Sexual Harassment

AuthorJeffrey Wilson

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Unheard of until the 1970s, sexual harassment has become a dominant concern of employers, schools, and other organizations throughout the country. It is one of the most litigated areas of sexual discrimination law, and virtually all major companies, government organizations, colleges and universities and even the military now have sexual harassment policies in place. Even the president of the United States has been subject to a sexual harassment lawsuit.

The definition of sexual harassment has always been controversial. Black's Law Dictionary defines it as ""A type of employment discrimination consisting in verbal or physical abuse of a sexual nature," and it has also been held to exist in educational situations. But beyond this, there is the question of what kind of behavior translates into sexual harassment and what the relationship of the parties must be for sexual harassment to occur.

These issues have been fought over at the federal level for many years. Although sexual harassment law is still not clearly defined, there has emerged over the years a consensus of the basic outlines of what sexual harassment is and what needs to be done by companies and other groups to prevent it.

Types of Sexual Harassment

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines sexual harassment this way: "Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment when (1) submission to such conduct is made either explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of an individuals employment; (2) submission to or rejection of such conduct by an individual is used as the basis for employment decisions affecting such individual or (3) such conduct has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual's work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment."

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Generally speaking, the EEOC guidelines divide sexual harassment into two different types:

Quid Pro Quo sexual harassment is the easiest kind of sexual harassment to understand. Quid pro quo is a Latin term that translates as "something for something," and quid pro quo sexual harassment is simply an employer or other person in a position of power demanding sexual favors in return for advancement or as the basis for some other employer decision. To establish a case of quid pro quo sexual harassment, individual employees must show that they were subjected to conduct of a sexual nature that was unwelcome, unsolicited, and not incited or instigated by the employee; that the conduct was based on their sex; and that the employees' reaction to the conduct was used as the basis for an employment decision involving compensation, privileges, or conditions of employment. An example of quid pro quo sexual harassment would be a boss demanding his employee to have sex with him in return for a promotion. Quid pro quo sexual harassment is the easiest kind of sexual harassment to prove, but it is also uncommon compared to the other type of sexual harassment.

Hostile-environment sexual harassment is created in situations in which an employee is subject to unwelcome verbal or physical sexual behavior that is either extreme or widespread. There is no threat to employment in this kind of harassment, but the harassment causes the employee subject to it enough psychological strain as to alter the terms, conditions and privileges of employment. Hostile environment harassment includes such circumstances as hearing sexual jokes, seeing pornographic pictures, and receiving repeated invitations to go on dates. This type of sexual harassment litigation currently is most seen by courts and is the kind most difficult to prove. Most recent Supreme Court and appeals court cases regarding sexual harassment have been hostile-environment cases.


Sexual harassment law has had a history in the United States only since the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and even then, the first sexual harassment cases were not brought under the Act until the 1970s. Since then, the trend has been for courts to broaden their interpretation of what constitutes sexual harassment under the law, with some exceptions.

Title VII and EEOC Guidelines

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 marked the first time sexual discrimination was banned in employment. Title VII prohibits discrimination by employers, employment agencies, and labor organizations with 15 or more full-time employees on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. It applies to pre-interview advertising, interviewing, hiring, discharge, compensation, promotion, classification, training, apprenticeships, referrals for employment, union membership, terms, working conditions, working atmosphere, seniority, reassignment, and all other "privileges of employ ment."

In the years immediately following the passage of Title VII, sexual harassment claims were rarely brought under the statute, and when they were, courts...

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