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What is Sexual Harassment in the Workplace?

Legal content fact checked by Charles E. Joseph

Your questions about sexual harassment in the workplace, answered

Sexual HarassmentSexual harassment laws protect your rights in the workplace. But what is sexual harassment? And what is considered sexual harassment at work?

Workplace sexual harassment includes unwelcome sexual advances, verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature, or requests for sexual favors.

Employers have a responsibility to create a workplace free from sexual harassment, and employees are entitled to a working environment free from sexual harassment.

Keep reading to learn more about what constitutes sexual harassment, the definition of sexual harassment, and examples of sexual harassment.

What is Sexual Harassment?

What is considered sexual harassment at work? Sexual harassment means unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature. In addition, offensive remarks about a person’s sex are considered sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination. Federal, state, and local sexual harassment laws protect employees from sexual harassment at work. Sexual harassment can also create a hostile work environment.

What Sexual Harassment Looks Like

Not all victims of sexual harassment are women, and not all harassers are men. Both men and women can be the targets of sexual harassment or a hostile work environment, and both men and women can harass people.

It is still sexual harassment if the victim and harasser are of the same gender. Harassing someone because of transgender status also qualifies as sexual harassment.

Not all sexual harassers are bosses or supervisors. Coworkers, teachers, and vendors employed by the company can also be guilty of sexual harassment.

What is Sexual Harassment: Definition

What constitutes sexual harassment? What is the legal definition of sexual harassment? The sexual harassment definition includes harassment in three broad categories. 

  1. Unwanted sexual contact: Any unwelcome physical contact may qualify as sexual harassment. If a coworker, supervisor, or teacher touches, hugs, or brushes up against you, this can be sexual harassment.
  2. Hostile work environment: Offensive remarks about sex, sexually explicit communications, and sexual images can all create a hostile work environment.
  3. Quid pro quo: If a boss or supervisor demands sexual favors for a job offer, promotion, raise, or grade, this qualifies as quid pro quo sexual harassment.

The legal definitions of sexual harassment cover multiple behaviors, actions, and other sexual harassment examples. For example, sexual harassment at work can include physical sexual harassment, verbal sexual harassment, and visual sexual harassment.

What is Sexual Harassment? Examples of Sexual Harassment at Work

Examples of sexual harassment include:

  • Rape or sexual assault
  • Unwanted physical contact, including unnecessary touching, hugging, or back and neck messages
  • Standing unnecessarily close, hovering, or intentionally brushing up against someone
  • Sexually explicit statements, comments, or innuendos
  • Hand gestures such as tracing someone’s figure in the air
  • Unwanted personal questions about social or sexual life
  • Telling lies or spreading rumors about a person’s personal sex life
  • Suggestive whistles, catcalls, kissing sounds, or howling
  • Facial expressions such as winking, throwing kisses, or smacking or licking lips
  • “Elevator eyes,” suggestively looking a person up and down
  • Sexual remarks about a person’s body or clothing
  • Indecent exposure, including the harasser touching or rubbing themselves sexually around another person
  • Showing sexually explicit images such as pictures or graffiti
  • Sending unwanted sexual communications by phone, letter, text message, or email
  • Unwelcome invitations to date or have sex
  • Referring to an adult as a girl, hunk, doll, babe, or honey

The sexual harassment definition also includes demanding sexual favors for positive treatment, including a job offer, a promotion, a grade, or another employment decision.

What Constitutes Sexual Harassment in the Workplace?

What’s considered sexual harassment varies depending on the state laws and local protections. In New York, sexual harassment in the workplace includes creating a hostile work environment through sexualized behavior and unwelcome physical contact.

The sexual harasser does not have to be a boss in these situations; he or she can be a coworker, subordinate, or vendor.

Bosses, supervisors, or others in a position of authority are guilty of sexual harassment if they demand physical contact in exchange for a promotion, job offer, or other employment benefits. This can include pressuring an employee to go on a date or demanding sex.

What’s Sexual Harassment at School?

In schools, sexual harassment occurs when teachers, administrators, and others in positions of power abuse their authority over students, coworkers, or colleagues. This can include creating a hostile work environment, unwanted touching, or demanding sexual favors for grades or positive evaluations.

Sexual harassment laws protect students, including college students. For example, college students who are sexually harassed by faculty members or staff can file a sexual harassment lawsuit against the college or university.

In some cases, schools are covered by different laws than workplaces. A sexual harassment lawyer can help determine whether victims of sexual harassment at school have a case.

What Does Sexual Harassment Mean?

The law defines the line between what sexual harassment is and what sexual harassment is not. Sexual harassment can occur in any workplace. One national study found that 38% of women and 13% of men reported experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace.

What does sexual harassment include? It depends on the state. If you work in New York City, the NYC Human Rights Law provides some of the strongest sexual harassment protections in the country. The city’s anti-discrimination laws also protect workers from discrimination based on gender.

Under New York City’s sexual harassment laws, any unwanted sexual behavior is illegal. This includes touching, sexual jokes and images, and sexual comments and gestures.

What to do about Sexual Harassment?

If you experience sexual harassment at work, you can reach out to a sexual harassment lawyer for a free consultation. You may be entitled to back pay, compensatory damages, punitive damages, and other financial settlements.

You can also read more about sexual harassment protections: Sexual Harassment Rights, Laws, and Potential Damages

Sexual harassment lawyers can help protect your rights. If you’re in the greater New York City area, reach out to New York sexual harassment lawyer Charles Joseph for a free consultation. Charles Joseph brings over two decades of experience with sexual harassment cases, and his firm has recovered over $140 million for clients.

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Legal content fact checked by Charles E. Joseph

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