According to a recent survey, one-third of teenage employees have been sexually harassed on the job. While this is similar to the rate adults experience harassment at work, younger victims are less likely to report their harassers or take legal action against them. And trauma inflicted at such a vulnerable age can cause serious repercussions in the years to come.
If you or a teen you know have experienced sexual harassment at work, it’s important to learn more about it: what harassment is, and how you can find the support you need to cope and heal.
The most important thing to know about sexual harassment is that it’s not your fault. Sexual harassment is by definition unsolicited. Nothing you did or didn’t do caused your harasser’s behavior. Simply put, any form of undesired sexual attention constitutes harassment.
So what does sexual harassment look like? It could be physical behavior, such as touching or kissing. It could also be verbal. Your harasser may say that “it’s just a joke” and that you’re taking it too seriously, but calling you names like “slut” or making you the target of sexual innuendos is no laughing matter.
Additionally, you might find yourself the recipient of multiple requests for a date or to engage in sexual behavior, even after you’ve declined. These requests could be made in person or via email, text message, or other forms of communication. It doesn’t matter how they’re sent, and it doesn’t matter what tone is used, whether “nice” or threatening. If it’s unwanted, it’s harassment.
But these aren’t the only ways sexual harassment can appear. You don’t need to look to a textbook definition for validation. If you feel uncomfortable, depressed, “dirty,” powerless, or any other negative emotion, it’s harassment. Don’t let your harasser tell you it’s “just flirting.” Flirting is a reciprocal activity both people enjoy—the opposite of sexual harassment.
It’s Normal to Feel a Range of Emotions
There’s no one right way to feel after experiencing sexual harassment. Some people may feel ashamed or embarrassed, or wonder whether it was all their fault. Others may feel afraid and alone, thinking that no one else they know has experienced something similar. Still others may feel obligated to stay quiet and not report the behavior for fear of damaging their reputation or facing reprisals at work. These are all normal reactions—and it’s perfectly natural to feel this way.
Sometimes these negative feelings, especially when suppressed, can trigger serious mental health issues such as depression, eating disorders, or suicidal ideations. If so, you can get help now by calling the 24-hour suicide prevention hotline at 1-800-273-TALK.
The truth is, you’re not alone in experiencing harassment or any of its effects. About 81 percent of teens find themselves the victim of some form of sexual harassment during their school years. This could happen at work, at school, or at home. It could happen anywhere.
But no matter where it happens, it’s never your fault. And there are steps you can take to find help.
Get Help for Yourself or a Friend
When you’re dealing with sexual harassment, either while it’s still occurring or afterward, it’s important to find support. Who can you confide in and trust? This could be a parent, a friend, a school counselor, or someone outside your social network such as a police officer, social worker, or attorney.
It’s important to have support, because taking action isn’t easy. If it’s safe and reasonable for you to do so, a good place to start is by asking your harasser to stop. You can do this in person or in written communication. If you send a note or email, save a copy as evidence. You should also begin keeping a record of each incident. This will serve as further proof of the extent of the harassment when it comes time to report it. Keep track of who, what, when, where, why, and how, and provide as many details as you can. It’s important to lean on your support group during this time as recording these incidents can be triggering.
Next, find out your employer’s policy on sexual harassment. Most large companies have one—and if your company doesn’t, consider talking to a trusted supervisor about creating one. Report the sexual harassment to your supervisor or, if your boss is your harasser or you don’t feel comfortable or safe speaking up, you can contact human resources instead.
Find the Right Support
While you’re going through the formal process of reporting, get the help and support you need to heal. It may be enough to lean on your support person or people, or you may need professional help. Many schools have counselors on staff who can help you work through your feelings and concerns, whether it be about depression, eating disorders or other concerns relating to your experience.
You could also find a therapist or psychiatrist in your community. If you don’t know where to start, make an appointment with your family doctor. He or she can help you decide what to do next and refer you to specialists for further treatment. There are also online resources you can turn to if you don’t have health insurance or your plan doesn’t cover mental health services.
What if your friend is experiencing sexual harassment? If you see it happening, try to intervene and stop it. If your friend confides in you, be their support person, listen, and encourage them to get help. You can also assist your friend in finding resources such as this article for further information.
Take Legal Action
Depending on the harassment you experienced, as well as your employer’s policy, legal action may be the most appropriate next step. To learn more, visit the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s website. Just keep in mind that time is of the essence—you only have 180 days after harassment occurs to file a claim.
An attorney isn’t necessary for filing a claim with the EEOC, but you may still want to schedule a free consultation with a lawyer experienced in this field. Your options for legal action could include filing a lawsuit against your harasser and/or your place of employment. The best way to make the right decision for you is to know all of your options.
Remember, It’s Not Your Fault!
For many people, the first reaction to sexual harassment is to blame themselves and feel shame. This is especially common in our victim-blaming culture, where it’s often assumed that a survivor must have provoked a perpetrator or somehow deserved what happened to them. But you are not to blame. Take care of yourself by getting the help you need to recover.