What is sexual harassment and sexual assault?

If it feels like you are being bullied in a sexual way, this may be sexual harassment or sexual assault.

It can be difficult to understand that what is happening to you is either sexual harassment or sexual assault, as often the two can overlap. However what is important to know is anyone touching you or talking to you in a sexual way that you don’t want them to is against the law and you should seek help.

What does sexual harassment or assault look like?

Sexual harassment includes when someone calls you names such as slag, sket or whore, talks about you in a sexual way that makes you feel uncomfortable (like commenting on your body), or spreads sexual rumours about you. This could be in person or online.

If someone grabs or touches you in a way you do not like, or you are forced to kiss someone or do something else sexual, this may be classed as sexual assault. If you are forced to have sex or someone has sex with you without your agreement, this is rape.

Should I take it seriously?

Sexual harassment is not fun, and can make you feel embarrassed and scared. It can be hard to speak out, but just laughing it off and hoping it goes away may not help, and it could get worse. It is not ok for someone to do this and you have a right to say no.

This could happen with your friends, at your school or college, or by someone you don’t know. It could even be your boyfriend or girlfriend who sexually harasses or assaults you –  this is relationship abuse.

What can I do?

Incidents involving touching and other physical threats (sexual assault) are criminal offences and can be reported to the police. Whatever you decide to do, it is important that you don’t try to deal with this on your own.

Some things you can do are:

  • Tell an adult you trust – this could be a teacher, a family member, your youth worker, social worker or support worker. It can be difficult to know how to have this conversation, so we have some tips on asking for help.
  • If you have been sexually assaulted, think about reporting it to the police as soon as possible. If you are at immediate risk of getting hurt, call 999. Rape and sexual offences are serious crimes, and as a young victim of a serious crime the Victims’ Code explains the enhanced support you should receive from the police and other agencies.
  • If you have been sexually assaulted, and you are not sure if you want to report the crime to the police, you should think about going to a Sexual Assault Referral Centre (SARC). They can give you a confidential forensic and medical examination, and can keep the forensic results until you make up your mind whether to report to the police or not. You can find your nearest SARC by looking on the NHS website.
  • If you are not happy about talking to the police or visiting your nearest SARC, you should still speak to a doctor or a nurse so that they can check that you are ok and give you any medical help.
  • With a safe adult, you could develop a safety plan that would help you choose how best to keep yourself safe.
  • Talk to your friends. A good friend will listen to you and may help you speak to an adult.

If you are worried about a friend, we have some tips on how you can start the conversation and get them the right help.

Your questions answered about sexual harassment and sexual assault

Are sex jokes just a bit of fun?

Lots of jokes are about sex, but when this makes you feel uncomfortable or becomes personal, it’s not ok or fun. People may try to make you feel embarrassed, or try to convince you that it’s your fault so you do not tell anyone. The best way of stopping this happening to you or others again is to say ‘no’ and tell someone you trust.

What if they didn’t touch me?

Children and young people (those aged under 18) can become victims of other types of sexual abuse, which might not include unwanted touching (sexual assault) or rape. If someone touches themselves in front of you or asks you to touch yourself in front of them, either in person or online, this can be sexual abuse. It could even include someone showing you pornography or sexual images, or asking you to pose in a sexual way. This can still be really frightening and it’s important to know that in law, this is a crime and will be taken seriously.

This happened a long time ago, is there anything I can do?

It’s never too late to get help. We can find the best person to support you, depending on what you decide you want to do. If you want to report the crime to the police, this is still a possibility. Even if you got support at the time, you can still get more support now, as there may be things that come up that still scare you or worry you.

Who can help me?

You&Co – you can talk to one of our support workers on a one-to-one basis, and we can offer you help and support. We can give you advice on how rape and sexual assault can affect you and how to cope with it, what to do and what to expect if you decide to report a crime to police, and how to move on from being a victim of crime. You can find out about the support available nearest to you on this website.

Rape Crisis – this organisation provides information and support for women and girls who have been raped or experienced sexual violence; call 0808 802 9999.

Rape Crisis Scotland – provides information and support for anyone in Scotland who has been raped or experienced sexual violence; call 08088 01 03 02.

ChildLine – ChildLine offer 24-hour support for young people, both on the phone and through online chats and message boards, on rape, sexual assault and a range of other issues; call 0800 1111.

The Mix – this website provides information and support for 16-25 year olds on a whole range of issues, including rape and sexual assault as well as safe sexual relationships. Get confidential help by telephone, email, text or webchat, for young people under 25; call 0808 808 4994.