Sexual harassment is against the law under the Equal Opportunity Act 2010.
Sexual harassment is unwelcome sexual behaviour, which could be expected to make a person feel offended, humiliated or intimidated. Sexual harassment can be physical, verbal or written. It can include:
- comments about a person’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 screen savers, photos, calendars or objects
- repeated requests to go out
- requests for sex
- sexually explicit emails, text messages or posts on social networking sites.
- sexual assault.
Sexual harassment is not consensual interaction, flirtation or friendship. Sexual harassment is not behaviour that is mutually agreed upon.
A single incident is enough to constitute sexual harassment – it doesn’t have to be repeated.
Men experience sexual harassment but it disproportionately affects women, especially in the workplace. (The Australian Human Rights Commission reported that 1 in 5 women experience sexual harassment in the workplace at some time.)
Some types of sexual harassment may also be offences under criminal law. These include indecent exposure, stalking, sexual assault and obscene or threatening communications, such as phone calls, letters, emails, text messages and posts on social networking sites.
Examples of sexual harassment
A new restaurant was opening and Mary was employed as its Manager. Welcome drinks were arranged for all staff and the two male owners openly made bets as to who would sleep with Mary first. One of the owners made sexual advances towards her, touching her face and grabbing her around the waist. He said he wanted to sleep with her. Mary asked a male colleague to tell the owner that she did not wish him to contact her unless he did so in a professional manner. Soon after she received a letter from the owner terminating her employment.
Mariam plays for a local soccer team. At a function celebrating her team’s grand final win, the club president repeatedly places his hand on Mariam's knee under the table during dinner while talking to her. This makes Mariam feel uncomfortable.
Cheng is a union member and workplace representative for his union. At a union meeting another member tells a joke with sexual overtones using Cheng's name.
Justine is a dental hygienist and a member of a professional association. On a professional development course run by the association one of its employees slaps her backside as they pass in the corridor.
Katie is a volunteer worker with a home care agency. One day when she is visiting John, a client, he starts stroking her arm and telling her how pretty she is. Katie asks him to stop but he pulls her onto his lap and tries to kiss her.
Where can sexual harassment occur?
Sexual harassment is against the law when it occurs in an area of public life covered by the Equal Opportunity Act 2010. However, there are some differences to the law about where it covers discrimination and sexual harassment. Sexual harassment is against the law in:
- employment, which covers a range of situations including where people are working in a partnership, or anywhere people share a common workplace. Find out more about sexual harassment in employment.
- goods and services
- an industrial organisation, such as a union
- local government
- a qualifying body, such as a professional association.
Volunteers and unpaid workers also have the same rights and responsibilities in relation to sexual harassment as paid staff.
What can you do if you are sexually harassed?
If you experience sexual harassment there are many different ways you can respond. You have options and the law is there to protect you. You could consider:
- raising the issue directly with the person and telling them that their behaviour is unwelcome
- talking to a colleague or friend for support
- contacting 1800 RESPECT for telephone and online counselling, information and referral
- making a complaint to the organisation, whether that’s your workplace, school, sports club, government or service provider
- contacting the Commission for information or to make a complaint
Make a complaint to the Commission
If you think you have been discriminated against, sexually harassed, or vilified, contact us and talk about your concerns. Our dispute resolution service is free and confidential. We can send you information about the complaint process and if we can’t help you we will try to refer you to someone who can.
To make a complaint:
- contact us by phone, in person or email. We also have a free interpreter service
- submit your complaint online or download our complaint form (DOC, 230KB).
Find out more about making a complaint.