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The silent epidemic: 5 types of sexual harassment and where to get help

Sexual harassment is unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature, which impairs human dignity and creates a hostile working environment. Picture: Saif/ Unsplash

Sexual harassment is unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature, which impairs human dignity and creates a hostile working environment. Picture: Saif/ Unsplash

Published Jul 13, 2023


Sexual harassment is a pervasive issue in South Africa, affecting individuals across sectors and demographics.

A 2019 survey by the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) found that approximately 30% of women in South Africa had experienced sexual harassment in the workplace.

The study also revealed that many incidents of sexual harassment went unreported due to fear of retaliation, or lack of confidence in the justice system.

Sexual harassment is unwelcome and inappropriate behaviour of a sexual nature and comes in various forms which may include the following: verbal, non-verbal, physical, cyber and workplace harassment.

Primarily, sexual harassment has been regulated as a form of unfair discrimination, which is prohibited on the grounds of sex, gender and sexual orientation.

Sexual harassment is unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature, which impairs human dignity and creates a hostile working environment. It is an abuse of power, and it includes physical, verbal or psychological conduct, and it affects employees in vulnerable employment in particular.

The MTV Staying Alive Foundation, the architects behind the critically acclaimed series MTV Shuga Down South has compiled a guide to help victims of sexual harassment.

It is designed to help viewers change attitudes and behaviour in terms of sexual health, contraceptive use, and sexual violence.

Verbal sexual harassment

Verbal sexual harassment refers to unwanted comments, innuendos or behaviour of a sexual nature that creates hostility, intimidates, or is offensive to the person experiencing it.

It involves using language that is sexually explicit, demeaning, or inappropriate, making explicit or sexually suggestive remarks, jokes, catcalling, street harassment or innuendos about a person's body, or appearance, and using derogatory terms and slurs.

This includes using language of a sexual nature to demean or belittle someone based on their sex or gender.

Non-verbal sexual harassment

Non-verbal sexual harassment refers to unwanted sexual behaviour or advances that are communicated without the use of words or explicit verbal language.

It involves the use of non-verbal cues, gestures, or actions that convey a sexual nature or create a hostile or uncomfortable environment for the recipient.

This includes sexually suggestive gestures such as winking, leering, or using facial expressions that are sexually suggestive, offensive, or invading someone's personal space without consent.

This can also include standing too close or brushing against them in a way that feels intrusive or sexual.

Physical sexual harassment

Unwanted physical contact or advances of a sexual nature that violate a person's boundaries and rights are referred to as physical sexual harassment.

It entails engaging in sexual activity without the other person's agreement by the use of physical force, gestures, or behaviours.

This includes touching, grabbing, blocking someone's way, cornering them, or engaging in indecent exposure in front of them without their consent. It also involves coercive sexual contact or penetration.

Cyber/ online sexual harassment

Cybersexual harassment is the unwanted and sexually inappropriate use of technology and communication platforms such as social media and messaging apps.

Among these are explicit messages, sharing intimate photos without consent, revenge porn, stalking, harassment, creating fake online profiles, impersonating others to deceive or manipulate, as well as engaging in sexually inappropriate conversations or actions.

Workplace sexual harassment

Workplace sexual harassment occurs when individuals experience inappropriate sexual advances, comments, or actions in their professional environment.

This includes quid pro quo harassment: imposing unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favours, or other verbal and physical conduct as a condition for employment benefits, promotion, job security, or other favourable treatment.

It also includes creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.

Sexual and physical harassment seriously violate a person's rights and can cause significant physical, emotional, and psychological harm.

Victims may experience significant emotional distress, fear, anxiety, decreased work performance, and negative impacts on their mental health. It is important that if anyone has experienced any form of harassment, they seek help and support.

Help is available, though, please see below:

If an individual has experienced sexual harassment or witnessed it, they can seek assistance and report incidents to various organisations which focus on assisting victims and survivors. These organisations include:

· Sister Unathi through MyPrEP:

· Ask Choma:

· People Opposing Women Abuse (POWA) 011 642 4345/6

· Gender-Based Violence Command Centre 24-hour helpline 0800 428 428

· TEARS Foundation 24-hour helpline 010 590 5920 Pretoria News

· Publication Board's Hotline (report revenge porn) 0800 148 148

· Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust 021 447 9762

· Stop Gender Violence helpline 0800 150 150

· Cybercrime Unit of the South African Police Service 0860 010 111

· South African Police Service (SAPS) 10111