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Sexual Harassment

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Studies have shown that anywhere from 30 to 70 percent of women have experienced some form of sexual harassment at some point in their lives

Sexual harassment is where an employer subjects an employee in his/her work environment to unwelcome verbal or physical sexual behavior, or other abusive behavior directed disproportionately against women, that is either severe or pervasive.

Sexual Harassment is a form of unlawful sex discrimination . Such behavior is illegal if it creates an environment that is hostile or intimidating, if it interferes with a person's work or school performance, or if acceptance of the harasser's behavior is made a condition of employment or academic achievement.

The Congress of the United States first prohibited discrimination based on an individual's sex when it passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. However, it was not until the mid-1970s that U.S. courts began to interpret sexual harassment as a form of illegal sex discrimination. Since that time complaints of sexual harassment have become much more common. In several high-profile cases, prominent public officials have been accused of sexual harassment. These cases have increased public awareness of the issue and sparked debate concerning what types of behavior should be considered inappropriate or unlawful.

One study found 96 percent of sexual harassment victims suffer from emotional distress, and 35 percent experience physical, stress-related problems. Typical symptoms include anger, fear, anxiety, lowered self-esteem, depression, guilt, humiliation, embarrassment, nausea, fatigue, headaches, and weight gain or loss.

Examples of Sexual Harassment Include:

  • Sexually oriented gestures
  • Sexually oriented jokes
  • Sexually oriented remarks that are unwelcome
  • Repeated and unwanted sexual advances
  • Touching or other unwelcome bodily contact
  • Physical intimidation

Sexual harassment can occur when one person has power over another and uses it to coerce the person to accept unwanted sexual attention. If a supervisor forces an employee to have sex by threatening to fire the employee, that is sexual harassment. Both men and women can be harassers or victims of sexual harassment. However, research indicates that women are more likely to be victims.

There are two different types of sexual harassment claims:

Quid Pro Quo: Sexual harassment that occurs when a supervisor or one in an authority position requests sex, or a sexual relationship, in exchange for not firing or otherwise punishing the employee, or in exchange for favors, such as promotions or raises.

Hostile Work Environment: Sexual harassment that occurs through the presence of demeaning or sexual photographs, jokes or threats. The inappropriate behavior or conduct must be so pervasive as to, as the name implies, create an intimidating and offensive work environment.

Each state is different with regard to protections against sexual harassment. For example, Alabama allows for an employee to sue an employer for sexual harassment based on a theory of invasion of privacy. Vermont law, in comparison, requires every employer to adopt a policy against sexual harassment. Other states have no specific law prohibiting or punishing sexual harassment.

Employers Rights

The U.S. Supreme Court has held that employers may defend themselves in hostile work environment cases brought against them for actions of a supervisor or managerial-level employee by arguing that they took reasonable steps to prevent sexual harassment and made efforts to correct harassing behavior. Employers may also argue that they are not liable if an employee did not take advantage of available reporting or remedial measures to complain about incidents of sexual harassment.

Factors a court will consider in hostile work environment cases include:

  • Frequency of the alleged inappropriate behavior.
  • Severity of the behavior.
  • Conduct of the victim.
  • Context of the alleged harassment.
  • Size of the employer's business.
  • Nature of the employer's business.
  • In a hostile work environment claim, whether a reasonable person in the position of the plaintiff would have thought the environment to be hostile.


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