Understanding sexual assault and sexual harassment

Find out more about what behaviours may be considered sexual assault or sexual harassment at the University.

Sexual assault

Sexual assault is sometimes called rape. It occurs when a person is forced, coerced or tricked into sexual contact against their will or without their consent, or if a child or young person under 18 is exposed to sexual activities.

Sexual assault is a crime. Sexual assault is not the victim's fault.

Most victims of sexual assault know the person who assaulted them, such as a family member or friend or someone from work, school, or another social group.

The terms often used in the community to describe types of sexual assault are different from the legal terms used to prosecute offenders in the courts.

You can find out more about behaviours that Macquarie University considers may be sexual assault, in the Student Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment Policy.

Sexual harassment

Sexual harassment is any unwelcome behaviour of a sexual nature that makes a person feel offended, humiliated or intimidated.  It can happen during face-to-face interaction, or online. Behaviours include:

  • discussions of a sexual nature or graphic sexual description
  • sexual innuendos, slurs, jokes and comments
  • asking personal questions about a person’s sex life or body
  • repeated unwanted requests for sex and/or dates
  • lewd gestures such as hand signs to indicate sexual activity
  • displaying or distributing sexually suggestive visuals including pictures, calendars, posters, or sexually explicit materials such as videos or text
  • inappropriate touching such as patting, pinching, stroking or brushing up against the body
  • touching or rubbing oneself sexually around another person, or exposing yourself
  • Behaviour that is mutual and consensual is not sexual harassment.

You can find out more about behaviours that Macquarie University considers may be sexual harassment, in the Student Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment Policy.


Consent is when a person freely and voluntarily agrees to sexual activity. Sexual assault occurs when someone is unable to and/or does not give consent. Consent is not always verbal but must be given before people engage in any sexual activity.

In NSW, the legal age of consent for sexual activity is 16 years old, regardless of gender.

The law says that a person may be unable to give consent when:

  • asleep or unconscious
  • significantly intoxicated or affected by drugs
  • unable to understand consent due to their age or intellectual capacity
  • intimidated, coerced or threatened
  • unlawfully detained or held against their will
  • there is an abuse of power or a position of trust

Laws about consent are currently being discussed in NSW Parliament, and will likely change soon.

Online sexual abuse

Behaviours online can also be considered sexual abuse and can be criminal acts.

This can include sharing intimate images without consent or threatening to share them without consent, online stalking and online sexual harassment.

Find out more about online behaviours which are considered abuse, and how to respond at the eSafety Commission website.