Sexual Harassment Laws

Sexual Harassment Laws

Workplace sexual harassment is unlawful in all states under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a federal law which prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender.  (It also prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of other protected traits, such as a person’s race, national origin, or religion.)  Under this and other sexual harassment laws, an employer is said to have discriminated when an employee is subjected to severe or pervasive harassment at work on the basis of sex.

Gender Discrimination

Sexual harassment is considered a type of discrimination because it fundamentally changes the terms and conditions of person’s employment — a change that would not have occurred had the employee been of a different gender.

But, just because sexual harassment is a type of discrimination does not mean a victim has to prove co-workers of the same gender were treated the same way.

Even if the victim was the only one subjected to harassment because of his/her gender, that is enough.

And, along the same lines, a person can be sexually harassed by a person of the same gender.

Just because the harasser and victim are of the same gender, does not mean that it was not sexual harassment.

What matters is whether the mistreatment was related to the victim’s gender.  If so, then it is prohibited by sexual harassment laws.

What It Looks Like

Sexual harassment at work can take many forms.  The ways in which a person can be victimized is limited only by a perpetrator’s imagination.

That being said, when it shows up in the workplace, sexual harassment frequently appears in one of two common forms: hostile environment and quid pro quo.

Hostile Work Environment

Hostile environment harassment is objectively offensive behavior directed at the victim that is repeatedly inflicted over time or that is severe enough to interfere with the victim’s employment.  An example of this would be a manager repeatedly making lewd or sexually-suggestive remarks to the employee for months — or engaging in nonconsensual sexual contact with her.

These incidents could be so pervasive or severe as to interfere with the employee’s work, and would therefore be considered unlawful.


Another kind of sexual harassment that often arises in the workplace is quid-pro-quo harassment.

This is when a perpetrator conditions benefits on the victim’s willingness to comply with certain demands.  These demands may be made explicit or merely implied.

Because the perpetrator altered the terms and conditions of employment in a way that is connected to the victim’s gender, this conduct is unlawful.

Preventing It

To prevent sexual harassment in the workplace, employers must first make sure that their employees understand exactly what sexual harassment may look like.

Cultural and social differences affect individuals’ perceptions of what may or may not constitute offensive or harmful conduct.

For instance, a manager may believe he is harmlessly joking around with a subordinate.  But he may actually be inflicting tremendous suffering on an employee who believes that her continued employment depends on her willingness to engage in interactions with him that cause her great discomfort.

To prevent this, employers should first — as part of their on-boarding and routinely thereafter — provide their employees interactive and engaging education on the potential impact on others of certain types of behaviors at work.

Victim Guilt and Shame

A frequently overlooked element in understanding victims’ responses to sexual harassment is the role of guilt. Sexual harassment victims commonly battle self-blame and shame before coming forward.

This may be due, at least in part, to people’s natural tendency to believe that if something bad is happening only to them, then they themselves must have done something to bring it about—or they must be defective in some way.

When victims feel alone in their experiences, they believe the problem is them.

Live and Work in Freedom From Sexual Harassment

If you are a victim, under sexual harassment laws, you are entitled to have your employer put a stop to ongoing harassment.  You are also entitled to have your employer correct work-related negative effects of harassment.

If you believe your employer is not acting to put a stop to harassment or if you believe your employer has retaliated against you because you complained of harassment, you should immediately contact a sexual harassment attorney.