Sexual Harassment

Statistics about sexual harassment, including prevalence, characteristics of victims, and intersections with other types of violence and abuse.

Released
7/12/2021

Key statistics

  • 53% of women and 25% of men have experienced sexual harassment in their lifetime.
  • The prevalence of sexual harassment increased between 2012 and 2016 for both men and women.
  • Those who had experienced sexual harassment in their life were more likely to have also experienced sexual assault since the age of 15, compared with those who had not experienced sexual harassment.
  • Lower life satisfaction, financial stress, and cash flow problems were all associated with higher rates of sexual harassment.

About this release

This article is the second in a new series exploring the nature and prevalence of sexual assault, sexual abuse, and sexual harassment in Australia. The first article, Sexual Violence – Victimisation, focused on the experiences of sexual assault and sexual abuse victims. The third and final article in the series, Sexual Assault – Perpetrators, will examine the characteristics of sexual assault perpetrators and their criminal justice outcomes.

This article focuses on the prevalence and characteristics of sexual harassment. It draws on data collected in the 2016 Personal Safety Survey (PSS). The PSS is a household survey that collects information from men and women aged 18 years and over about the nature and extent of violence experienced. Prevalence data from the 2016 survey are also compared with results from the 2012 survey to examine changes over time.

For ease of reading the survey estimates have been rounded to the nearest thousand.

Figures marked with an asterisk (*) have a relative standard error of between 25% and 50% and should be used with caution. All comparisons discussed have been tested for statistical significance, unless otherwise stated. For more information about relative standard error and significance testing, refer to the Personal Safety, Australia Technical Note.

For more information about the survey methodology, refer to Personal Safety, Australia methodology.

In the PSS, sexual harassment is considered to have occurred when a person has experienced or been subjected to one or more selected behaviours which they found improper or unwanted, which made them feel uncomfortable, and/or were offensive due to their sexual nature. The PSS collects information about selected types of sexual harassment behaviours, including:

  • Indecent phone call
  • Indecent text, email or post
  • Indecent exposure
  • Inappropriate comments
  • Unwanted touching
  • Distributing or posting pictures or videos of the person, that were sexual in nature, without their consent
  • Exposure to pictures, videos or materials which were sexual in nature that the person did not wish to see

For more definitions of the terms used throughout the article, refer to the Glossary section.

For more information, refer to the Sexual Harassment page in the Personal Safety Survey, Australia: User Guide, 2016.

The ABS acknowledges the lives and experiences of individuals affected by sexual violence who are represented in this report. Some people may find parts of this content confronting or distressing. Recommended support services include: 1800RESPECT – 1800 737 732, Lifeline – 13 11 14.

Summary of findings

Prevalence of sexual harassment

  • Women were twice as likely as men to experience sexual harassment over their lifetime (53% compared with 25%).
  • The most common sexual harassment behaviour experienced by women was inappropriate comments about body or sex life (33%) followed by unwanted touching, grabbing, kissing, or fondling (30%). For men it was unwanted touching, grabbing, kissing, or fondling (13%) followed by inappropriate comments about body or sex life (11%).
  • Women were nearly twice as likely as men to experience sexual harassment in the 12 months prior to survey in 2016 (17% compared with 9.3%).
  • The prevalence of sexual harassment increased between 2012 and 2016 for both men and women.

Socio-demographic characteristics of persons experiencing sexual harassment

  • Women were more likely to experience sexual harassment in the 12 months prior to survey in 2016 if they were: aged 18 to 24 years; unmarried; had a non-school qualification; living with a disability or long-term health condition; reported low to moderate life satisfaction; experiencing financial stress.
  • Men were more likely to experience sexual harassment in the 12 months prior to survey in 2016 if they were: aged 18 to 24 years; unmarried; reported low to moderate life satisfaction; experiencing financial stress.

Relationship between experiences of sexual harassment and other forms of violence

  • Both women and men who had experienced lifetime sexual harassment were more likely than those who had not experienced lifetime sexual harassment to have also experienced sexual assault since the age of 15.
  • Both women and men who witnessed violence toward a parent by a partner before the age of 15 were more likely than those who did not witness such violence to experience lifetime sexual harassment.
  • Both women and men who had experienced physical and/or sexual abuse before the age of 15 were more likely than those who had not experienced abuse to have experienced lifetime sexual harassment.

Prevalence of sexual harassment

Prevalence of lifetime sexual harassment

The 2016 PSS found an estimated one in two women (53% or 5 million) aged 18 years and over experienced sexual harassment in their lifetime. The most common sexual harassment behaviours experienced by women were:

  • Inappropriate comments about body or sex life (33% or 3.1 million women)
  • Unwanted touching, grabbing, kissing, or fondling (30% or 2.8 million women)
  • Indecent exposure (22% or 2.1 million women)
  1. Components are not able to be added together to produce a total. Where a person has experienced more than one type of sexual harassment behaviour by any person, they are counted separately for each type of behaviour they experienced but are counted only once in the aggregated total.

An estimated one in four men (25% or 2.2 million) aged 18 years and over experienced sexual harassment in their lifetime. The most common sexual harassment behaviours experienced by men were:

  • Unwanted touching, grabbing, kissing, or fondling (13% or 1.1 million)
  • Inappropriate comments about body or sex life (11% or 1 million)
  • Indecent exposure (7.8% or 700,00)
  1. Components are not able to be added together to produce a total. Where a person has experienced more than one type of sexual harassment behaviour by any person, they are counted separately for each type of behaviour they experienced but are counted only once in the aggregated total.

Prevalence of sexual harassment in a 12-month period

The PSS found an estimated one in six women (17% or 1.6 million) aged 18 years and over experienced sexual harassment in the 12 months prior to survey in 2016, including:

  • 16% (1.5 million) of women who experienced sexual harassment by a male
  • 4.1% (386,000) of women who experienced sexual harassment by a female
  1. Components are not able to be added together to produce a total. Where a person has experienced more than one type of sexual harassment behaviour by any person, they are counted separately for each type of behaviour they experienced but are counted only once in the aggregated total.

An estimated one in eleven men (9.3% or 837,000) aged 18 years and over experienced sexual harassment in the 12 months prior to survey in 2016, including:

  • 4.5% (403,000) who experienced sexual harassment by a male
  • 6.7% (604,000) who experienced sexual harassment by a female
  1. Components are not able to be added together to produce a total. Where a person has experienced more than one type of sexual harassment behaviour by any person, they are counted separately for each type of behaviour they experienced but are counted only once in the aggregated total.

Changes in the 12-month prevalence rate of sexual harassment between 2012 and 2016

Changes in the 12-month prevalence rate of sexual harassment can be influenced by real-world changes in the prevalence of sexual harassment, as well as changing attitudes towards sexual harassment more broadly. These changes can impact on people’s ability to recognise sexual harassment when it occurs, and their willingness to disclose their experiences to a survey interviewer.

The proportion of women experiencing sexual harassment in the 12 months prior to survey increased from 15% in 2012 to 17% in 2016[1]. Sexual harassment behaviours that were more prevalent in 2016 compared with 2012 included:

  • Indecent text, email, or post (7.0% compared with 4.9%)
  • Indecent exposure (2.7% compared with 1.5%)
  • Inappropriate comments (12% compared with 10%)
  • Unwanted touching, grabbing, kissing, or fondling (5.2% compared with 3.9%)

 

[1] New sexual harassment behaviours were added into the 2016 PSS in order to accurately capture emerging trends in experiences of sexual harassment (such as the use of information and communications technology). Although these behaviours may have previously been reported within other categories, this should be considered when comparing sexual harassment prevalence rates between the 2012 and 2016 cycles.

The proportion of men experiencing sexual harassment in the 12 months prior to survey also increased, from 6.6% in 2012 to 9.3% in 2016. Sexual harassment behaviours that were more prevalent in 2016 compared with 2012 included:

  • Indecent text, email, or post (3.5% compared with 2.6%)
  • Inappropriate comments (3.8% compared with 2.6%)
  • Unwanted touching, grabbing, kissing, or fondling (3.3% compared with 2.0%)

Socio-demographic characteristics of persons experiencing sexual harassment

Differences in sexual harassment prevalence among socio-demographic groups

Those belonging to the following socio-demographic groups were more likely to experience sexual harassment in the 12 months prior to survey in 2016:

Age
  • Women aged 18 to 24 years (38%) compared with those aged 25 to 34 years (25%), 35 to 44 years (17%), 45 to 54 years (15%) and 55 years and over (7.1%)
  • Men aged 18 to 24 years (16%) compared with those aged 35 to 44 years (9.8%), 45 to 54 years (7.6%) and 55 years and over (5%)
Social marital status
  • Women who were not married compared with those who were (26% compared with 12%)
  • Men who were not married compared with those who were (14% compared with 7%)
Educational attainment
  • Women with a non-school qualification (a certificate, diploma, or degree) compared with those with no non-school qualification (19% compared with 14%)
Disability status
  • Women living with a disability or long-term health condition compared with those without a disability or long-term health condition (19% compared with 17%)
Financial stress
  • Women who could not raise $2,000 within a week for an emergency compared with those who could (23% compared with 16%)
  • Men who could not raise $2,000 within a week for an emergency compared with those who could (12% compared with 8.8%)
Cash flow problems[1]
  • Women who reported one or more cash flow problems compared with those who did not (31% compared with 14%)
  • Men who reported one or more cash flow problems compared with those who did not (21% compared with 7.4%)
Overall life satisfaction
  • Women reporting low and moderate levels of life satisfaction compared with those reporting high life satisfaction (32% and 23%, compared with 16%)
  • Men reporting a moderate level of life satisfaction compared with those reporting high life satisfaction (16% compared with 7.9%)

 

[1] Cash flow problems include one or more of the following: could not pay electricity, gas or telephone bills on time; could not pay mortgage or rent payments on time; could not pay for car registration or insurance on time; could not make minimum payment on credit card; pawned or sold something because they needed cash; went without meals; were unable to heat or cool their home; sought financial assistance from friends or family; sought assistance from welfare or community organisations.

Relationship between experiences of sexual harassment and other forms of violence

The statistics presented below highlight correlations between experiences of sexual harassment and other forms of violence. While the data shows a statistical association between these experiences, it cannot be determined whether the experiences are causally linked.

Relationship between lifetime experience of sexual harassment and experiences of sexual assault since the age of 15

Both women and men who had experienced lifetime sexual harassment were more likely than those who had not experienced lifetime sexual harassment to have also experienced sexual assault since the age of 15:

  • 30% of women who had experienced sexual harassment in their lifetime had also experienced sexual assault since the age of 15, compared with 2.7% of women who had not experienced lifetime sexual harassment who experienced sexual assault since the age of 15.
  • 14% of men who had experienced sexual harassment in their lifetime had also experienced sexual assault since the age of 15, compared with 1% of men who had not experienced lifetime sexual harassment who experienced sexual assault since the age of 15.

Relationship between witnessing violence toward a parent by a partner before the age of 15 and lifetime experience of sexual harassment

Both women and men who witnessed violence toward a parent by a partner before the age of 15 were more likely than those who did not witness such violence to experience lifetime sexual harassment:

  • 73% of women who witnessed parental violence as a child experienced sexual harassment in their lifetime, compared with 50% of women who did not witness such violence who experienced sexual harassment.
  • 43% of men who witnessed parental violence as a child experienced sexual harassment in their lifetime, compared with 22% of men who did not witness such violence who experienced sexual harassment.

Relationship between experiences of physical and/or sexual abuse before the age of 15 and lifetime experiences of sexual harassment

Both women and men who had experienced physical and/or sexual abuse before the age of 15 were more likely to have experienced lifetime sexual harassment than those who had not experienced abuse:

  • Women who had experienced childhood abuse were nearly twice as likely as women who had not experienced abuse to have experienced sexual harassment in their lifetime (85% compared with 46%).
  • Men who had experienced childhood abuse were over twice as likely as men who had not experienced abuse to have experienced sexual harassment in their lifetime (56% compared with 20%).

Relationship between experiences of sexual harassment and feelings of safety in the 12 months prior to survey

Women who had experienced sexual harassment in the 12 months prior to survey in 2016 were more likely to feel unsafe in the following situations, compared with women who had not experienced sexual harassment in the 12 months prior to survey:

  • Of women who waited for public transport: 37% of those who had experienced sexual harassment felt unsafe, compared with 30% of those who had not experienced sexual harassment.
  • Of women who walked alone in the local area after dark: 27% of those who had experienced sexual harassment felt unsafe, compared with 18% of those who had not experienced sexual harassment.
  • Of women who were home alone after dark: 16% of those who had experienced sexual harassment felt unsafe, compared with 9.1% of those who had not experienced sexual harassment.
  1. Proportion is of those who had undertaken each activity.
  2. While there may appear to be a difference, when the sampling error of these estimates is taken into consideration, the difference between the estimates is not statistically significant.

Men who had experienced sexual harassment in the 12 months prior to survey in 2016 were more likely to feel unsafe in the following situation, compared with men who had not experienced sexual harassment in the previous 12 months:

  • Of men who walked alone in the local area after dark: 15% of those who had experienced sexual harassment felt unsafe, compared with 6.5% of those who had not experienced sexual harassment.
  1. Proportion is of those who had undertaken each activity.
  2. While there may appear to be a difference, when the sampling error of these estimates is taken into consideration, the difference between the estimates is not statistically significant.

Glossary

Disability

A disability or restrictive long-term health condition exists if a limitation, restriction, impairment, disease or disorder has lasted, or is expected to last for six months or more, which restricts everyday activities, at the time of interview.

Distributing or posting pictures or videos of the person, that were sexual in nature, without their consent

Includes:

  • Taking a photo or video which was sexual in nature without their consent, or showing/sending/posting the photos/videos which were sexual in nature without their consent
Exposed to pictures, videos, or materials which were sexual in nature that the person did not wish to see

Includes:

  • Emailing the person or making them watch pornography
  • Displaying posters, magazines or screen savers of a sexual nature for the person to see
Inappropriate comments about body or sex life

Includes:

  • Inappropriate comments in a group situation as well as when the respondent is alone with the person who is harassing them
  • Sexual comments that are related to the respondent’s race, such as implying that people of a particular cultural group have certain sexual characteristics
Indecent phone call

Includes:

  • Phone calls that went to voicemail or answering machines

Excludes:

  • Phone calls or messages in which profanity was used, unless this was offensive due to its sexual nature
  • Phone calls or messages involving racial vilification, unless this was offensive due to its sexual content e.g. implying that people of a particular cultural group have certain sexual characteristics
  • Phone calls or messages that were part of a stalking incident (these are recorded in the Stalking module)
Indecent text, email or post

Includes:

  • Electronic messages (such as text messages, SMS, MMS, posts on Facebook, emails, or other Internet messages) as well as post sent in the mail
  • Written messages (such as letters delivered by mail or notes) left where they could be found by the person
  • 'Post’ includes both posting information on internet social networking sites, and post sent via the mail

Excludes:

  • Messages in which profanity was used, unless this was offensive due to its sexual content
  • Messages involving racial vilification, unless this was offensive due to its sexual content e.g. implying that people of a particular cultural group have certain sexual characteristics
  • Messages that were part of a stalking incident (these are recorded in the Stalking module)
Indecent exposure

Includes:

  • Exposing genitals for the purpose of distressing, shocking, humiliating and/or generating fear in a person
Physical abuse

Any deliberate physical injury (including bruises) inflicted upon a child (under the age of 15 years) by an adult. Excludes discipline that accidentally resulted in injury, emotional abuse, and physical abuse by someone under the age of 18.

Sexual abuse

Any act by an adult involving a child (under the age of 15 years) in sexual activity beyond their understanding or contrary to currently accepted community standards. Excludes emotional abuse and sexual abuse by someone under the age of 18.

Sexual assault

An act of a sexual nature carried out against a person's will through the use of physical force, intimidation or coercion, including any attempts to do this. This includes rape, attempted rape, aggravated sexual assault (assault with a weapon), indecent assault, penetration by objects, forced sexual activity that did not end in penetration and attempts to force a person into sexual activity. Incidents so defined would be an offence under State and Territory criminal law.

Sexual assault excludes incidents of violence that occurred before the age of 15 - these are defined as sexual abuse. It also excludes unwanted sexual touching - this is defined as sexual harassment.

Unwanted touching, grabbing, kissing or fondling

Includes:

  • Momentary or brief touching or contact, for example groping or brushing against a breast or bottom

Excludes:

  • Incidents of a sexual nature which were longer than momentary (these are recorded as sexual assault in the Violence module)
Witness violence before the age of 15

The PSS asks respondents if they ever saw or heard violence being directed at one parent by another before the age of 15. Violence in this context refers to physical assault only.

Data downloads

Sexual harassment (Tables 1 to 7)