When does sexual harassment become assault?

Being on the receiving end of unwanted sexual attention from someone else can be incredibly upsetting, demeaning, embarrassing and more. There are two commonly used terms used to describe these behaviors: Sexual harassment and sexual assault.

Harassment is generally considered “less severe” (legally speaking) than sexual assault, but where does the line between the two actually lie?

Sexual assault is a more serious offense than sexual harassment

Sexual harassment is typically dealt with through a civil court and would not lead to a jail sentence. By contrast, sexual assault would be dealt with by a criminal court and could result in time behind bars for the offender.

Sexual harassment typically refers to things done without any physical contact or with very limited physical contact. Here are some examples:

  • How someone talks to you: Commenting on how nice you look, day after day when you have asked them not to. Commenting on how tight your top is or about the fantasies they have about you.
  • How someone looks at you: Leering at you or staring at particular body parts.
  • How someone acts around you: Making sexual gestures in your direction.
  • How someone treats you: Promising to promote you if you agree to sleep with them or threatening to fire you if you do not.
  • How someone touches you: Holding your hand a little too long when they shake it. Brushing up against you as they walk past. Massaging your shoulders as they stand behind you. (If they touch your breasts or genitals, this generally becomes sexual assault.)

Sexual assault is where the person puts their thoughts into action. Rather than thinking about what they want to do to you, they do it. It can involve anything from grabbing you and kissing you to forcing themselves upon you or forcing you to carry out sexual acts on them.

If someone has sexually harassed or assaulted you, it is crucial to seek legal help to hold them responsible. Speak to a compassionate, experienced advocate about your options. 

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