Sexual Harassment that Takes Place in the Workplace

It goes almost without saying that some forms of harassment are going to be more common than others. Whether this is because of the circumstances that allow them to happen, the motivations of the perpetrators, or the ease in which those forms are possible is up for some debate. In some cases, it's a combination of reasons that is paired with the focus that experts and officials have on that format. When it comes to sexual harassment, this is only a fraction of the reasoning as to why it exists in the first place.

This article will take an in-depth look at sexual harassment in the workplace and what is involved when it happens. As with previous lessons, additional topics will include its prevalence, identifying markers, contributing factors, and what can be done to prevent instances from happening. It should be noted that parts of this topic may be difficult for some and may even be triggering.

  By Definition

Sexual harassment involves any kind of harassment or unwelcomed conduct or behavior that is sexual in nature.1 It's a straightforward definition, if a bit broad in what it covers. Unfortunately that broadness is kind of necessary as there is quite a bit that can be constituted as sexual harassment and it can come in many forms. There are no restrictions as to who the perpetrators can be, or who the victims can be. Gender, race, orientation, ethnicity, religion, etc.-there isn't any one demographic that is immune to sexual harassment, although there are some that experience it significantly more than others.

As with other forms of harassment, sexual harassment is illegal under a series of laws set forth and managed by the EEOC. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, part of the laws related to workplace harassment, explicitly includes sexual harassment and discrimination amongst those that are prohibited in the workplace.2 On the federal level, Title VII establishes the general requirements for sexual harassment claims in any environment. Individual states will have additional laws that build upon the basics laid out in Title VII and, in most cases, will include more protections and requirements for cases. The full extent of the details in the state-level laws will, of course, vary from state to state. Consider doing additional research on your own to learn what sexual harassment laws are on the books in your state.

Under law, sexual harassment is divided into two forms-which also are forms of harassment on their own,. They are: quid pro quo, and hostile environment.3 In the context of sexual harassment, quid pro quo involves trading sexual favors for professional rewards (e.g. promotions, raises, etc.) and hostile environment involves unwelcomed sexually explicit behavior and conduct that makes the work environment uncomfortable for victims. Sexual harassment conduct in either form can be physical, verbal, and/or visual (e.g. written statements, imagery, etc.).

  What Does It Look Like?

The official EEOC guidelines identify sexual harassment as any kind of unwelcome sexual conduct like asking for sexual favors, sexual advances, statements or physical contact that is sexual in nature.4 This can cover anything from sexual looks-staring at a women's breasts while she talks, for example-to sexual assault/rape. Any kind of unwanted, offensive, or objectionable behavior or conduct that can be interpreted or categorized as something sexual is considered sexual harassment.

When sexual harassment happens in the workplace, the atmosphere of the work environment can determine how it manifests. The attitudes towards sexual harassment and things like sexism and other forms of discrimination can play a role in whether the harassment is going to be subtle and infrequent at one end of the spectrum, to explicit and constant on the other end. A business that may have a strong zero-tolerance policy towards sexual harassment can still have sexual harassment occurring amongst staff members. It may seem relatively minor-things like jokes or starring-or even things that may be interpreted as innocent-asking personal questions about dating, commenting on someone's clothing, or hugging co-workers. On the reverse, a business where there are no policies towards sexual harassment that might be rife with sexism could have things like groping, cat calling, and explicit comments (e.g. innuendos).

Interested in learning more? Why not take an online Preventing Workplace Harassment course?

There really is quite a bit that can be constituted as sexual harassment. Some examples include5:

  •          Asking or pressuring someone to go out on a date. Especially when the person has repeatedly turned the asker down and/or has made it clear that they are uninterested.
  •          Rumors of a sexual nature about someone. In some cases, it may be in response to the victim refusing the person's previous advances.
  •          Discussions involving sexual topics. This can include talking about sex, making offensive or sexually-charged comments, telling stories that are sexual explicit, etc.
  •          Requests or demands for sexual favors and actions. This can be part of a quid pro quo situation or simply because the harasser expects the victim to willingly have sex with them when asked.
  •          Touching of any kind. This can be touching of someone without their permission, no matter how non-sexual it seems (e.g. touching someone's arm or back). It can also be explicit, like touching someone's chest or buttocks. In some cases, the harasser may touch themselves in a sexually explicit manner in the presence of their victim.
  •          Overstepping the boundaries of personal space. This can include hanging around a person for no clear reason, following them, standing too close to them, or even brushing up against them "accidentally" when near them.
  •          Sexual and/or physical assault. Rape is by far one of the most extreme examples of sexual harassment and many people do not think that it is something that can happen in the confines of the workplace. Unfortunately, that's not at all true. In addition to rape, physical assault tied to sexual conduct or behavior can also happen. This may be a severe reaction to a victim's refusal of their harasser's sexual advances, and can occur in addition to rape or on its own.

    Cases of sexual harassment are not always going to involve a single kind of action, but often a combination of several. Sexual harassment can also escalate over time, especially if it's left unchecked and no efforts are made to curb it. That doesn't necessarily mean that it will always start off as something innocent or subtle and then increase in severity, as it can also involve an escalation of frequency in actions. While it may not progress to a point of explicit violence-or even begin as anything remotely violent-it is still incredibly serious and incredibly harmful.

      What Causes It To Happen?

    There are dozens of theories as to why sexual harassment happens, not just in the workplace, but throughout society. They range from the plausible to the ridiculous and everything in between. Some theories are deeply rooted in sexism-which in and of itself is a proposed cause-and even propose that sexual harassment isn't even a real thing.6 The mentality that has created some of those same theories has made it harder for victims to be believed or taken seriously, making it easier for harassers to go unchecked.7 Sexual harassment also frequently goes unreported-and therefore unchecked-for the many of the same reasons in addition to pressuring victims to stay quiet or ignore it.8 This is viewed as a part of rape culture:

  •          Rape culture is term used to describe the normalization of sexual violence in society.9 It's often used to explain why there is a trend of victim blaming when it comes to sexual harassment and assault, particularly when women are the victims and the attackers are male. As a concept, it suggests that any kind of sexual violence or harassment is to be expected and even condoned as an ingrained part of society.

    There are also theories about sexual harassment that state that sex has nothing to do with why it occurs-its cause(s) are tied to the dynamics and abuses surrounding power.10 Since a lot of the other forms of harassment involve the harasser exerting their power over the victim, such theories seem to have some substance to them. Many publically known sexual harassment cases have involved a harasser who has power over their victim within the hierarchy of their environment. One of the most publicized and well-known examples today is Anita Hill.11 Hill had been sexually harassed by Clarence Thomas while she worked for him, ironically, at the EEOC in the 1980s. When Thomas was selected as to be the new Supreme Court Justice in 1991, Hill submitted a statement to the Senate committee on his nomination with a detailed harassment allegation against Thomas.12 It was eventually leaked to the public, and Hill testified in front of the committee on live television. Although Thomas was later confirmed, Hill's highly public testimony turned the spotlight on sexual harassment in the workplace and the efforts to prevent and address it. Hill's case is still one of the most discussed sexual harassment instances and a prime example of power dynamics between harassers and victims.


    Of all types and forms that workplace harassment can take, sexual harassment is by far the most well-documented and well-researched of them all. It has almost become the default topic with experts when discussing harassment and there is quite a bit of statistical information available compared to some of the other forms. Sexual harassment in the workplace has become so common that a survey reported that 1 in 3 women have been sexually harassed while at work.13 When asked, the vast majority of those who did experience sexual harassment did not report it (71%) compared to those who did (29%).

    That survey only sampled a little over 2,000 women ages 18-34, which is a rather narrow sample size compared to the full range of demographics active in the workforce. However, the data does seem to match up with what others have found. According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), a large majority (54%) of victims both male and female of any kind of sexual violence fall into that age range.14 54% was also the amount of people who reported experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace in the 2008 survey conducted by the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE).15 AWARE's survey also found that 79% of the reported victims were female and 21% were male. Two-thirds of those surveyed also did not know of any policies in their workplace regarding sexual harassment, although about half knew they could approach designated personnel about instances.

    In terms of formal reporting made to the EEOC regarding sexual harassment allegations, there were around 6,700 charges in 2016.16 In that same year, 16.6% of charges filed were from male claimants. While the EEOC's records show that the numbers have gone down in recent years (7,944 in 2010 to 6,822 in 2015), that is only the reported charges and does not include any that the EEOC was not formally notified of. Since the majority of victims do not report, the number could be much higher in actuality.

      Is It Preventable?

    In the perfect world, sexual harassment wouldn't exist because the very idea of behaving or acting in a sexually explicit manner in the workplace would be horrible and no one would even consider doing anything like it. Unfortunately, this isn't a perfect world, and there are people who view sexual harassment as more than acceptable course of action regardless of the circumstances. At this point in time, efforts to prevent sexual harassment are not going to be 100% successful. That does not mean that any prevention measures that you take against sexual harassment will be entirely fruitless, but rather they will more likely curb and reduce instances more so than completely wipe them out.

    As to the specific actions that you can take to help prevent instances and reduce the occurrence of sexual harassment in your workplace, here's what you can try:

  •          Establish Zero-Tolerance-The attitude of the leaders and administrators in the workplace need to be that sexual harassment of any kind will not be tolerated. For it to be effective, it needs to be acted upon rather than simply remain as an idea that "this isn't acceptable behavior or conduct." It needs to be enforced.
  •          Education-This can include training on how to recognize sexual harassment, information about what is and isn't acceptable, employee rights, and anything else pertinent to preventing sexual harassment. Any educational material used should be kept as up-to-date as possible.
  •          Speak Up, Take Action-If you see an instance of sexual harassment, if one occurs in the workplace, don't let it slide. Report it through the appropriate channels. Reinforce the policies. Tell the person doing the behavior that that is not okay. If you're confronting a harasser, be careful; in escalated instances, especially those that have turned violent, call for help and be mindful of your safety and the safety of others.