Sexuality, power or flirtation? Learn why it is important to address sexualised discrimination and violence. What is allowed, what is not and what are related problems and boundaries in work and study environments?

Milestones before #MeToo

In the 1960s, the term sexual harassment was hardly known in the US. Women simply did not have words to describe their experiences. Due to the lack of definition, executives and perpetrators were also hardly aware of any fault.

The term Sexual Harassment was coined by a group of women at Cornell University in 1975. A former university employee, Carmita Wood, was denied unemployment benefits after having resigned from her job because she had been touched unwantedly by her supervisor. As a result of this incident, the local Cornell University student group launched a group named Working Women United, calling on about 300 women's groups and organisations to publicly share their experiences of sexual harassment in workplaces. This was the first time that the term Sexual Harassment was used. There was an overwhelming response and the New York Times ran the headline: Women begin to speak out about sexual harassment at work. Reports from numerous secretaries, postal workers, film workers, factory workers and waitresses made it clear that this was an issue concerning society as a whole.

In Germany, the case of Klaus Hecker, a member of parliament of the Green Party, caused the first major public debate on sexual harassment in August 1983. Hecker had sexually discriminated against female staff members. Subsequently, the Green Party published a study on the extent of sexual harassment in which every fourth woman reported having been sexually harassed at work one or more times. Subsequently, there were several attempts at national and European level to investigate the extent of sexual harassment more closely and to develop protective measures.

enlarge the image: Women's March Paris 2017
Women's March Paris 2017. Photo: Melissa Brunet,,, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

It was not until the 1st of September 1994 that the Act on Protection of Employees against Sexual Harassment was enacted in Germany. For the first time sexual harassment was defined as "any intentional, sexually oriented behaviour that violates the dignity of employees in the work place". Employers are obliged to adequately protect their employees. In 2006, the law was replaced by the General Equal Treatment Act, which is still valid today.

Through social media, the March on Washington arose at the beginning of 2017. More than half a million people protested for women's and human rights and more social justice. In October 2017, several women accused the film producer Harvey Weinstein of sexual harassment, coercion or rape. Activists and actresses then drew attention to the extent of sexualised discrimination and assault worldwide under the hashtag #MeToo.

This has nothing to do with sexuality!

What is sexualised discrimination and violence?

  • Definition
    Sexualised discrimination and violence is defined as unwanted, sexualised behaviour that has the purpose or effect of violating the dignity of the person concerned.

What is perceived as unwanted or transgressive differs from person to person. Respectful behaviour includes respecting the personal boundaries of individuals. As a rule: flirting involves mutual consent, discriminatory behaviour does not! Sexualised discrimination or violence includes verbal and non-verbal, as well as overt and covert acts of assaults. Forms of sexualised discrimination or violence include:


  • Sexually suggestive remarks and jokes
  • Intrusive and offensive comments about clothing, appearance or private life
  • Sexually ambiguous comments
  • Questions with sexual content, e.g. about your personal and private life
  • Prompts to engage in intimate or sexual acts, e.g. "Sit on my lap!"
  • Sexualised or inappropriate invitations to go on dates


  • Intrusive or intimidating stares or lewd looks
  • Catcalling
  • Unsolicited emails, text messages, photos or videos with sexual references
  • Inappropriate and intrusive advances on social media
  • Posting or displaying pornographic material
  • Indecent exposure


  • Any unwanted touching (patting, caressing, pinching, hugging, kissing), even if it appears to be accidental
  • Recurring physical advances and repeated failing to maintain appropriate physical distance (about one arm's length)
  • Physical violence as well as any form of sexual assault up to and including rape

Especially power differentials or relationships of dependency are often being sexualised in a one-sided way and thus maintained. This has nothing to do with sexuality, which is why the term sexualised discrimination or violence is more accurate than "sexual harassment".


Easily explained: sexualised discrimination and violence

The video has subtitles that you can have translated automatically in the video navigation

Easily explained: sexualised discrimination and violence (Video with German Sign Language). The video has subtitles that you can have translated automatically in the video navigation.

Flirting involves mutual consent, harassing behaviour does not!

Flirtation or assault?

"It was meant as a compliment!" - Verbal and non-verbal forms of sexualised discrimination or violence are often played down as jokes or flirting attempts. It is often suggested that one simply misunderstood the attempt of flirtation or the "compliment", or that the style of social interactions within the particular institution is just a bit rougher. However, one boundary is very clear: sexualised discrimination is prohibited.

The General Act on Equal Treatment (section 4 paragraph 4 AGG), the Saxon Act on the Advancement of Women (SächsFFG) and the Service Agreement on Conflict Resolution in the Workplace (Dienstvereinbarung zur Konfliktlösung am Arbeitsplatz) prohibit and protect against sexualised discrimination or violence in workplaces. Sexualised discrimination is a disciplinary offence or a breach of employment contract obligations (Sect. 16 III SächsFFG). The protection of the General Equal Treatment Act (AGG) does, however, not apply to students.

Since 2016, physical sexualised harassment has been punishable under Section 184i of the German Criminal Code (StGB). Sexual harassment as a separate criminal offence refers exclusively to harassment that involves physical touching. Touching another person "in a sexually determined manner" that represents a form of harassment in the eyes of the victim is punishable. This includes, for example, touching of intimate body parts, i.e. genitals, bottom or breast, as well as kisses on the mouth. Sexualised harassment without physical touching is only punishable if it constitutes an insult (section 185 StGB).

Physical consequences of sexualised discrimination can lead to study withdrawal.


Young women, women in apprenticeships as well as women working in male-dominated fields are especially at risk of experiencing sexualised discrimination. At universities, power hierarchies and relationships of dependency are particularly conducive to abuse in the form of sexualised discrimination and violence. According to a study by the Ruhr University Bochum, 54.7% of female students experienced sexualised discrimination during their studies, 3.3% were even exposed to severe sexualised violence. A third of these cases took place in the university environment, and the assaults were committed by teachers, other university employees as well as fellow students.

Sexualised discrimination and violence can also have psychological and physical consequences for students. Thus, it can lead to restrictions of the capacity to study, study completion delays, decreases in performance or even drop-outs from study programmes.

The consequences of sexualised discrimination and violence can range from fear, disgust and shame to depression, illness and incapacity to work.


A study by the Federal Ministry for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth (BMFSFJ) confirms that 65% of working women have already experienced sexualised discrimination. The majority of those affected by sexualised discrimination and violence are women, but also men as well as trans* and inter* persons are vulnerable to sexualised discrimination. Women who are assumed to be non-German because of their name or appearance are also at significantly higher risk of being confronted with sexual harassment at work.

The Federal Anti-Discrimination Agency distinguishes between two causes of sexualised discrimination and violence in workplaces. On the one hand, hierarchical relationships are being exploited in order to demonstrate power. On the other hand, sexualised discrimination is used as means to eliminate competition or to undermine the authority of a supervisor. Consequences of sexualised discrimination and violence can range from fear, disgust and shame to depression, illness and incapacity to work. Blame shifting or victim blaming, for example by imputing false accusations or complicity, often aggravates the consequences for the person affected.

enlarge the image: May 17-20, 2021 Theme Week against Sexualised Discrimination and Violence
May 17-20, 2021 Theme Week against Sexualised Discrimination and Violence