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Sexual harassment of LGBT people in the workplace

Report type
Research and reports
Issue date
- LGBT experiences of sexual harassment

The research found unacceptably high levels of sexual harassment across all different types of harassing behaviours for both LGBT men and women.

Comments about other workers

Hearing comments of a sexual nature about a lesbian, gay man, bisexual or trans colleague was the behaviour that most respondents reported, with just under half experiencing it (47 per cent). Many LGBT workers also reported hearing comments of a sexual nature about straight colleagues in front of them with over four in ten being exposed to those behaviours. (44 per cent)

Comments about respondents

Over four in ten (43 per cent) LGBT workers reported hearing comments of a sexual nature about their sexual orientation and three in ten (30 per cent) heard comments of a sexual nature about their gender identity.

One gay man described comments that colleagues had made about his sexuality including “one member of staff asking if I ‘take it up the arse’, and when I said I was unhappy about being asked this being told I was ‘a flouncy old queen.’” 36- to 45-year-old, gay, man, The Cost of Being Out at Work survey

A lesbian reported receiving verbal abuse from a colleague. Things like “I wonder if she pervs on us” said to her and other staff colleagues, sometimes in front of customers. 26- to 35-year-old, lesbian, woman, The Cost of Being Out at Work survey

“[After] I had disclosed I was bi/pansexual, a male colleague came up to me in the pub and said I ‘must have had some great threesomes then!?’ He said my male partner must be lucky. And laughed. It wasn’t funny. It felt gross. I felt unsafe and that as per usual my sexuality had been reduced to the sexual pleasure of others, something ‘dirty’.” 26- to 35-year-old, bisexual, gender – other, The Cost of Being Out at Work survey

Unwelcome jokes of a sexual nature

Around half of respondents (47 per cent) reported they had heard unwelcome jokes of a sexual nature at work. A number of respondents reported that these sexualised ‘jokes’ related directly to their sexual orientation, often including negative discriminatory stereotypes.

47% of LGBT people have heard comments of sexual nature
Source: ICM

More than half (53 per cent*) of LGBT women had experienced unwelcome jokes of a sexual nature, as had over four in ten gay, bisexual and trans (GBT) men (44 per cent).

A lesbian respondent described being asked about her relationship and then being exposed to unwelcome jokes about her and her partner having sex and her being the ‘male.’ 25- to 34-year-old, lesbian, woman, BME

Another respondent said he was often exposed to “jokes about the promiscuity of gay men, ie they are all [having sex] like rabbits.” 35- to 44-year-old, gay, man

Unwelcome questions or comments

Over two fifths (42 per cent) of respondents reported hearing colleagues make unwelcome comments or ask unwelcome questions about their sex life.

Around half (47 per cent*) of LGBT women had experienced unwelcome questions/comments about their sex life, as had four in ten GBT men.

A number of respondents noted that these comments or questions were far more intrusive and explicitly sexualised than those that their heterosexual colleagues were exposed to.

“My supervisor has asked me how I have sex with my fiancé. If I use toys etc.” 26- to 35-year-old, lesbian, woman, The Cost of Being Out at Work survey

I was repeatedly asked in front of my peers whether I was ‘the train or the tunnel’ and whether I had ‘sucked off’ my partner on my lunch. When I raised the fact that this was embarrassing me and I felt uncomfortable I was told I was being melodramatic and over-reacting.

26- to 35-year-old, gay, man, The Cost of Being Out at Work survey

“I was working in a kitchen environment and the chefs would regularly … make derogatory comments, and at one point I walked into a room in the middle of them discussing gang raping me.” 19- to 25-year-old, trans, lesbian, gender – other, The Cost of Being Out at Work survey

Many individuals who shared their experiences of this type of behaviour expressed discomfort at the comments or questions. However, the frequency of this behaviour and the fact that it occurred unchallenged resulted in some individuals viewing it as part of the normal work environment even though they stated it was unwanted.

Unwelcome verbal sexual advances

Over a quarter (27 per cent) of respondents reported receiving unwelcome verbal sexual advances in the workplace.

Around a third (32 per cent*) of LGBT women had experienced unwelcome verbal sexual advances, as had one in four GBT men.

A consistent theme that emerged from the qualitative evidence from respondents around unwelcome sexual advances was that these were often accompanied by comments around how heterosexual sex could make lesbian, gay or bisexual (LGB) people straight.

I was told that all I needed was a good dick inside me and I’d be straight and also what a waste it was for all men that I was a lesbian.

35- to 44-year-old, lesbian, woman

Another lesbian told us about how a small group of males who [she] considered friends as well as colleagues had a bet/game of sorts to try and ‘turn her’ and were overly flirty/letchy on work nights out. 26– to 35-year-old, lesbian, woman, The Cost of Being Out at Work survey

Lesbians and bisexual women respondents most frequently told us about hearing these kinds of comments/jokes or unwelcome verbal sexual advances in their qualitative responses. However, some bisexual, gay and trans men also reported similar experiences.

“Sexual harassment was someone with their suspicions, trying to ‘straight’ me.” 26- to 35-year-old, BME, bisexual, man, The Cost of Being Out at Work survey

Sexualisation

Many of the experiences and incidents of verbal sexual harassment LGBT people experience link to the sexualisation of LGBT identities and the misconception that these focus on, and are intrinsically linked to, sex. This influences the view that being ‘out’ is an open invitation to make sexualised comments or ask inappropriate questions about an LGBT person’s sex life. As one respondent explained:

“I was subjected to inappropriate questions from others, including professionals, and when I refused to answer, I was told I shouldn’t be out if I didn’t want to talk about it (including details of my sex life).” 46- to 55-year-old, lesbian, woman, The Cost of Being Out at Work survey

One group that were particularly affected by this were bisexual people. A number of written responses from bisexual people described harassment that appeared to be directly influenced by specific discriminatory stereotypes related to the sexualisation of bisexuals. One bisexual woman reported hearing ‘jokes’ that “no one is safe” around her. 35- to 44-year-old, bisexual, woman

“A male colleague in a position of power over me at work … started asking me very uncomfortable questions about my sex life when he learned I was bisexual … Throughout the exchange, he seemed threatened by my sexuality and insecure about his own, as if my sexuality was a challenge to his way of life and he needed to correct me in some way.” 19- to 25-year-old, bisexual, woman, The Cost of Being Out at Work survey

“I don’t see anyone else being asked details about what and how they do things in bed, comments about not going into the toilets with me...” 46- to 55-year-old, bisexual, man, The Cost of Being Out at Work survey

Unwelcome sexual messages and exposure to pornography

Around one in six respondents (17 per cent) reported receiving unwanted emails with materials of a sexual nature in them and 16 per cent had seen displays of pornographic photographs or drawings in the workplace. Around one in seven (15 per cent) reported receiving unwanted messages with material of a sexual nature over social media from colleagues.

A male colleague at work got hold of my mobile number from a colleague under false pretences. I got sent text messages and emails I’d class as sexually harassing.

36- to 45-year-old, lesbian, woman, The Cost of Being Out at Work survey

Over one in five (21 per cent*) of LGBT women had experienced receiving unwanted messages with material of a sexual nature over social media, as had around one in eight (13 per cent) GBT men.

“I received unwanted emails of a sexual and suggestive nature which progressed to them attempting to touch me in person.” 25- to 34-year-old, lesbian, woman