Sexual Harassment


What Is Sexual Harassment?

A person holding tightly to another person's wrist.

Sexual harassment describes a wide variety of sexually inappropriate behaviors towards both men and women. Whether it be at work, school, or in a social situation, sexual harassment is a problem that takes multiple forms which can range from unwelcome, suggestive comments, or leading to an aggravated sexual assault (rape).1

Sexual harassment is a behavior or series of non-consensual sexually derogatory behaviors that are carried out by one person that makes another person feel threatened or uncomfortable. For sexually related comments or actions to be appropriate, there must be communication and consent by both persons involved. Consent is a mutual agreement between all parties involved that what is being said or done is appropriate.

Sexual harassment is defined by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission as “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature that tend to create a hostile or offensive work environment.” Title VII of the 1964 United States Civil Rights Act prohibits any kind of sexual discrimination in the workplace.2 However, sexual harassment is not strictly limited to places of work. A person can be harassed any time they are interacting with other people, whether it be in person, over the phone, over text messaging, or emails, etc.2

Different Types of Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment is not easily defined by one type of behavior, as it can take many forms and is an incredibly nuanced and misunderstood issue. The following scenarios are some types of sexual harassment.

Verbal Comments

A perpetrator may remark about a person’s body, attire, tell jokes of a sexual nature, make inappropriate comments that they defend as compliments, ask questions about a person’s sex life, or use demeaning terms of endearment (such as “babe” or “sweetheart”) in a professional setting, where the comments are not warranted or consented to. All of these can lead to a hostile environment in which a person may feel threatened or uncomfortable.2

Nonverbal Gestures

A perpetrator may look or stare inappropriately at another person in a way that causes that person to feel uncomfortable, mimic sexual acts, or expose their genitalia.1

A person's hand is around another person's neck.

Physical Acts

A perpetrator may touch, hug, fondle, massage, or restrict a person’s movement, such as preventing someone from passing by them without brushing up against them. Any unwanted and nonconsensual physical act is sexual harassment.1

Using Visual Objects

A perpetrator may show sexually explicit pictures to a victim, watch pornography in the presence of another person, or present sex-related objects (such as dildos, vibrators, condoms, etc.) that make that person feel unsafe or uncomfortable.1

Requiring Submission to Sexual Advances

A perpetrator who is a superior, such as a teacher or boss, may require a student or employee to partake in some form of sexual behavior in order to receive a good grade, continue being employed, or further advance in one’s career. This is referred to as “Quid Pro Quo” harassment, which will be discussed shortly.

People who commit the first four of these acts will often try to excuse their behavior as simply flirting, harmless joking, or something else less serious.3 What they are actually doing is against the law and deemed a punishable offense in the United States. Because sexual harassment refers to several different behaviors and actions, the level of punishment for each act is different. The fifth example mentioned, in which a person is forced to have sexual encounters with their superior due to threats of losing their job, can be punishable as a rape offense for the perpetrator. A rape charge in the United States warrants prison time if the perpetrator is proven guilty, whereas an action, such as looking at another person in an inappropriate manner in a job setting, may only lead to that person being given a verbal warning.4

Types of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

In the United States, there are two main types of sexual harassment in the workplace recognized in Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.4

Quid Pro Quo

As previously mentioned, “Quid Pro Quo” harassment occurs when persons of authority demand sexual favors from another person by threatening that they will lose their jobs or not advance in their career if they do not give in to the demands of the person in power.4

Hostile Work Environment

The more common type of harassment, and the harder for the victim to prove, is “Hostile Environment” harassment. This type of harassment refers to the emotional or physical distress that an employee feels on a regular basis due to their coworkers and/or superiors partaking in sexual comments, sexual jokes, and other behaviors or activities that make a person feel unsafe and uncomfortable in their work environment.4

Laws and Resources in the United States

The laws in place in the United States regarding sexual harassment in the workplace are very strict, because a company takes responsibility for the behaviors practiced by its employees. A sexual harassment case brought upon a company can lead to a lawsuit and give the public a negative image of that company. This is why most large companies and corporations have a human resources department to prevent and correct harassment. This department is independent from the employees, giving those being harassed the opportunity to report the harassment anonymously.4

Again, sexual harassment does not only occur in the workplace. Sexual harassment is incredibly common in schools and universities. Perpetrators can be students, teachers, and the administration. Title IX of the United States Education Amendments of 1972 states that a school receiving federal funding must not tolerate sexual harassment and must take appropriate disciplinary action against the perpetrator if made aware of the harassment. In California, sexual harassment and/or discrimination is against the law in any school that receives state funding. Many schools have outreach programs and counselors that work with victims of sexual harassment. Perpetrators found guilty of sexual harassment at a school can be expelled, fired, or arrested.5

If a person experiences harassment outside of an institution such as their workplace or school, they may file for a Civil Harassment Restraining Order. This applies to people who have been abused, assaulted, stalked, and harassed to the point where it is interfering with their daily life and mental state. Restraining orders require the perpetrator to stay a certain distance away from the victim and to not make contact.6

Statistics Regarding Sexual Harassment

Studies show that more than half of a company’s employees will experience some form of sexual harassment.7 The reported harassment came primarily from coworkers, although the level of reported harassment from a superior was very high. The majority of people suffering workplace sexual harassment were not aware that there were resources available to them in their workplace. Studies also found that workplace sexual harassment was not limited to fields of work that were male-dominated. While male-dominated fields such as business, trade, sales, and finance were rated amongst the industries with the highest amounts of sexual harassment, so were female-dominated fields, such as hospitality, education, and teaching. Of those harassed in a workplace, studies show that 79% are women and 21% are men.7

Other studies have found that the statistics regarding sexual harassment on a college campus were much worse, with 67% of students reporting experiencing some form of harassment, and only 18% of students reporting never witnessing harassment.7

Sexual Harassment Is Not Flirting

Flirting is a behavior that suggests a person is interested in a more intimate relationship. It can include both verbal and physical queues, and it can range from being very subtle to very obvious. Flirting builds confidence and raises self-esteem by both parties. Most importantly, flirting is a behavior that is reciprocated and desired by both people and should feel natural, playful, and enjoyable for all involved.8

Sexual harassment is one sided and unwanted, makes people feel bad or dirty, is degrading, and lowers self-esteem of the person being harassed. Sexual harassment is illegal, invasive, threatening, and builds the ego of the harasser.s

It is natural for a person to want to express interest in another person. However, the actions of the person attempting to flirt must be respectful and appropriate.

A person's hand is on a woman's shoulder. The woman has her eyes closed and is facing away from the person.

Flirting will feel absolutely mutual (back and forth). If it does not feel mutual, then the advances need to stop. No means no; it does not mean “not now, but let’s see what else you can come up with.” The main rule is to initiate contact in a respectful manner, realistically assess the other person’s reaction, and take “no” for an answer. Sometimes, the other person may not feel comfortable being completely direct that they are not interested because they fear that the situation will escalate to something more dangerous if they do. The person making the advances is solely responsible for obtaining consent and not making the other person uncomfortable. This includes being able to read body language and understanding that the other person may not always respond in a clear and straightforward manner due to fear, nervousness, pressure, shock, and intimidation. Some body language that indicates a person is uncomfortable includes but are not limited to nervous laughter, lack of eye contact, body posture, excessive blinking, and uncomfortable smiles.9

What to Do if You Are Being Sexually Harassed

Each sexual harassment scenario is different and must be handled differently. Safety always should be your first priority. The following are suggestions, and it would be ideal to assess the situation you find yourself in to determine the best course of action.

Tell Authorities About What Is Being Said or Done to You.

This is something that should be handled differently in every situation based on the circumstances of the harassment. Remember, standing up to a harasser or ignoring a harasser may make that person more aggressive and dangerous, and you should always put your safety first. In a work environment, it would be best to go to a superior or to human resources department directly that can help you out of the situation. If this is not an option, going to the police directly is another resource. Often times, people who are being harassed do not feel comfortable confronting the perpetrator, however if you have already made it clear to the perpetrator that you are not interested, and telling them to stop is ineffective, or is making matters worse, reaching out to an authority figure can be an important next step. In a school or social situation, let the appropriate people (police, teachers, parents, friends, other adults) know that you do not feel safe and are being harassed. In any case, if you must confront the harasser, make sure to do it in a public place or around people you trust.

Document the Occurrences of the Harassment.

Find out if people know you are being harassed or have witnessed the harassment. Write down when things happened, what specifically happened (including both yours and their responses), and how it made you feel. Save your text messages or emails if these are methods of communication being used. There are several applications that you can purchase for smartphones that record your phone conversations. Record phone conversations and save voicemails by this person. Everything you can document can help you make a case against your harasser and can help the authorities keep them away from you. Be careful of your safety while you are documenting their actions. Audio or video record the harassment if it is safe to do so. Be aware that this can lead to aggression, violence, or sexual assault if they catch you doing so, so exercise extreme caution

Four persons sitting in a circle and smiling.

Talk to Other Victims of Sexual Harassment.

Being sexually harassed can have very negative effects on a person’s self-esteem, and mental well-being. Reaching out to trusted loved ones for support and reassurance can be very helpful. Talking to people who have been sexually harassed can help to reassure them that they are not alone, and have nothing to be ashamed of. The vast majority of people who experience sexual harassment never report the harassment because they feel as though it would be pointless or that they would be judged by others. If you are a victim of harassment, speak with somebody you trust. There is a good chance that they have been harassed in the past too and can help talk you through, and find help for you.

Concluding Remarks

Sexual harassment describes a series of predatory and sexually suggestive behaviors that are disrespectful and create an environment that feels uncomfortable and dangerous to the person being harassed. The most important thing to remember is that it is never your fault if somebody is harassing you. Every instance of sexual harassment is different, and it is important to know that there is not one specific way to stop the harassment. Reaching out to the appropriate people for support should always be the first step. For emotional and legal support, you can share your experiences with your friends, family, trusted adults, superiors or a human resource department in your work environment, and the police. If you do not feel comfortable discussing the harassment with people you know personally, there are several phone numbers you can call anonymously to get emotional support and advice from a person who is trained to deal with harassment.

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  1. Sexual Harassment. (n.d.) West’s Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. (2008). Retrieved October 17 2017.
  2. United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission: Sexual Harassment.
  3. Common Excuses For Sexual Harassment at Work: Don’t Fall for It. The Federal Practice Group.
  4. “Know Your Rights: Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.” AAUW: Empowering Women Since 1881
  5. Sexual Harassment At School: Equal Rights Advocates (2015).
  6. Civil Harassment. California Courts: Judicial Branch Home (2017).
  7. Snapshot of Statistics: Singapore. Aware Statistics (2017).
  8. Flirting vs. Sexual Harassment: Sutter Health. Palo Alto Medical Foundation. Web. (2015).
  9. Lewandowski, Gary W. “The Psychology of Flirtation: How to Know When Someone’s Interested.” The Independent. United Kingdom, 23 June 2015. Web. 2 (Nov. 2017).

Last Updated : 02 November 2017.