Not a legal term, subtle sexual harassment refers to behaviors including non-sexual touching, comments about appearance and personal questions that are not prohibited by sexual harassment laws, court cases or an employer’s anti-harassment policy unless that behavior is unwelcome to the recipient.
Though the unwelcome behavior is subtle, it is still harmful. Especially when the behavior becomes more frequent and personal in nature. Its impacts include discomfort, embarrassment, stress, anger, abruptness with the harasser, they feel stalked and take deliberate actions to avoid the harasser (e.g., avoiding work areas, changing work schedule, and not staying late or arriving early).
A simple way to determine this is to look at the intent vs. impact of behavior. Intent vs. Impact asks people to NOT focus on the intention or reasons for their actions but instead to think about and be aware of the impact of those actions on others.
For instance, this past weekend, an interview was aired showing Adam Sandler touching Claire Foy’s knee. Was that, in and of itself, subtle sexual harassment? According to Mr. Sandler’s spokesman, it was intended to be a “friendly gesture”. Ms. Foy’s spokesperson said, “We don't believe anything was intended by Adam's gesture and it has caused no offence to Claire." (source - http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/tv/news/claire-foy-adam-sandler-graham-norton-touch-knee-bbc-no-offence-a8026731.html)
What was the impact? In this case, the impact was not deemed harmful, but it’s easy to see how it could have been.
Subtle sexual harassment is not easy to decipher and this is a good example. Although intentions may be harmless, it’s the impact of said behavior that really matters.