Harassment, Sexual

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Harassment, Sexual

Sexual harassment is primarily a legal construct in the United States. It is defined as a form of workplace sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and a form of sex discrimination in the school setting under Title IX of that act.


Workers are protected against two types of sexual harassment: quid pro quo and a harassing environment. Quid pro quo harassment was the first type to be recognized legally. This type of harassment generally includes unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other sexually related verbal or physical conduct when submission to such conduct is made a term or condition of employment, explicitly or implicitly, or submission to or rejection of the conduct is used as the basis for an employment decision. It is considered an egregious abuse of power by a supervisor who has control of the job benefit involved, and because of its seriousness, an organization generally is held strictly liable for a single incident because it gave the supervisor that power and control. However the advance or request must have been unwelcome for liability to ensue. If the relationship is voluntary, it is not considered harassment.

The second type of harassment, recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court in the landmark case Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson in 1986, is a sexually harassing environment. This involves conduct that has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual's work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment. Unlike quid pro quo harassment, which can be committed only by someone with authority over an employee, a harassing environment can be created by coworkers or a supervisor. It usually requires a series of incidents to reach the level of severity needed for a claim. The range of behaviors that can create a harassing environment is large. Pin-up posters, obscene jokes, demeaning comments, leering, and sexist cartoons, if sufficiently severe and pervasive, can create a hostile, intimidating, or offensive environment. The courts use a reasonable person or victim standard to determine whether the behavior was sufficiently severe.


The 1991 Senate confirmation hearings concerning Clarence Thomas's nomination for the Supreme Court was a watershed event for sexual harassment because of the publicity and attention it brought to the issue and the anger created by the treatment by the senators. Publicity greatly increased awareness of the issue and generated greater intolerance of harassment among women. Additionally, the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1991, which made proving harassment easier and increased awards for damages, resulted in large numbers of sexual harassment lawsuits being brought successfully against employers. That led employers to adopt measures that can help insulate them from lawsuits. If an employer educates its employees about harassment, sets up a meaningful complaint system, investigates complaints in a timely manner, and takes appropriate action against the harasser when harassment is found, the employer can escape legal liability for a sexually harassing environment. The employee must use an employer's procedures, if reasonable, before bringing a claim.

In quid pro quo cases it is difficult to prove whether a relationship is voluntary. Thus a large number of employers ban supervisors from having a sexually oriented relationship with anyone they supervise. Other employers may require only that the relationship be revealed and require the employees involved to sign a statement that it is voluntary.

Although federal law protects employees from harassment on the basis of gender, it does not protect them from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Thus homosexuals who are harassed because of their orientation have no remedy unless they are in one of the states, counties, or municipalities that bar discrimination against homosexuals. In Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services, Inc. (1998), the Supreme Court allowed a man to sue his male coworkers for harassing behavior that was based on his perceived unmasculinity.

Sexual harassment in schools has a shorter legal history and generally is recognized, reported, and litigated less frequently. For example a 2006 study of students on college campuses suggested that two-thirds of college students have encountered sexual behavior that was unwanted and unwelcome. However, most did not report it. Despite its lower level of recognition, most schools now have some rules designed to forestall or deal with sexual harassment.


Victims of sexual harassment can suffer in many ways. However there is no single impact of sexual harassment, and its symptomatology is determined multiply. It is considered a workplace stressor that is related to increased odds of illness, injury, accidents, and assault as well as decreased morale, loss of concentration, absenteeism, loss of confidence, and leaving a job. How strongly and in what way an individual reacts depend on a complex combination of personal variables, including the victim's perceptions and appraisals of the experience. Nevertheless evidence suggests that negative effects are exhibited by victims whether or not they perceive themselves as harassed. Similarly, high-level sexual assault is not a prerequisite for psychological or physical trauma. Research shows that repeated low-level sexual harassment has significant consequences for a woman. Sexual harassment also has been shown to have an ambient demoralizing effect. Employees witnessing workplace harassment viewed the workplace as less desirable than did nonobservers, even though the observers were not the target of the harassment.

Victimization produces immediate effects, which are categorized as a generalized distress response, or state of shock, including symptoms of emotional numbing, anxiety, depression, and repeated reexperiencing of the trauma through dreams or waking images. Physical symptoms can include gastrointestinal problems, jaw tightening, tooth grinding, dizziness, nausea, diarrhea, tics, muscle spasms, weight loss, weight gain, increased perspiration, cold feet and hands, loss of appetite, binge eating, decreased libido, delayed recovery from illness, sleep disruption, increased respiratory or urinary tract infections, recurrences of chronic illness, ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome, migraines, eczema, and urticaria. Negative long-term effects such as dealing with the repercussions of sexual harassment alone or with health and/or mental health services have been documented as late as two years after the initial victimization. Victims have been found to be more likely than nonvictims to have future problems with depression, alcohol and drug use and abuse, generalized anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, suicide, self-harm, panic, somatization, schizophrenia, and posttraumatic stress disorder. Sexual harassment is estimated to cost employers millions of dollars per year in lost productivity, increased absenteeism, increased hiring and training costs, and medical and insurance costs.

Protection from workplace harassment is not unique to the United States, although the protection tends to encompass more behaviors in the United States. European Union countries, Australia, Japan, and Canada, among other countries, extend protection, although the remedies vary. Developing countries generally do not address the issue.


Civil Rights Act of 1964, P.L. 88-352.

Civil Rights Act of 1991, P.L. 102-166.

Crull, P. 1982. "Stress Effects of Sexual Harassment on the Job: Implications for Counseling." American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 52: 539-544.

Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. 1994. Sexual Harassment Guidelines, 29 C.F.R. Sec. 1604.11 (a) (1994).

Fitzgerald, L. F.; K. T. Schneider; and S. Swan. 1997. "Job Related and Psychological Effects of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace: Empirical Evidence from Two Organizations." Journal of Applied Psychology 82(3): 401-415.

Gutek, B. A., and M. P. Koss. 1993. "Changed Women and Changed Organizations: Consequences of Coping with Sexual Harassment." Journal of Vocational Behavior 42: 28-48.

Koss, M. P. 1990. "Changed Lives: The Psychological Impact of Sexual Harassment." In Ivory Power: Sexual Harassment on Campus, ed. Michele A. Paludi. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Lenhart, Sharyn A. 2004. Clinical Aspects of Sexual Harassment and Gender Discrimination: Psychological Consequences and Treatment Interventions. New York: Brunner-Routledge.

Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, 477 U.S. 57 (1986).

Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services, Inc. (96-568) 83 F.3d 118, reversed and remanded (1998).

Rospenda, K. M.; J. A. Richman; J. L. Z. Ehmke; and K. W. Zlatoper. 2005. "Is Workplace Harassment Hazardous to Your Health?" Journal of Business and Psychology 20(1): 95-110.

U. S. Merit Systems Protection Board. 1981. Sexual Harassment of Federal Workers: Is It a Problem? Washington, DC: U. S. Government Printing Office.

U. S. Merit Systems Protection Board. 1987. Sexual Harassment of Federal Workers: An Update. Washington, DC: U. S. Government Printing Office.

                                  Terry Morehead Dworkin