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What Is Sexual Harassment Law?

Everyone wants a pleasant workplace. Cheerful coworkers are an essential part of an enjoyable workday. When you have disagreements or disputes with a fellow employee, it ruins your day. A complaint to human resources or a discreet conversation with the other worker in their cubicle can resolve most workplace disputes.

Some kinds of disagreements are harder to handle. They involve offensive comments, physical contact, and personal remarks that people find embarrassing to discuss. Sexual harassment is a well-known but underreported factor in the workplace, education, and society. Sexual harassment law helps protect victims against harassment.

Definition of Sexual Harassment Law

The legal definition of sexual harassment is "unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or other physical or verbal attention of a sexual nature." Sexual harassment can include sexual comments or sexual conduct not directed at a specific person. For instance, general demeaning remarks about women can be discriminatory if someone indicates they don't want to hear them.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) offers guidance for sexual harassment claims against employers. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 makes sexual harassment a form of gender discrimination. The types of sexual harassment cases covered by the EEOC include:

  • Hostile work environment — A workplace so toxic and distracting that it affects your work performance is hostile. A hostile environment is not limited to sexual conduct. Any offensive, abusive behavior that continues after a request to stop can be hostile. Bullying, innuendo, and visual images can create a hostile or offensive work environment.
  • Quid pro quo — A phrase meaning "this for that," quid pro quo sexual harassment offers to promote or advance an employee in exchange for sexual favors or threatens to fire or demote an employee unless they submit to sex.
  • Retaliatory harassment — If the employer retaliates against an employee who reports harassment, the employee has a separate claim against the employer for employment discrimination.
  • Sexual assault — Any sexual or physical contact without consent is sexual assault. This is a criminal matter. The victim needs to report this to law enforcement.

The gender, sexual orientation, or sexual preference of the parties does not matter in a sexual harassment lawsuit. Women can victimize men. Men can victimize men. The Supreme Court has ruled that Title VII protections apply to LGBTQ+ and transgender individuals just as to cisgender individuals.

Sexual Harassment in Education

Unwanted sexual advances and hostile work environments are not limited to the office. Sexual harassment takes place in education at all levels, from K-12 through post-doctoral. The same types of harassment occur, and the same behaviors happen to victims by harassers.

The difference lies in the reporting agencies. Any educational facility that gets federal funding is subject to Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, commonly known as Title IX. Although best known for opening the doors for women's sports and higher education, Title IX also protects women's rights — and increasingly men's and LGBTQ+ rights — to a campus free of harassment and sexual violence.

If sexual harassment happens in the faculty, the EEOC is the reporting agency. But, if harassment occurs between students or between students and faculty, the school is responsible for initial reporting and prevention. A large body of case law has established that the school is liable for sexual harassment on campus. (Cf. J.K. v. Arizona Board of Regents (2008), Simpson v. U. of Colorado (2006), Fitzgerald v. Barnstable School Committee (2008)

Making a Sexual Harassment Claim

Proving a sexual harassment claim is difficult. Legal action involves a subject people still find embarrassing and hard to discuss. Federal law requires the worker to show they refused the harassing acts, and the acts continued. The EEOC conducts a case evaluation and investigation before any other action occurs.

A harassment victim should get legal advice before filing any documents related to the case. Some examples of sexual harassment include:

  • Verbal comments, suggestions, or unwelcome statements
  • Physical contact, such as touching, hugging, "bumping," or brushing against someone in the hallway
  • Lewd or pornographic material left where the victim sees it
  • Unwanted sexual advances, i.e., repeated requests for dates or meals
  • Other contact, including phone calls, text messages, emails, and social media likes after the victim has cut off contact

Harassment victims must report harassment to their supervisor or human resources unless it would be futile. For instance, if a supervisor is harassing a worker, and the HR director is the supervisor's spouse, reporting would be impossible.

Some Effects of Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment harms more than the victim. Despite old jokes about "sex discrimination," harassment affects everyone. A Deloitte study in 2019 estimated that the cost to the economy in absenteeism, turnover, and legal fees topped more than $2.6 billion a year. Victims of sexual harassment suffer physical and emotional distress from harassment on the job reminiscent of PTSD, including:

  • Anxiety and depression
  • Panic attacks
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Loss of concentration and motivation
  • Alcoholism and substance abuse

These issues can make reporting workplace sexual harassment more complicated and can create an employment feedback loop. An employment decision hinges on a worker's poor performance rather than harassment.

Sexual harassment in education has similar effects. According to one study, up to a third of students will not tell anyone about sexual harassment, and only 7% will report it to school authorities. Title IX requires a designated coordinator on campus to handle harassment complaints. But these coordinators are only as effective as the school allows.

The physical and emotional effects of harassment are the same for children in grade school as for college students. Students who are victims of harassment report emotional distress, difficulty concentrating, physical symptoms such as headaches and upset stomachs, panic attacks, and avoidance behaviors.

Finding a Sexual Harassment Attorney

If you've become a victim of sexual harassment, you need a sexual harassment lawyer sooner rather than later. As with employment law, you must first take steps to meet EEOC requirements before you can file a sexual harassment complaint. If you lost your job because of the harassment, you may need to bring a wrongful termination suit.

Other practice areas can help with a sexual harassment claim. Employment law, education law, and discrimination law are all areas that can help with sexual harassment. If you are a victim of sexual assault, you should contact a victim's rights advocate. You may need to file a criminal case against your attacker. If you do, protect your legal rights before acting against your abuser.

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