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Seven Things You May Not Realize Are Sexual Harassment

November 2, 2023 Sexual Harassment

Even Subtle Harassment Can Create a Hostile Environment

Some forms of sexual harassment are easy to recognize—such as overt advances, unwanted physical touch, or demands of sexual favors in exchange for favorable workplace treatment. However, not all types of sexual harassment are as obvious or easy to recognize.

Sexual harassment also involves creating a hostile environment at work, and the elements that create that environment may be harder to spot. Here are seven subtle signs of sexual harassment that you should be aware of.

Comments, Including Compliments, About Your Physical Appearance 

Sometimes a compliment is earnest and well meant, but other times it can make you feel uncomfortable or intimidated—and that’s because it’s intended to. Sexual harassment can hide behind the veil of a sincere compliment so it’s harder to recognize or call it out.

It can be challenging to tell the difference between an innocent comment and subtle sexual harassment. Some questions to ask to tell the difference include:

  • How does the compliment make you feel? Do you feel good after hearing it, or alarmed, degraded or frightened?
  • When you ask the person giving the compliments to stop, do they listen to you?
  • Do the compliments mention or focus on a part of your body in a way that makes you uncomfortable?
  • Do the compliments make you want to avoid the person giving them?

Our instincts can often tell us when a situation is not appropriate—even if it’s hard to pinpoint why. If any of these are the case, the comments may constitute sexual harassment.

Contact Through Social Media 

Sometimes it’s obvious when someone is sexually harassing you online—by sending explicit messages or making inappropriate comments on your social media posts. But other times, it’s more subtle.

For instance, consider when a co-worker contacts you over DM after work. This may be totally innocent, or it may be harassment. Signs that the contact is inappropriate include:

  • The person doesn’t stop when you ask them to
  • The messages are frequent, insistent, or occur late after hours
  • The person asks intimate or personal questions in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable
  • The person shares intimate or personal details about themselves in a way that makes you uncomfortable
  • The person mentions personal information they gleaned from your personal social media

Many people are not aware that inappropriate online contact is a form of stalking that can constitute sexual harassment.

Unwanted Touch That Isn’t Sexual

If someone is touching you against your will, that may be sexual harassment. Not all unwanted physical touch is explicitly sexual in nature. Some examples of unwanted touch that are not overtly sexual include:

  • Rubbing your shoulders or giving you a massage
  • Putting a hand on your shoulder or another part of your body
  • Physically blocking your path or preventing you from leaving
  • Subtly brushing you while passing by

Some of these may be unintentional, but subtle forms of sexual harassment are supposed to seem unintentional. If this sort of contact happens often, if it makes you uncomfortable, or the person doesn’t stop when asked, this may constitute sexual harassment.

Overheard Explicit Comments and Jokes 

It’s not unusual for close friends to make explicit jokes with each other—either after hours or at the workplace. However, these things can be overheard and not everyone listening may find the conversation amusing.

Many people don’t realize that a remark or joke doesn’t need to be said to you directly in order to be sexual harassment. If you frequently overhear conversations and jokes that are sexual in nature or even include innuendo, that can also be sexual harassment.

Explicit Images or Videos

In addition, videos and images that are sexual in nature may contribute to a hostile workplace environment, and constitute their own form of sexual harassment. This is true even if the co-worker isn’t directly showing you the images or asking you to look.

If you are in an environment where you see sexually explicit images that you’re uncomfortable with, that may constitute sexual harassment. This can include (but is not limited to) calendars, posters, screensavers, or images in emails or links that a co-worker sends you or has open where you can see them.

Comments During Non-Work Hours

It’s not unusual for people to believe that sexual harassment rules only apply during work hours—and that whatever people say or do after hours is permissible. That is not the case. If a co-worker, superior or other colleague makes explicit comments to you outside work hours—either online, in person or in any other context—that still can be sexual harassment.

Overly Personal Questions 

Sometimes sexual harassment is framed as an “innocent” question. However, if the question makes you uncomfortable and is overly personal, this may constitute a form of sexual harassment. This is especially true if the questions are frequent and don’t stop when you ask.

Some examples include questions about your dating habits and love life, your sexual orientation, or your sexual preferences.

Are You Experiencing Subtle Sexual Harassment at Work? Talk to an Employment Lawyer

If you aren’t sure but you have a suspicion that you’re facing sexual harassment at work, then it may very well be the case that you are. You should speak with a knowledgeable employment attorney as soon as you can, as the EEOC requires these instances to be reported within certain deadlines.

Call us at 267-273-1054 or email us at for a free, confidential consultation today.

The information provided here does not constitute legal advice. It is intended for general purposes only. If you have questions about a specific legal issue, you should speak to an attorney.