What Is Sexual Harassment?
Sexual harassment is any form of unwelcome sexual or gender-related behavior that’s offensive, humiliating or intimidating.
Sexual harassment includes any unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature. Harassers or victims may be of either genderOpens in new window.
The term ‘sexual harassment’ became codified in the U.S. law in the 1970s in response to a series of sexual harassment cases which was prevalent in the workplace. The United State's Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)Opens in new window particularly describes sexual harassment as a form of sex discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964Opens in new window. Indeed, Title VII applies to employers with 15 or more employees, including state and local governments. It also applies to employment agencies and to labor organizations, as well as to the federal government.
There are two legally recognized forms of workplace sexual harassment:
- quid pro quo sexual harassment, and
- hostile environment sexual harassment.
- In quid pro quo sexual harassment, unwanted sex or gender related behavior constitutes a term or condition of employment or advancement at work. For example, an employer might require employees to tolerate the employer’s sexual advances to maintain employment or gain promotions.
- In hostile environment sexual harassment, unwelcome sex or gender-related behavior creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment. For example, employees might be offended by their coworkers’ displays of pornography in the workplace.
Sexual harassment may occur in a variety of circumstances and in places as varied as factories, schools, colleges, the theater, and the music business. Often, the perpetrator has or is about to have power or authority over the victim (owing to differences in social, political, educational or employment relationships as well as in age). Harassment relationships are specified in many ways including the following:
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Central to the legal definition of sexual harassments is the notion that sexual harassment is constituted by an unwelcome or unwanted behavior. Indeed, any unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature that explicitly or implicitly affects an individual's employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual's work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment constitute sexual harassment.
U.S. law also recognizes sexual harassment as a form of discrimination in academic settings and in obtaining fair housing. Although perpetrators (harrassers) or targets (victims) of sexual harassment may be of either gender, most harrassers historically have been male and most victims have been female. Internationally, there are variations in both the legal and lay understanding of sexual harassment across countries. However, since the term was first coined in the United States, the meaning of sexual harassment in other countries has generally been influenced by its roots in the U.S. legal system.
Sexual Harassment Behaviors
- The most common experience of sexually harassing behavior reported by women in the workplace is generally called gender harassment.
Gender harassment is essentially the overt sexist treatment of women at work. It may include such things as being told that women are incapable of performing a job because they are women, having to endure a litany of offensive and sexist epithets from coworkers or supervisors, or being inundated with offensive pornographic images at work. The aim of gender harassment is not to gain sexual access to the target; rather, it is to express hostile attitudes based on a target’s gender.
- The next most common experience reported by working women in surveys is called unwanted sexual attention. Unwanted sexual attention behavior may include verbal behavior such as persistent requests for dates despite rejection and nonverbal behavior such as unwelcome sexual touching, conspicuous leering, and sexually suggestive gestures.
- The third and rarest type of sexually harassing behavior documented from surveys of female workers is called sexual coercion.
Sexual coercion is essentially synonymous with the legal term quid pro quo sexual harassmentOpens in new window. It is attempting to use threats or bribes to gain sexual access to a target. As research began to explore men as well as women as the potential targets of sexually harassing behavior, it became clear that even though men were less often targeted, a significant portion of men also experienced such behavior.
Prevention is the best tool to eliminate sexual harassment in the workplace. Employers are encouraged to take steps necessary to prevent sexual harassment from occurring. They should clearly communicate to employees that sexual harassment will not be tolerated. They can do so by providing sexual harassment training to their employees and by establishing an effective complaint or grievance process and taking immediate and appropriate action when an employee complains.