What is sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment involves physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of a sexual nature that is not welcomed by the person at whom the conduct is directed. Rape and sexual assault, which involve sexual acts without the consent of the victim, are extreme forms of sexual harassment and are crimes in South Africa.

  • Examples of unwelcome physical conduct include invading a person’s physical space, touching a person’s body (or a body part such as a breast), or attempting to engage in sexual activity with a person or persisting despite the person indicating that they do not want to engage or continue the sexual activity.
  • Unwelcome verbal conduct may include innuendos, suggestions or hints of a sexual nature; inappropriate telephone calls or communication via social media; inappropriate remarks about a person’s physical appearance or dress; whistling of a sexual nature; sex-related jokes or insults; comments with sexual overtones; graphic comments about a person’s body; or inappropriate enquiries about a person’s sex life.
  • Unwelcome non-verbal conduct may include gestures, giving (or sending via social media) sexually explicit material, or posting (or threatening to post) text or visuals relating to the victim’s sexual conduct.

Although there is often a pattern of repeated harassment, a single incident may amount to sexual harassment. Previous consent or lack of response to the conduct cannot be taken to mean that the conduct is welcome. Sexual harassment may be linked to explicit or implied demands for sexual favours and may result in favouritism or in victimisation for failure to respond to sexual advances.

A person may demonstrate that conduct of a sexual nature is unwelcome in various ways – responding verbally or non-verbally (for example, with a gesture or by walking away) – but may also find it difficult to indicate clearly that the conduct is unwelcome.

Could this happen to me?

Perpetrators or victims of sexual harassment may be students or staff of the University and of any gender, sexual orientation, race, or social class. However, some people are more likely to become perpetrators and others are more likely to become victims. This largely reflects differences in the power of (and value placed on) different groups, giving more rights and privileges to some than to others. For those who feel unsure of or threatened in their position, an easy way to assert a superior position is through sexual harassment.

Rather than any sexual motivation the primary intention or effect of this is the exertion of power over or humiliation of the person who has been targeted. Equally, those who are in less powerful positions in society or who in some way infringe society’s norms are more likely to be vulnerable and targeted as victims – women, younger people, people who are less well off, people with non-normative sexual orientations and people with disabilities.


Published by Buyi Nkonyane

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