Sexual Assault and Harassment at Work and Play
Katie Russell, national spokesperson for Rape Crisis England & Wales
Written July 2020
Published March 2021
To combat sexual assault, or any kind of sexual violence or abuse, in any workplace, group or other setting, we have to start by understanding what it is.
The law in England and Wales helps us out a lot with that. The Sexual Offences Act 2003 tells us that sexual assault happens when: person A touches person B; AND the touching is sexual; AND person B does not give their consent to the touching.
For the avoidance of doubt, this law also spells out for us what it means by ‘consent’, in the context of sex or sexual activity.
It says that someone consents to sex, or anything sexual, when they ‘agree by choice AND have the freedom and capacity to make that choice.’
That makes consent a positive concept, and means it is a lot more than just the absence of the word ‘no’ or a physical struggle.
Not only must both (or all) parties actively agree to anything sexual that happens between them, but they must also not have been manipulated, threatened or coerced into agreeing.
If someone says ‘yes’ to something just because they’re afraid that if they don’t, something worse will happen to them, that’s not true consent. Because they haven’t had the freedom to make a genuine choice.
For example, if someone came up to us at a cashpoint, held a knife in our back and asked for our PIN number, which we gave to them only for them to then empty our bank account, no-one would try to argue we’d genuinely consented to being robbed. The same principle applies to consent to sex.
Similarly, if someone is below the age of consent (16 in this country) or asleep, very drunk or drugged, they don’t have the capacity to make a choice about consent, so sexual activity with them would clearly be a crime under the law.
The law is also clear that someone can give, refuse or take back their consent to sex at any time. That is, we’re allowed to change our minds about sex.
And of course someone might consent to sex with a particular partner one day but refuse the same person their consent another day. Consent isn’t some kind of permit that, once issued, remains valid indefinitely. We have to be sure we have our partner’s consent each and every time.
Finally, the law is really clear that consent can be conditional. So, for example, someone might consent to sex but only on the condition that the other person wears a condom. If the other person refuses or, say, removes the condom during sex, they don’t have consent and they’re committing a serious sexual crime.
And this idea of conditionality is one that’s particularly relevant in the context of training in the gym, and particularly in sports that inherently involve a lot of physical contact.
Because when you’re training in combat sports, you’ve implicitly given your consent to being touched, but not to being touched in a sexual way. Because consent to sexual touching can never be implied or assumed – it has to be explicit.
The problem you might face with this, of course, is determining what actually constitutes ‘sexual’ when it comes touching.
Here paying attention to your instincts and your feelings can help. Has the touching made you feel uncomfortable? Was it on an intimate part of your body and did it feel like it wasn’t just accidental or something that happens as an everyday part of training? Did it happen more than once? Was it accompanied with certain looks or even comments that added to your discomfort?
If the answer to any of those questions is ‘yes’, it’s not OK, and you have the right to acknowledge that and assert your boundaries. And it’s up to you how you choose to do that.
If it feels safe and appropriate, you might want to start by telling the other person that they’ve made you feel uncomfortable and asking them to stop.
If it’s been a genuine accident or misunderstanding, at this point the other person should stop, apologise, and never do anything like that again.
But, again, it’s alright to follow your instincts. It might not feel safe to speak directly to the person who’s assaulted you about it.
Sexual assault can feel really humiliating and degrading – often that’s exactly how the perpetrator intends it to feel, because they enjoy the sense of power and control that gives them.
If this is how you’re feeling, it’s OK to not want to address the issue directly with the other person.
Instead, you could consider speaking to someone else who you trust and feel safe with, at your gym, club or wherever this has happened. Organisations and venues should have policies and procedures in place for dealing with these kinds of complaints that ensure you can keep enjoying the sport or activity you love, without feeling intimidated or degraded.
Those policies and procedures should apply to sexual harassment as well as physical assault. That can include degrading sexual comments or sexual jokes directed at you.
Sometimes ‘speaking out’ about abuses or things that make us feel uncomfortable like sexual assault or harassment, especially in a group, team or club we love being part of, can feel impossible though.
We might worry about getting teammates and people we generally like ‘in trouble’, or about not being believed by the rest of the group, or of being shunned or excluded for perceived disloyalty.
It’s perfectly OK and understandable if that’s the way you feel, and ultimately, what you choose to do or not do about a situation like this is completely up to you.
You’re not obliged to take any particular action, and it’s not your responsibility to stop the perpetrator doing the same to someone else – they are responsible for their own behaviour, not you.
But whatever you do or don’t choose to do, you should know that it is your right to speak out if you want to, and there is help and support available if you do.
And above all, it’s your right to enjoy sports and activities you love free from harassment, assault or abuse.