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Over the last few years, a much-needed spotlight has been cast on sexual harassment. It began when the #MeToo movement blew up in 2017 but there is still a long way to go. Since the subject is still taboo in most societies, many cases go unreported. A survey conducted in 2018 by a non-profit organisation found that 81% of women and 43% of men have experienced sexual harassment of some kind. The survey also found that most women reported having been sexually harassed in public places, followed by their workplace and residence.

(Read more: Sexual health)

  1. What is sexual harassment
  2. What constitutes sexual harassment
  3. What are the health effects of sexual harassment
  4. What can you do about sexual harassment
Doctors for sexual disorders and issues

Sexual harassment refers to any unwelcome sexual behaviours or advances, whether verbal or physical, that are offensive, humiliating or intimidating. It covers a broad variety of acts and could also include an attempted sexual assault. The Supreme Court of India defines it as any unwelcome, sexually determined physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct. The Vishaka guidelines were brought about in 1997 by the Supreme Court to protect women from sexual harassment in the workplace. They list the procedure to be followed in such cases as well as the responsibilities of the workplace to prevent cases of sexual harassment. Sexual harassment can not only affect the mental health of the person being harassed but lead to physical health problems in the future as well.

(Read more: Mental health)

Sexual harassment can be verbal, non-verbal or physical. Often, the key to identifying sexual harassment lies in consent. If all parties engage in the activity consensually, without any coercion, it may not be considered sexual harassment. But if one individual is made to feel unsafe, degraded, hurt or disturbed, it is considered sexual harassment. Following are some examples of what could count as sexual harassment, especially in the workplace but also in public places, schools, etc:

Verbal sexual harassment: 

  • Making sexual jokes or innuendoes
  • Asking for, demanding or offering sexual favours
  • Whistling or cat-calling at someone
  • Passing sexual comments on one’s body, clothes, manner, etc
  • Spreading rumours about someone’s sexual life
  • Sharing sexual stories or instances at work, school, or other inappropriate places
  • Asking someone about their sexual life, preference, fantasies, etc
  • Turning regular discussions sexual and inappropriate
  • Calling someone by names such as baby, honey, etc

Non-verbal sexual harassment:

  • Looking at someone up-and-down sexually or staring incessantly
  • Making crude and sexual gestures at someone
  • Making sexual faces like winking, licking their lips or kissing face at someone
  • Blocking someone’s path unnecessarily
  • Displaying sexual messaging in front of someone
  • Following an individual to the point of stalking
  • Giving inappropriately personal gifts or sending explicit texts, pictures, links, etc to someone

Physical sexual harassment:

  • Inappropriate touching, hugging or kissing
  • Brushing up against the body deliberately
  • Massaging or grazing the neck of shoulders unnecessarily
  • Touching themselves sexually while watching someone

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Sexual harassment can affect the mental as well as physical health of an individual. Seeking help, as soon as you experience any symptoms, is the best course of action. Not enough research is available yet but so far, the evidence suggests that the following are some of the effects it could result in:

  • Stress and anxiety: Returning to the place where the sexual harassment took place, like the office, college, school or even public transport, could cause a lot of stress and anxiety. This could have a huge impact on one’s life, career, relationships and health. The anxiety could become quite intense and regular in case of sexual harassment faced over a longer period of time. Stress can even lead to heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity and diabetes.
  • Depression: Experiencing sexual harassment, especially earlier in one’s career, has shown to cause long-term symptoms of depressive disorders.
  • Low self-esteem: Being the subject of sexual harassment, offline as well as online, can lead to the person looking at their bodies differently and negatively, leading to low self-esteem.
  • Trauma and PTSD: Sexual harassment can leave a huge impact on one’s life and mind. The trauma of the incident (physical or mental, or both) can take a while to heal and may still lead to post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSD) when faced with triggers of the incident.
  • Headaches: Headaches or migraines can be a physical manifestation of the mental stress of the situation. In some cases, nausea may also be experienced.
  • Weight loss or weight gain: Sexual abuse has a documented link to obesity and weight gain. Sexual harassment can have a similar effect on weight gain as well as weight loss.
  • Sleep disorders or sexual dysfunction: Sleep disorders and sexual dysfunction have often been associated with sexual abuse victims; they could similarly be linked to victims of sexual harassment as well.

(Read more: Sexual anorexia)

Following are some steps you could take if you’re experiencing sexual harassment:

  • Make a note: Start documenting the harassment as much as possible by taking screenshots of text messages, video/voice recording the interactions and making note of the time and place of the incidences.
  • Analyse what you want: Think about what you would like to do about the situation. In case the harassment is occuring at work, ask yourself if you would like to make sure you don’t have to ever work with this person again or you would like for this person to be fired from the company. In such cases, you may also want to ask yourself if you like for law enforcement to be involved. 
  • Take the next steps: Reach out to the authorities, whether its the Vishaka committee or the police. You may want to ask a friend or family member to be present with you if you decide to involve the police. You could also reach out to a lawyer or related NGO to understand your rights and the law regarding sexual harassment better. This could also be you first action in case of sexual harassment in public.
  • Tell a friend: Having someone to talk to about this difficult situation is important. Talk to a friend or family member so they can provide you with support during this ordeal.

(Read more: Health effects of bullying)

If you witness someone being sexually harassed, you can try the following depending on the situation: 

  • In case of an incident in a public place, you could intervene if you feel confident enough to do so. If not, you sould find a someone (like a guard or police officer) to do it instead.
  • In case of sexual harassment in the workplace, you can offer your support to the person being harassed as well as report the situation to the internal commitee to investigate.
  • If you see a friend or acquaintance being sexually harassed, share some resources that could help them navigate the situation. Listen to them if they need to talk about it, if and when they’re ready. Offer your support in whatever way is possible and safe for you.
  • If you’re unsure of what you’ve witnessed, reach out to a manager or a mature adult whom you can share your concerns with and they can help guide you in your next steps.

Following are some steps you could take if you’re want to do your part in reducing the incidence of sexual harassment: 

  • Look out for the signs: Being aware of your surrounding can prove to be helpful in noticing when sexual harassment occurs. Say something if you see something, even negative attitudes that may progress to something more serious later. 
  • Create a safe space: Be kind, open-minded and understanding. Make sure people are aware that they can come to you with something that’s bothering them.
  • Speak up about policies: Whether it’s the lack of policies regarding sexual harassment or unfair existing policies, if you disagree with them, you can voice your opinion. You can do so anonymously to the human resources department or make a public appeal. 
  • Spread awareness: Talk to your friends and family members about how common sexual harassment is and what it actually consists of and have discussions about how it can be tackled. The more people are aware of the problem as well as the consequences, the more chances there are of preventing more cases of sexual harassment.
Dr. Abdul Haseeb Sheikh

Dr. Abdul Haseeb Sheikh

Sexology
8 Years of Experience

Dr. Srikanth Varma

Dr. Srikanth Varma

Sexology
8 Years of Experience

Dr. Pranay Gandhi

Dr. Pranay Gandhi

Sexology
10 Years of Experience

Dr. Tarun

Dr. Tarun

Sexology
8 Years of Experience

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