It seems almost preposterous to have to explain what the word “no” means, but headlines in recent days have proved that what constitutes consent remains a grey area.

Sexual harassment has been thrown back into the spotlight due to the allegations of abuse made against comedian and TV personality Russell Brand, which he firmly denies claiming all his relationships were consensual.

The claims have raised a debate about how women in the TV industry are treated with Channel 4’s chief executive, Alex Mahon, commenting that “terrible behaviour towards women was historically tolerated” and although less prevalent now is still a cause for concern.

BBC general director, Tim Davie, has also said there have been “deep problems with misogyny, abuse of power and we just have to be utterly vigilant – be unaccepting of it.”

Immediately after the accusations broke, news surfaced that about 1,600 Met police officers and staff are being investigated for alleged violence against women or sexual abuse, following a vast review process of its nearly 45,000 employees after the 2021 rape and murder of Sarah Everard by a serving officer.

And this was all preceded by the results of a survey, published in the British Journal of Surgery, that almost one in three (30%) female surgeons working in the NHS had been sexually assaulted in the last five years. Nearly the same amount (29%) had experienced unwanted physical advances at work, more than 40% had received uninvited comments about their body and 38% had put up with sexual “banter” at work.

This all shows that no workplace is immune to sexual violence, and leaders and HR professionals must be prepared to do what they can to protect their people and prevent it from happening.

Here’s a run-through of what sexual harassment is, what it looks like and the definition of consent.

So, what is sexual harassment?

Anyone being sexually harassed in the workplace is protected by the Equality Act 2010, which defines the act as “unwanted conduct of a sexual nature” which violates a person’s dignity or creates an “intimidating, hostile, degrading or offensive environment”.

In other words, any sexual activity or act that takes place without consent.

According to the results of a poll led by the TUC, released this May, three in five women say they have experienced harassment at work, which rises to almost two in three for those aged 25 to 34.

What can harassment look like in the workplace?

There is an array of ways in which harassment can present in the workplace, including:

  • Making unwanted sexual remarks about someone else’s body, clothing or appearance
  • Asking questions about someone’s sex life, sexual orientation or gender
  • Telling sexually offensive jokes
  • Displaying or sharing pornographic or sexual content
  • Touching someone against their will
  • Sexual assault and rape

What is the definition of consent?

If you find yourself investigating a claim of sexual harassment in the workplace, the alleged perpetrator may say consent was involved. Here’s what you need to know to make a fair judgement.

According to the Sexual Offences Act 2003, someone consents to a sexual activity only if they agree to take part by choice and the have the freedom and capacity to make that choice.

Someone can disagree with a sexual activity by actually saying “no”, but it doesn’t have to be spoken out loud. If someone seems unsure, stays quiet, moves away or doesn’t respond, they are not agreeing.

Someone doesn’t have the freedom and capacity to agree by choice if:

  • They are asleep or unconscious
  • Drunk or have taken drugs
  • Too young
  • Have a mental health disorder
  • They are tricked, intimidated or manipulated
  • The other person uses force

It is worth noting that the age of consent in England and Wales is 16. This is the age when young people can legally consent to take part in sexual activity. This means that, even if they have given “consent”, sexually activity with anyone under 16 is unlawful.

There are also extra protections put in place for those aged 16 and 17. For example, it is illegal to take a photo or video of someone aged 18 and under engaging in a sexual activity, or take part in sexual activity with someone under 18 if you are in a position of trust, such as a doctor, teacher or manager.

What does consent look like?

Consent presents itself in various ways. It can be:

  • A simple “yes”!
  • Talking to the other person about what you want and listening to them in return
  • Checking in with the other person, for example “is this ok?”
  • Not putting pressure on someone if they say “no” or change their mind

If someone is not sure that consent has been given, then they should check. If they suspect that the other person is not completely comfortable or happy, they should stop.

It doesn’t matter if someone doesn’t have visible injuries or if they didn’t scream, or try to run away. It doesn’t matter what they were wearing, if they knew the perpetrator or had a previous sexual encounter with them, if consent is not given then the blame lies 100% with the perpetrator.


If you’re looking for support in dealing with cases of sexual harassment in your workplace, Tell Jane is here to help. We offer a wide range of services including training for in-house workplace investigators, an anonymous employee reporting hotline and sexual harassment prevention training. Email to get in touch.

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