Harassment comes in many forms and in many settings. It can consist of inappropriate comments, minor or major physical abuse, or sexual abuse. But while most harassment is morally wrong, not all of it is illegal. Depending on what happened, where it happened (street, workplace, school, home, etc.), or who did it (e.g. boss, stranger, etc.), the law generally treats harassment differently.


1. Harassment generally

Laws against harassment are mostly determined by each state. While every state in the

Woman tired of being harassed

country criminalizes rape/assault, groping, or flashing, the definition of each of these vary by state.

The most clearly illegal acts (in most situations) are unwanted physical or sexual touching where the perpetrator knows the subject does not consent to it.

As for harassing comments or gestures, the law varies quite widely between states.

Many states have laws against “lewd conduct” which can include sexually explicit comments or catcalls, or obscene gestures or language. Some states also have laws against stalking or following people, and laws criminalizing abusive language or conduct that disturbs a person’s free movement (such as threatening or actually blocking someone from coming or going).

The organization Stop Street Harassment has a great state-by-state guide on these laws and resources for reporting harassment.

For California, check out our California harassment law page.

2. Harassment/bullying at Work

Under federal law, you have the right to protection against harassment and bullying by your employer (including a supervisor or possibly coworkers), if done on the basis of your race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.  You also have the right to protection against sexual harassment by your employer, regardless of the basis.142 U.S. Code Sec. 2000e-2 Most states also have additional protections on this.

3. Stalking or Cyberstalking

You have the right to protection against stalking and cyberstalking that makes you fear for your life or health. The police have an obligation to investigate any such stalking, and if they find a credible threat, to prosecute the offender. (Unfortunately, if the offender lives outside the U.S., there is little law enforcement can do at this time).218 U.S. Code § 2261A


If you are a victim of harassment at work, you can file a claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or talk to a lawyer about it.

If you are a victim of stalking or cyberstalking, you can report it to the Department of Justice.

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