent because they do not have the cognitive capacity to do so or are unconscious, asleep or incapacitated due to the effects of alcohol or other drugs.

Perpetrators of sexual assault are generally known to the victim/survivor. They might be a friend, partner, acquaintance, family member or a stranger.

Research supplied by the Centre Against Sexual Assault (Victoria) indicates:

  • 80 per cent of victims/survivors knew and trusted the perpetrator
  • 17 per cent of women reported sexual or physical violence from a current or former partner
  • 97 per cent of sexual assaults were perpetrated by men
  • 85 per cent of victims/survivors are women.

What should I do if I’m a victim/survivor of sexual assault?

The first thing you should know is that sexual assault is never the victim/survivor’s fault.

Your safety and wellbeing are a priority. Please make sure you are in a safe place and, if you are not, call Triple Zero (000). Seek medical attention to be treated for any potential injuries and protect yourself against other medical and physical impacts of sexual assault.

Staff are encouraged to reach out to internal ACU support services and external support services, regardless of where or when the incident occurred, or who the perpetrator was.

Find support

Understanding consent

Consent is when an individual freely agrees to participate in an activity of a sexual nature.

It’s important to get consent before you start to get intimate – and then to respect that person’s answer and act accordingly.

The ACU Consent and Bystander Behaviour video is a resource for students and staff on the meaning of consent and why it is necessary to seek consent:

What is consent?

Consent is informed, voluntary and can be withdrawn at any time. Consent cannot be assumed and, if it is withdrawn, the activity must stop immediately.

It’s also important to understand that, in some circumstances, it is impossible for a person to give consent – such as when they are mentally or physically incapable. For example, consent cannot be given by someone who is:

  • incapacitated (unconscious, incoherent, losing consciousness etc)
  • intoxicated or affected by alcohol or other drugs
  • underage.

Consent is about more than just sex. It is about recognising that everyone has the right to make their own decisions about their own body.

Consent is feeling:

  • confident
  • safe
  • respected
  • comfortable
  • enthusiastic
  • informed
  • self-determined.

Consent is not being:

  • forced
  • afraid
  • misled
  • unaware
  • confused
  • threatened
  • controlled.

Free agreement

Consent must be freely and voluntarily given by a person with the cognitive capacity to do so.

Consent is not implied by:

  • dancing or flirting
  • kissing, touching or being naked
  • what you were wearing
  • agreeing to go back to someone’s place.

Consent cannot be assumed – it requires free agreement. A person has not given free agreement or consent if you:

  • assume consent to one sexual activity is consent for another sexual activity
  • assume consent is ongoing – consent given at an earlier time does not mean consent at a later time
  • assume it is OK because the other person has done this before with you or someone else
  • assume the other person is willing based on their level of intoxication
  • assume consent from silence, non-resistance or no response.

Words or phrases that communicate consent

Consent needs to be communicated outwardly, through mutually understandable words and actions.

Failure to say ‘no’ does not mean someone is consenting. Silence is not consent.

Words or phrases that indicate someone does consent include:

  • yes
  • absolutely
  • I want to
  • I want you to keep going
  • don’t stop.

Words or phrases that indicate someone doesn’t consent include:

  • maybe
  • I don’t know
  • I’m not sure
  • I don’t feel comfortable
  • I want to but not yet
  • silence 
  • changing the subject.
Page last updated on 28/08/2022

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