What Does It Mean When Someone Is Harassing You?

Toxic culture has infiltrated our streets, our workplaces, and even our schools. Harassment and bullying are no longer happening just in-person, but have stretched out to phone calls and the online space, too. Our neighbors, bosses, landlords, ex-partners, current partners, colleagues, and absolute strangers can turn into harassers of the worst kind. 

As prevalent as it is, many people have a hard time recognizing when harassment is happening to them or somebody close to them. So what is harassment, exactly?

The U.S. laws describe harassment as “any repeated or uninvited contact that serves no useful purpose beyond creating alarm, annoyance, or emotional distress.” In addition to the federal definition, each state has its own legal definitions for harassment. How states differentiate and treat harassment, menacing, and stalking can vary significantly, so it’s always a good idea to check the anti-harassment legislation that applies to your state.

How to Prove That the Harassment Occurred

What constitutes harassment? Generally speaking, to file a claim against the perpetrator, you will be required to:

    • Prove that something was done, said, or otherwise communicated to you that resulted in a feeling of torment, fear, threat, or humiliation. This could have happened in-person, in a letter, over the phone, or online (through email, on forums, or social media), etc.
    • Prove that the harasser intended to torment, scare, threaten, or embarrass you

Repeated harassment, whether it’s happening online or offline, might be legally interpreted as stalking. If you believe you may be a victim of stalking, learn how to stop a stalker and how to obtain a restraining order.

What Doesn’t Count as Harassment?

In legal terms, what is considered harassment will depend on the motive of the harasser, as well as the effect it had on the victim, in equal measure. If a behavior caused harm to the other person, but the other person didn’t intend to cause that harm, this is not harassment. For example, somebody who accidentally lost their balance in a moving bus, fell on you, and accidentally touched your breasts, only technically groped you. This doesn’t count as harassment because that person didn’t mean to touch you.

In a similar vein, the line between a harsh joke and verbal harassment can be a delicate one. Context matters, and so does intention. When somebody says, “I hate you,” for example, it can mean the opposite when said playfully and affectionately. On the other hand, someone can voice a serious threat to you, but say it with the broadest smile and in the softest tone of voice.

Even if the other person doesn’t mean to follow up on their intimidating words or gestures, just the fact that they wanted to scare you, embarrass you, or torment you is enough to make this a harassing behavior. 

To prove that someone harassed you and that that behavior caused a detrimental effect on you, you would need to provide evidence such as:

  • Proof of similar threats from the same person in the past
  • Footage of the incident(s)
  • Testimonies from witnesses
  • Other relevant material about the specific context when the individual made that comment, gesture, or deed 

How to Recognize Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment refers to a type of harassment that entails requests for sexual favors; unwanted sexual advances—vulgar comments or jokes; derogatory or lewd comments about the victim’s appearance, sexual orientation, and gender, etc. 

The #MeToo and Time’s Up movements brought sexual harassment in today’s society to daylight. The figures are alarmingly high, as visible from the results of a 2018 study run by a U.S. nonprofit organization called Stop Street Harassment. The study showed that 81% of women and 43% of men had experienced some form of sexual harassment during their lifetime. 

Although workplace and sexual harassment can be separate types of harassment, a victim can experience both at the same time if he or she is sexually harassed at work. As proof, in 2017, the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission received 26,978 claims of workplace harassment—a little more than half of those claims were about sex-based harassment, and a quarter was explicitly about sexual harassment.

Sexual Harassment Is Gender-Neutral

Sexual harassment is gender-neutral, which means that—albeit more rarely—men are also affected. Author Josh Levs spoke of this sexual harassment experience in a compelling piece for Time magazine. At the beginning of his career, he was working at a media company when a female colleague, who held a senior position, took an inappropriate amount of interest in Levs. The harassment took the form of numerous sexual advances, invitations to dates, and graphic comments about his body. Eventually, Levs got a promotion, and the balance of power changed, which made the harasser drop her efforts. 

Levs concluded: “There’s nothing flattering about harassment. It’s deeply disconcerting, even frightening. People need their jobs and aspire to advance their careers. When your body and sexuality are treated as a commodity, you can quickly feel disempowered. ‘Have sex with me, and I’ll help your career’ isn’t a come-on. It’s a threat.”

What Is Considered Harassment Online?

We seem to be doing everything on the Internet nowadays, including harassing each other. 

Online harassment is a wide term that describes the use of the Internet to attack, threaten, torment, or humiliate other individuals or groups of individuals. This type of behavior is sometimes attached to offline harassment by the same perpetrator. A victim might get bullied by their colleague in the office, only to have the abuse continue in the form of emails and social media messages when they come home from a day’s work.

Cyberbullying can consist of one—or a combination of—the following acts:

  • Sending scary, provoking, or demeaning messages directly to the victim (on live chat, social media, various messaging platforms, online forums), or encouraging others to do the same
  • Spreading rumors online
  • Publishing inappropriate content and derogatory comments that intentionally humiliate the victim 
  • Impersonating the victim online in a way that provokes a negative impression of the victim in other people
  • Sending the victim unsolicited pornography or other explicit, vulgar material
  • Sending email viruses and scams intentionally

What Is Considered Workplace Discrimination and Harassment 

When the U.S. Congress passed the Civil Rights Act and its Title VII in 1964, it was a  groundbreaking moment in the fight against discrimination and harassment. 

The law made it illegal for the employer to discriminate against their employees on several grounds. Specifically, it became unlawful to:

  • “Fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin; or
  •  Limit, segregate, or classify his employees or applicants for employment in any way which would deprive or tend to deprive any individual of employment opportunities or otherwise adversely affect his status as an employee, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin”

While harassment is never okay, certain conditions have to be met to make it illicit, too. The law says that the conduct has to be “severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive.” It is also illegal when enduring harassment becomes a prerequisite for keeping employment.

What Are the Consequences of Harassment on Your Mental and Physical Wellbeing?

Being a victim of harassment can wreak havoc on someone’s life. Psychologists agree that being exposed to bullying behavior can result in anxiety, stress, and, in the more severe cases, (such as when misconduct culminates in physical assault) post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“An experience [with sexual harassment] can trigger symptoms of depression and anxiety that are new to the person, or it can exacerbate a previous condition that may have been controlled or resolved.”, the licensed clinical psychologist dr. Colleen Cullen explained for NBC News. Dr. Nekeshia Hammond, a licensed psychologist, added that in many cases of sexual harassment aftermath, the victim’s emotions start shutting down. In turn, the body becomes overwhelmed, and the trauma the victim went through manifests itself through physical symptoms like headaches, muscle aches, nausea, high blood pressure, etc.

Workplace harassment, especially if it’s going on for an extended period of time, can take a heavy toll on the victim’s mental and physical health. It’s common for the victim to start dreading going to work, getting panic attacks, and experiencing physical manifestations of stress like weight loss or gain, hives, increased blood pressure, insomnia, and the like.

How to Take Care of Yourself if You Are Being Harassed

Even though harassment is a widespread issue affecting individuals from all walks of life, most victims keep suffering in silence. 

If it’s possible and you can muster the strength for it, you should speak up against the bully in your life. But even if you decide not to do so for any number of reasons, make sure you pour your heart out to someone you trust. The most healing thing you can do is to speak to a therapist about what you’re going through.

Even if you may not be able to afford professional help, you can call a hotline service at no charge. Here are some helpful resources if you are looking for free confidential counseling:

Type of Harassment

Resource

Phone Number

Sexual Harassment 

National Sexual Assault Hotline

1-800-656-HOPE (4673)

All Bullying/Harassment

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255) 

All Bullying/Harassment

24-Hour National Crisis Hotline

1-800-448-3000

How to Stop Harassment With the Help of DoNotPay 

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Regardless of the type of harassment you’re going through, the experience can be not just upsetting or traumatizing, but also profoundly isolating. While you’re taking your time to heal, make sure that you’ve also taken action against your harasser. DoNotPay can do this on your behalf, and you can focus on getting your life back on track.

If you would like DoNotPay to help you, you should do the following:

  1. Open the DoNotPay homepage in your web browser or on your iOS device
  2. Click on the Relationship Protection button
  3. Go to Explore Relationship Services
  4. Choose Safety and Stalking, then go to Let’s Do It
  5. Select Stalking from the provided options—this will also cover harassment
  6. Answer the chatbot’s questions as well as you can

In-Person Harassment 

In instances of in-person harassment, DoNotPay will create a cease and desist letter on your behalf. What does this letter do?

  • Asks the harasser to stop their behavior at once
  • Serves as proof that you’ve warned them and tried to remedy the issue yourself
  • Informs the perpetrator of the legal action you will take against them if this conduct goes on 

Online Harassment 

Online stalking or harassment is not less real than in-person harassment. How does DoNotPay help victims of online harassment? On your behalf, we:

  1. Contact the social or digital media website that the cyberbully used to scare, threaten, or embarrass you
  2. Report your tormentor for online harassment to that website, which will put their account and online activity under investigation 
  3. Request the website in question to block the harasser’s accounts so that they are unable to contact you in the future

What Can You Do if Someone Is Harassing You?

Harassment seems to happen so often that everyone should know how to defend themselves from a bully. To mention just a few sobering statistics: 

  • Four-in-ten Americans have been victims of online harassment, and 62% consider it a significant issue (Pew Research Center)
  • 19% of adult Americans claim to have been sexually harassed inside the workplace (CNBC)
  • One in 6 women (16.2%) and one in 19 men (5.2%) Americans have experienced stalking victimization in their lives (National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey)

If you’re also dealing with a bully or harasser in your life, it’s useful to remember some general guidelines on what (not) to do:

Do’s

Don’ts 

  • Address the harassment
  • Answer the bully’s attempts to get in touch with you
  • Request the harasser to stop (if it’s safe or possible to do so)
  • Try to retaliate or respond with more harassment 
  • Establish your boundaries if you’re in frequent contact with the harasser (such as at work)
  • Publicly post about your habits and routines 
  • Report and block the bully from all of your online accounts
  • Use online check-in services that are visible to other people
  • Keep a log of every time harassment occurred
  • Think that you may have provoked the bully or that it’s your fault
  • Talk to your family, friends, and other people you trust about your problem
  • Let the harasser get away with their conduct

Reporting Harassment

Reporting harassment will depend on the specific form of abuse you’ve been subjected to. If you’re the victim of general misconduct, online bullying, or stalking, file a police report for harassment.

To deal with abuse in the workplace, whether it’s sexual, vulgar, generally discriminatory behavior, or something else, you should follow the process in your company’s policy on harassment and discrimination. If you’re not satisfied with your employer’s response, consider filing a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). If the EEOC cannot determine if a law was violated, you will be given the right to file a lawsuit against your employer.

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