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Sexual Harassment Fact Sheet

While sexual harassment has been a pervasive problem for women throughout history, only in the past three decades have feminist litigators won definition of sexual harassment as a form of sex discrimination and have women come forward in droves to demand remedies and institutional change. In the United States, sexual harassment in employment, housing (harassment by a landlord or building manager), or academia is illegal.

What to Do if You or Someone You Know is Sexually Harassed

Women around the world are beginning to tell their stories and expose the pervasiveness of sexual harassment in their societies. A 1992 International Labor Organization survey of 23 countries revealed what women already know: that sexual harassment is a major problem for women all over the world. Sexual harassment affects women's mental and physical health as well as their social and economic status. The level of tolerance for sexual harassment varies from culture to culture. For information on the incidence of and remedies for sexual harassment in a variety of countries, see Shockwaves: The Global Impact of Sexual Harassment by Susan Webb (MasterMedia Limited, New York, 1994)

What Is Sexual Harassment

Any of the following unwanted behavior may constitute sexual harassment:

  • leering
  • wolf whistles
  • discussion of one's partner's sexual inadequacies
  • sexual innuendo
  • comments about women's bodies
  • 'accidentally' brushing sexual parts of the body
  • lewd & threatening letters
  • tales of sexual exploitation
  • graphic descriptions of pornography
  • pressure for dates
  • sexually explicit gestures
  • unwelcome touching and hugging
  • sexual sneak attacks, (e.g., grabbing breasts or buttocks )
  • sabotaging women's work
  • sexist and insulting graffiti
  • demanding, "Hey, baby, give me a smile"
  • inappropriate invitations (e.g., hot tub)
  • sexist jokes and cartoons
  • hostile put-downs of women
  • exaggerated, mocking 'courtesy'
  • public humiliation
  • obscene phone calls
  • displaying pornography in the workplace
  • insisting that workers wear revealing clothes
  • inappropriate gifts (ex. lingerie)
  • hooting, sucking, lip-smacking, & animal noises
  • pressing or rubbing up against the victim
  • sexual assault
  • soliciting sexual services
  • stalking
  • leaning over , invading a person's space
  • indecent exposure

    Compiled by Martha Langelan in Back Off! How To Confront And Stop Sexual Harassment and Harassers

Sexual Harassment and Workplace Issues

Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination when it would not have occurred but for the person's gender. It is covered under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act . Some of the most recognized forms of sexual harassment are:
  • Direct sexual advances or propositions, including higher-ranked employees asking for sexual favors.
  • Intimidating or excluding women employees to jeopardize their employment status.
  • Creating a hostile workplace for women by using sexist jokes, remarks, or pinning up sexually explicit or pornographic photos.
Sexual harassment is not mutual and is unwelcome. It is rude, demeaning behavior and is usually about the abuse of power. In fact, sexual harassment psychologically hurts the women involved and the work atmosphere. According to the National Council for Research on Women, women are 9 times more likely than men to quit their jobs, 5 times more likely to transfer, and 3 times more likely to lose jobs because of harassment (The Webb Report, June 1994). There may be serious economic consequences as a result of sexual harassment. A woman's job status may be jeopardized and and she may lose wages if she is fired or takes extended leave to avoid the harasser.

The 1994 Merit Systems Protection Board Study of sexual harassment noted that women in in traditionally male-dominated occupations such as construction, policing, the military are more likely to be harassed. Additionally, other studies have found that harassment is more commonly found in female-dominated workplaces where majority of women earn low wages and the management is predominantly male ( see Frank E. Saal, "Men's Perceptions of Women's Interpersonal Behaviors and Sexual Harassment" in Sexual Harassment in the Workplace: Perspectives, Frontiers and Response Strategies. Sage Publications: Thousand Oaks, CA, 1996.)

A victim of sexual harassment may file legal claim even if s/he has tolerated the behavior for fear of retaliation or losing their job.

The law remains unclear whether a woman "who is not herself the object of sexual harassment might still have a hostile environment claim." (Women and Sexual Harassment: A Practical Guide to the Legal Protections of Title VII and the Hostile Environment Claim by Anja Angelica Chan, JD, [Harrington Park Press: New York, 1994]).

Offensive and demeaning behavior does not have to be tangibly detrimental (ex. wage loss, passed promotion) to the job to be considered sexual harassment.

Preventing Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Employer Liability

Employers are responsible for the conduct of supervisors and managers. Employers also have a responsibility to protect their employees from harassment by non-employees (e.g., customers, vendors, suppliers, etc). Managers are liable for sexual harassment between co-workers if they knew or should have known about it and took no steps to stop it. The existence of a company grievance procedure alone does not automatically insulate employers from liability. Employers should also take responsibility to take action against sexual harassment once they are aware it is occurring.

An effective sexual harassment policy stresses the illegality of sexual harassment and delineates a clear and appropriate complaint process while ensuring the confidentiality for the victim . Additionally, such a policy encourages witnesses or victims to report the behavior immediately and mentions that retaliation against persons reporting harassment is illegal and will not be tolerated.

Once finalized, an organization's sexual harassment policy should be distributed to all employees and a copy posted in an accessible and prominent location. Employers should also consider scheduling seminars or workshops on sexual harassment to promote company-wide knowledge of the policy.

Many states have drafted state prevention model policies for employer use. Other employer resources concerning may be obtained from federal employment discrimination enforcement agencies such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and state fair employment agencies, or national organizations combatting sexual harassment, such as Legal Momentum, which offers an "Employer Legal Resource Kit".

Benefits of Sexual Harassment Policies

Ignoring problems of sexual harassment can cost the average company up to $6.7 million a year in low productivity, low morale, and employee turnover and absenteeism, not including litigation or other legal costs. Following clear and proactive formal policies against sexual harassment in the workplace is one way to prevent lawsuits and drops in productivity and efficiency. ("Sexual Harassment in the Fortune 500", Working Woman, Dec. 19, 1988).

Stopping Sexual Harassment

If possible, and if the harassment is not too severe or violent, directly confronting the harasser may be useful. Also, although having protested is not necessary for a claim, it would strongly strengthen a claim.

In Back Off! How To Confront and Stop Sexual Harassment and Harassers, Martha Langelan recommends taking these steps:.

  • Do the unexpected: Name the behavior. Whatever he's just done, say it, and be specific.
  • Hold the harasser accountable for his actions. Don't make excuses for him; don't pretend it didn't really happen. Take charge of the encounter and let people know what he did. Privacy protects harassers, but visibility undermines them.
  • Make honest, direct statements. Speak the truth (no threats, no insults, no obscenities, no appeasing verbal fluff and padding). Be serious, straightforward, and blunt.
  • Demand that the harassment stop.
  • Make it clear that all women have the right to be free from sexual harassment. Objecting to harassment is a matter of principle.
  • Stick to your own agenda. Don't respond to the harasser's excuses or diversionary tactics.
  • His behavior is the issue. Say what you have to say, and repeat it if he persists.
  • Reinforce your statements with strong, self-respecting body language: eye contact, head up, shoulders back, a strong, serious stance. Don't smile. Timid, submissive body language will undermine your message.
  • Respond at the appropriate level. Use a combined verbal and physical response to physical harassment.
End the interaction on your own terms, with a strong closing statement: "You heard me. Stop harassing women."

You may also file an internal complaint through the appropriate avenues offered by the organization's policy on sexual harassment if it has one.

If the victim is a union member, reporting the harassment to the union steward may garner support and secure a potential ally. According to the National Labor Relations Act, unions must represent and aid their members in stopping sexual harassment, a form of discrimination. There are strict limits on filing grievances. They must be filed with 6 months of the date of the incident you are complaining about. If the union is uncooperative, the victim may file a complaint (also within those 6 months) with the NLRB (National Labor Relations Board).

Documenting Harassment

Documenting the harassment is important for use as evidence in a case or complaint.

You should:

  • Photograph or keep copies of any offensive material at the workplace.
  • Keep a journal with detailed information on instances of sexual harassment. Note the dates, conversation, frequency of offensive encounters, etc.
  • Tell other people, including personal friends and co-workers if possible.
  • Obtain copies of your work records (including performance evaluations) and keep these copies at home

Legal Remedies

If you decide to file a complaint with an outside agency, it is advisable to consult an attorney, although you are not required to retain counsel in order to file. Attorney referrals can be obtained by contacting local (e.g women's centers, rape crisis centers) or national women's organizations, your union (if member), specialized employee interest groups, law schools, legal aid community services, state Fair Employment Practice (FEP) agencies, or state Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) offices. In addition, your friends and professional contacts may know suitable attorneys.

Interview all attorneys who may potentially represent you. At the very least, any attorney you choose must specialize or have experience in employment discrimination law. Ask the attorney if she/he has prior experience dealing with sexual harassment cases, and what the outcomes of those cases were. Pay attention to the attorney's demeanor and to your "gut" feeling about this person. Once you retain an attorney, pay attention to how she/he treats your case. Are your phone calls returned within a reasonable time frame? Does your attorney take your concerns into consideration as she/he develops your case? Like anyone else you may hire, you have the option of firing an attorney who does not adequately represent you.

For more information on dealing with attorneys see: "Lawyerland: The World of Attorneys" in The Frugal Shopper by Ralph Nader and Wesley J. Smith. (Washington, DC: Center for Responsive Law, 1992); "Legal" in Why Women Pay More: How to Avoid Marketplace Perils by Frances Cerra Whittelsey. (Center for Study of Responsive Law, Washington, DC, 1993) and "Lawyers and Legal Research" in Sexual Harassment on the Job by William Petrocelli and Barbara Kate Repa. (Nolo Press: Berkeley, CA, 1995).

Overview of Legal Options:

Remedies Under Civil Law
  • Filing your claim with the EEOC (under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act).

    You must file a claim with the EEOC within 180 days of the last incident of harassment to begin the process for obtaining relief under Title VII. An EEOC claim can be filed in a manner to protect the victim's identity. Title VII covers all public and private employers in the United States, as well as U.S Citizens working for a U.S. company based in a foreign country. Complaints can be filed through EEOC district offices are located across the United States. The Civil Rights Act covers only companies with 15 or more employees. State fair employment agencies (FEP) laws may be more generous and extend to smaller companies.

    The EEOC conducts its own investigation of the company or organization. Through the investigation, the EEOC determines whether or not harassment occurred, whether harassment is provable in court, and whether other employees have suffered from sexual harassment as well. Upon finishing the investigation, the EEOC makes a determination. If the EEOC finds in the favor of the victim (agrees you were harassed), it can pursue (settle) the case for you (happens in less than 1% of cases filed) or issue you a 'right-to-sue' letter so you and your lawyer can file a lawsuit independently. If the investigation finds you were not harassed, you can appeal the EEOC's finding.

    The EEOC investigation can be lengthy and take over a year. If you wish, you and your attorney can skip the EEOC investigation, but you must at least file a claim with the agency before you can obtain the right to sue letter that allows you to enter court.

    Few sexual harassment cases get to federal court, and those that do can take years. Victims who win sexual harassment cases in federal court can receive the following remedies : attorneys fees; reinstatement of promotion; compensatory and punitive damages; pay for lost wages and benefits; injunctive relief (changes in workplace policy and practice to prevent future harassment). The amount of damages awarded depends on the size of the company.

  • Filing your claim under state Fair Employment Practice (FEP ) statutes: States statutes are modeled after Title VII. Most states have a Fair Employment Practice agency located in the state capital that is responsible for enforcing state statutes banning sex discrimination. Most states also have an investigative process which varies. Be aware that some states have weak FEP laws that provide for little or no remedy at all. Time limits for filing claims with FEP agencies range from 6 months to one year. Most FEP agencies do not protect the victim's identity.
  • Filing a common law tort suit: This allows victims to receive money for compensatory damages (personal injury, lost wages, or health care expenses), or money from punitive damages (money awarded to victim in order to punish company). Assault and battery or wrongful discharge cases can also file this suit. Confidentiality is not guaranteed, nor is the woman protected from company retaliation. The EEOC and state fair employment practice agencies will first attempt to settle your case out of court.
  • Dual filing: Filing your case with more than one agency (both EEOC and state or local agency) is also an option. They sometimes work together or share information on cases. But the EEOC has a huge backlog and will often refer cases to local agencies or local FEP automatically.
  • Criminal Remedies: If the harassment crosses over into the criminal realm (e.g., sexual assault and rape), you should report the incident(s) to the police.

Sexual Harassment in Schools, Colleges and Universities

What Constitutes Sexual Harassment in an Educational Setting?

Sexual harassment in schools is illegal under Title IX of the 1972 Education Act. This law applies to schools, colleges and universities that receive any amount of federal funding. Title IX allows the U.S. Department of Education to investigate complaints, order remedies, and withhold funding from educational institutions in violation of Title IX. Enforcement of Title IX is administered by the Department's of Education's Office of Civil Rights.

In 1992, Christine Franklin, a high school student from a Georgia school district, became the first to win a Supreme Court case for sexual harassment under Title IX. She claimed to have been sexually harassed by her male science teacher for two years. The harassment culminated in rape on three occasions.

Equity in education is compromised and jeopardized by the existence of sexual harassment in educational institutions. In the 1993 American Association of University Women (AAUW) study "Hostile Hallways", 85% of all girls and 76% of boys reported having been sexually harassed at school. But, says Anne Bryant, former director of AAUW, "The impact on girls is far more devastating". Many more girls than boys said that, as a result of the harassment, they were afraid in school or less confident about themselves.

Most of the harassment in junior high and high schools happens in hallways. Classrooms are the second most frequent location where harassment occurs. The most common complaints were inappropriate jokes, looks, or gestures. Sexually suggestive touching, grabbing, or pinching was the second most common complaint.

Most of the harassers are students, although 18% of all students in the survey said they had been sexually harassed by a school employee.

Many ask how one can tell whether the questionable behavior is normal flirting, the effect of raging hormones, or when it is sexual harassment. Nan Stein, of the Wellesley Center for Research on Women and an expert on the sexual harassment of young women, suggests considering the following checklist:

  • Sexual Harassment Flirting
    feels bad feels good
    one-sided reciprocal
    feels unattractive feels attractive
    is degrading is a compliment
    feels powerless in control
    power-based equality
    negative touching positive touching
    unwanted wanted
    illegal legal
    invading open
    demeaning flattering
    sad/angry happy
    negative self-esteem positive self-esteem

    Originally appeared in USA Today

    What To Do if You are Harassed in a Federally-Funded Educational Institution

    Incidents of sexual harassment in elementary, middle or high school should first be reported to the Principal, if possible. They may also be reported to the Vice-principal, school counselor, a member of the school board, or the district Superintendent of Schools. College and university students and staff should consult their student and staff handbooks for information on how to file grievances. Schools, colleges and universities that have not already done so should develop grievance policies and procedures regarding sexual harassment and distribute this information to students, teachers and administrators. Persons experiencing harassment should first follow grievance procedures established by the school, college or university. If this action is ineffective, the victim should report sexual harassment to the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights at (202) 260-7250 (phone) (202) 260-7250 (fax). If any criminal behavior has occurred (e.g. sexual assault, rape), you should report this to the police as soon as possible.


    The information and materials on this site have been provided for general informational purposes only, are not comprehensive, not complete and are not legal advice. The information contained in the site is general information about sexual harassment and should not be construed as legal advice to be applied to any specific factual situation. None of the information is intended to constitute, nor does it constitute, legal advice. For information about your legal rights you should consult an attorney.