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Definition of harassment, abuse and intimidation

Harassment, abuse and intimidation are all terms with various social and legal meanings; in this section, we examine this terminology more closely.

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In the UK, the terms ‘harassment’, ‘intimidation’ and ‘abuse’ are often used interchangeably as the experience for victims can overlap[1]. The Home Office and the Department of Health Guidance on Developing and Implementing Multi-agency Policies and Procedures to Protect Vulnerable Adults from Abuse define abuse as a single act or repeated physical, verbal or psychological acts that violate an individual’s human and civil rights. Some cases of abuse constitute criminal offences. For example, physical, psychological or sexual assault, theft, fraud and gender and racial discrimination.

The Protection from Harassment Act 1997 indicates that someone’s actions amount to harassment when they make the victim feel distressed, humiliated, threatened or fearful of further violence. The main goal of harassment is to persuade victims either not to do something that they are entitled or required to do or to do something that they are not obliged to do. Actions listed under the Protection from Harassment Act include, but are not limited to:

  • phone calls
  • letters
  • emails
  • visits
  • stalking
  • verbal abuse of any kind, including on social media
  • threats
  • damage to property
  • bodily harm[2].

Such actions amount to harassment when they occur more than once.

The Commonwealth Parliamentary Association Anti-Harassment Policy Guidelines defines coercion or intimidation as a form of harassment.

Coercion is defined as the action of forcefully persuading or threatening an individual to do something which includes behaviours, such as blackmail, extortion, threats or physical and sexual assaults could also be considered as a form of harassment.

Public intimidation is defined as “words and/or behaviour intended or likely to block, influence or deter participation in public debate or causing alarm or distress which could lead to an individual wanting to withdraw from public life”. This includes actions of abuse, harassment and intimidation such as: verbal abuse; physical attacks; being stalked followed or loitered around; threats of harm; distribution of misinformation; character assassination; inappropriate emails, letters, phone calls and communications on social media; sexual harassment or sexual assault; and other threatening behaviours, including malicious communications such as poison pen letters, indecent or grossly offensive emails or graphic pictures that aim to cause distress or anxiety.

In this Guide we will use abuse and intimidation to cover all relevant forms of abuse, harassment and intimidation. At the end of the Guide, we also offer some insights on what legal support is available.

[1] Collignon, S. and Rüdig, W. (2020) ‘Lessons on the Harassment and Intimidation of Parliamentary Candidates in the United Kingdom’, The Political Quarterly.

[2] Collignon, Sofia. In Press.” Harassment and Intimidation of Parliamentary Candidates in the United Kingdom”, in Elin Bjarnegård and Pär Zetterberg (eds.), Gender and Violence against Political Actors. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press