Sexism and sexual harrasment

Here is an overview of concepts, issues, and legislation on sexism and sexual harassment, in addition to international and historical perspectives.

A widespread problem

In Denmark, 34 percent of women and 25 percent of men have been abused in the workplace. This is evident in a report from 2019 by the Danish Trade Union Confederation. The survey asked about violations such as touching, personal questions on private and sex life, or being forced to watch porn.

KVINFO has also conducted a number of studies of sexism and sexual harassment in Danish workplaces and educational institutions and in political parties. One survey shows that 51 percent of women and 27 percent of men in internships in the media industry, respond yes to having experienced violations.

Find the survey and several other studies using this link.

#MeToo, witch hunt, readiness to take offense, sexual harassment, rule of law.

Problems with sexism and sexual harassment are frequently debated in public media and in some workplaces. But how do you navigate? What are facts and what are myths? And what is the connection between sexism and equality?

You will find information about this below.



Sexism is a prejudice or discrimination based on gender. If, for example, a woman is deselected for a job interview because it is assumed she will soon have children, it is sexism.  And it is sexist to speak condescendingly of men who cry or show emotions.

Sexism is based on stereotypical notions of gender and limit people of all genders and sexual orientations socially and culturally. Sexism is evident in all areas of our society: in the day care, in the classroom, in the workplace, in the media, in the nightlife, in a relationship, in the sports association, on the street, at the parliament, in religious settings, in advertising and in language.

Sexism is perceived as a structural problem, as sexist thinking, language and practice exist as an internalized part of our culture as a whole.

According to a report by the EU from 2014, 80 percent of Danish women have experienced sexism.

Sexism against women is often talked about, but everyone can be affected by sexism regardless of gender and sexual orientation.

Experiences with sexism differ

How one experiences sexism, and how sexism unfolds, often depend on a number of other factors such as race, class, sexual orientation, and gender identity. However, the studies and research carried out in this area, are largely based on a binary perception of gender.

Sexism and sexual harassment are therefore also here predominantly presented as violations between white, heterosexual men and women.

Everyday sexism

When talking about everyday sexism, we refer to the kind of sexism that is so normalized and ingrained in everyday life that we often do not think about it. It ranges from inappropriate sexualised comments over catcalling, inappropriate or unwanted touching, to statements or actions based on stereotypical perceptions of gender.

Many people find that they do not speak out against everyday sexist actions or statements because they are perceived as ‘too small’ to oppose, or they are part of a culture in the workplace, school or in the group of friends where it is normal to speak or behave in this way. This is how sexism is normalised in everyday life.

In Denmark, the organisation Everyday Sexism Project has collected evidence of everyday sexism since 2017.


MeToo is a popular, global and activist movement sharing personal testimonies of sexual harassment, violations and abuse under the hashtag #MeToo. The movement has led to women in virtually all industries in a wide range of countries voicing their experiences with sexual abuse.

MeToo focuses in particular on workplaces and on harassment and violations, where power and power relations play a role. That is, for example, when the offender is the boss and the offender is an employee or intern.

The #MeToo hashtag was started by US activist Tarana Burke in 2007. On October 15, 2017, US actress Alyssa Milano posted a tweet in the wake of incipient revelations about US filmmaker Harvey Weinsten’s sexual assault, urging all women to post testimonials about abuse under the hashtag.

You can read more about the historical development of MeToo below, where you gain a historical overview.

Definition of sexual harassment

The Danish Equal Treatment Act defines sexual harassment as follows:

“Sexual harassment exists when any unwanted verbal, non-verbal or physical conduct is exhibited with sexual undertones for the purpose or effect of violating a person’s dignity, in particular by creating a threatening, hostile, degrading, humiliating or unpleasant climate.”

Source: The Equal Treatment Act, §1, subsection 6.

Sexual harassment

In Denmark, sexual harassment is defined in the Working Environment Act and the Equal Treatment Act.

The many testimonies as well as the derivative studies that have emerged in recent years, have shown that sexual harassment occurs in virtually all professional areas and at all levels of Danish companies, organisations or associations.

They have also shed light on theways in which harassment can take the form of verbal harassment such as persistent, sexually charged comments, touching, inappropriate behavior in festive settings and more severe assaults such as rape.

KVINFO’s survey among interns in the media industry showed in 2020 that 51 percent of the women respondents had experienced abusive behavior from superiors in the workplace.

Research shows that sexual harassment is more about power than about sexual attraction or misunderstood flirting, and sexual harassment is therefore often considered as discrimination of women primarily.

Minorities are particularly vulnerable

A study by the British Trades Union Congress, TUC, shows that sexual and ethnic minorities are particularly vulnerable to sexual harassment.

68% of workers with LGBT+ identity have experienced at least one case of sexual harassment in the workplace and 12% of the respondents answer that they have experienced serious violations including rape.

The group’s vulnerability is emphasised by the fact that two-thirds chose not to report the sexual harassment, and one in four had made the choice not to out themselves in the workplace.

A report from the Danish film and television industry paints a similar picture.

34% of sexual minorities who identify as men have experienced unwanted sexual attention. The same applies to 63% of sexual minorities who identify as women. For respondents with an ethnicity other than Danish, 52% of men and 79% of women have experienced unwanted sexual attention.

Research also indicates that the more male-dominated a work area, and the more precarious the form of employment, the greater the risk of abuse and harassment in the workplace is. Professor Anette Borchorst and Lise Rolandsen Agustín have conducted the most comprehensive research into sexual harassment in Danish workplaces to date. Their book Sexual Harassment in the Workplace: Professional, Political, and Legal Traces analyses how sexual harassment in the workplace has been addressed from the 1980s to the present. 150 specific cases form the basis for their review of e.g. the extent and typical progression of the problem.


In public debates it is often questioned whether some violations may be ‘too small’, and whether some violations are more ‘real’ than others, and therefore deserve to be dealt with, while other violations are trivialised. Rape, for example, is often seen as a legitimate violation in the debate, while an unwanted hand on the thigh is sometimes seen as a trifle.

This part of the debate confuses the perception of what constitutes a violation.

Studies show, that asking the question, “Have you been abused?” most often generates the answe ‘no’. If you ask a more specific question such as, “Have you experienced sexual and inappropriate language use?” Or, “Have you experienced unwanted physical approaches?” Or, “Have you witnessed material about you or your body being shared digitally without your permission?” – then the answers are far more nuanced because the violations are made visible.

Violations can be verbal, physical, digital or outright abusive. Researchers and health and safety experts point out that all violations are important and should be taken seriously.

The pyramid of sexism

The pyramid of sexism shows how a base of sexist / transphobic / homophobic culture, consisting of small comments, jokes and, for example, the perpetuation of stereotypical gender roles, can lead to harassment and violence, which can further escalate to more serious hate crimes or homicide. This does not mean that all sexist / homophobic / transphobic jokes lead to murder, but the model shows how a broad normalization in society of sexist language is conducive to normalising and enabling violence.

The model can be used constructively to focus on the fact that undermining everyday sexist culture can be instrumental in the prevention of gender based violence, hate crimes and femicide. You can see the sexism pyramid here.


Sexual harassment is illegal, and there are a number of rules and laws in this area laid down by both the EU and the Danish Parliament, among others, the Gender Equality Act and the Working Environment Act.

If you are subjected to sexual harassment in your workplace, you should complain to your employer or union representative. It is also possible to file a complaint against the employer, questioning whether they have done enough to prevent sexual harassment and protect their employees.

If you have been the victim to a crime that falls under criminal law, you can also report the offender to the police. It can be physical assault, violence or rape.

It is illegal to fire or otherwise punish an employee who complains of sexual harassment.


The Liability Act makes it possible to seek compensation in a number of cases if you have been subjected to harassment.

However, it requires, among other things, that the question of guilt has been proven and that the harassment has been person-oriented. You can therefore only receive compensation if a culprit has been found in the case and if the harassment has been directly against you.

Tone of conversation is not an excuse

In the wake of the first wave of #MeToo, the Danish Parliament on 1 January 2019 approved an addition to the Equal Treatment Act, which stipulated that the tone of conversation in a workplace should not be given importance in cases of sexual harassment. This means that it is invalid to argue that experiences of sexual harassment are unfounded because the workplace has a particularly ‘free tone’.

In the same way, it is the victim’s perception of the situation that defines whether a violation has occured. Thus, the offender cannot defend themselves by saying that they would not have found the act offensive, or that the offender has a habit of speaking or behaving in that way.

The rule of law

In the work with sexism, harassment and abuse, concerns regularly arise as to whether the offender or the potential offender is being adequately protected. But how are the legal rights of the accused? Can anyone be brought before a people’s court and sentenced without trial? And do we not often see #MeToo cases end in a public witch hunt, where all principles of the rule of law are put out of play? These are arguments that are often heard in the public debate in connection to #MeToo and cases of sexual harassment.

Looking at the facts, at present there has not been a single publicly known case in Denmark where an offender has experienced consequences on the basis of an accusation made in the media or on social media.

The cases where men have lost their employment due to allegations of sexual harassment, have all been conducted under the auspices of the workplace. There is thus not a legal judgement, but an employment assessment conducted by the workplace. In the case where Frank Jensen chose to resign as Lord Mayor of the City of Copenhagen, the Social Democrats had established a system with attorneys collecting and assessing cases of sexually abusive behavior within the party. The same approach has been used by TV2, which, among other things, led to TV host Jes Dorph Pedersen’s removal from the screen.

You can gain insights into why and how cases of sexual harassment have been moved out of the courtrooms and into the trade union legal system in Denmark in the section below with a historical overview.

If you experience being accused unjustifiably by name, it is possible to file a case of injury.

Offences outside the workplace

As seen above, sexual abuse is most often handled in the workplace. But there is also legislation regulating offenses outside the workplace.

Section 232 of the Penal Code deals with a violation of decency. We often think of flashers when it comes to violation of decency. However, the provision deals with sexual acts of a certain seriousness that are not covered by other provisions of the Penal Code on more serious sexual crimes, for instance as rape. Violation of decency can be, for example, a hand inserted under the clothes on the bare skin or a hand in the crotch. Touching on the outside of the clothes will usually be seen as a trifle, but the assessment will depend on the specific case.

If you experience a violation of decency, you can report it to the police. Of course, this also applies if you are exposed to physical or mental violence or rape.

Historical overview

In Denmark, women gradually began to achieve legal and social equality during the latter part of the 19th century and onwards. Among other things, women gained the right to vote in 1915, access to all jobs except in the army, navy and church in 1921 and the right to abortion in 1973. Up through the 1960s and 1970s, equal pay and maternity rights for women were negotiated in various areas of work.

During the same historical period, women gained increasing access to the labor market, and the first testimonies of sexual harassment began to emerge. In the early 1900s, the first arbitration proceedings were conducted on unwanted sexual attention in the industry.

However, it was not until the 1970s that the United States began to talk about sexual harassment. And the American women’s movement began to talk about sexual harassment as a structural labor market issue. The work of the women’s movement created both a language and a framework for talking about the problem, which made future work in the area possible, and in the late 1980s, sexual harassment became an issue on the agenda of the European Community.

The first lawsuit about sexual harassment in Denmark was settled in 1989 and led to a number of years of civil lawsuits that resulted in financial compensation for the women. floowing the American model. Up through the 1990s, sexual harassment was widely discussed politically. In particular, it was discussed whether the legal security of the offended or the accused was most important. In other words, a discussion that to a large extent reflects the discussion we are still having today.

At the turn of the millennium, this discussion resulted in the inclusion of sexual harassment under the Working Environment Act and was no longer treated as an issue under the Gender Equality Act. The consequence of this change was that conflicts over sexual harassment would in future have to be dealt with in the Trade Union legal system and not in the courts.

In 2005, the definition of sexual harassment was written into the Equal Treatment Act.

On October 15, 2017, American actress Alyssa Milano posted a tweet against sexual harassment with the hashtag #MeToo on Twitter. Her tweet went viral and also in Denmark started a wave of testimonies about sexual harassment and abuse in work contexts.

Denmark has had two waves of #MeToo. The second wave was initiated by TV host Sofie Linde when she went on stage on 27 August 2020 to host the Zulu Comedy Galla and told about a sexually abusive experience at the beginning of her TV career. This second wave had a greater impact in Denmark and resulted, among other things, in several media houses dismissing male employees who had exercised sexual harassment. Similarly, the need for a change in culture in Danish workplaces was once again discussed.

International perspective

In Denmark, neither the first nor the second wave of #MeToo has left significant traces in the legislation. The measures that have been taken, have been taken by companies on their own. For example, both Danish Broadcasting (DR) and TV 2 have, in their own way, started work to create changes in culture, and there has been changes in staff.

But how is it, when we look abroad? Are there countries that have taken a more significant step? Are there initiatives and legislation we can be inspired by?


Sweden is often seen as a pioneer in the field of gender equality, and this is also the case with sexual harassment, where Sweden works from a so-called holistic perspective.

Sweden is one of the countries that has worked most constructively with learning from #MeToo. In Sweden, efforts to prevent sexism and sexual harassment have been seen at many levels of society at the same time: in education, workplaces and in association life, from a political point of view and at the legislative level. With such a broad perspective, the focus is on the fact that sexism is a structural problem rather than an individual problem concerning an individual victim. As an example, the Swedish Working Environment Authority has started a number of initiatives to support preventive work in the workplace. It thus becomes the employer’s responsibility to create a working environment without sexual harassment. Alongside this work, all companies in Sweden with more than 25 employees are required to document their gender equality work to the authorities on an ongoing basis. This means that each of these companies must show that they are actively working to create equality. That approach has been chosen because research shows that sexism and sexual harassment thrive best where there is no equality.

At the same time, masculinity is worked on in Sweden on the premise that not all men are perpetrators, but that the majority of perpetrators are men. The Swedes therefore see it as constructive to work consciously to change the norms of masculinity. Education and knowledge about sexual discrimination is also high on the Swedish agenda, where several initiatives have put the issue on the agenda in primary and lower secondary school sex education.

Another approach to the teaching angle is the Swedish Film Institute’s requirement that applicants for film support must have completed an anti-discrimination course in order to receive support.


In France, where one in eight women has experienced rape, the government took firm action when it passed a law  in August 2018 that made it possible to impose a fine for publicly harassing a woman sexually. It was the first law of its kind in Europe. The fine is 450 euros and can be imposed, for example, for following a woman on the street, commenting sexually or groping women in public.

Consequences of sexism and sexual abuse

Domination and discrimination

“Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power,” Irish author Oscar Wilde supposedly said.

In the book Sexual Harassment in the Workplace, researchers Anette Borchorst and Lise Rolandsen Agustín come to a similar conclusion: that sexual harassment and sexual abuse are rarely driven by sexual desire, but instead are about demonstrating a position of power.

The practice of sexism and sexual harassment thus helps to delimit certain groups by dominating and discriminating against them.

For example, revelations of a widespread culture of sexual abuse in the political youth parties showed that the culture had been the reason why more young women are not continuing in political life.

In the Danish Broadcast (DR) documentary series Woman, be silent from 2014, a number of prominent women told about the consequence digital violations have for women’s participation in politics and thus women and minorities’ participation in democracy.


Everyday sexism and a common sexist culture contribute to normalising sexism in practice. When no one speaks out against sexism, it becomes normal to express contempt based on a person’s gender. Normalisation can help justify both a structure of society in which one gender dominates and a pattern of action in which sexist acts, and sexist and sexual violence are not sanctioned equally to other acts of violence.


Normalisation of sexism ultimately leads to a lack of gender equality.