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What is Sexual Harassment?

People usually mean two different things when they ask, "What is sexual harassment?"

Sometimes, they mean, "What type of behavior is sexual harassment?"

Other times, they mean, "What type of behavior is illegal?"

Those two questions might sound the same, but they actually can be very different.

Generally. As a general definition, sexual harassment is harmful or offensive conduct targeted at somebody because of stereotypes about their gender or sex. Sometimes, this can look like sexually aggressive comments or physical violence. Other times, it can just be offensive comments about people based on their gender. For example, common sexual harassment includes sentences that start with, "All women . . ." or, "All men . . .," and using the wrong pronouns for people are common forms of sexual harassment as a general matter.

Whether they are illegal is a different question.

Practically. As a practical matter, it is better not to wait for harassment to become illegal before you do something about it. If you know someone who feels targeted, unsafe, or treated differently because of their sex or gender, encourage them to get help.

If you work in HR or are a supervisor, and you are aware that someone you work with feels discriminated against, encourage them to get help or enlist support for them. Addressing harassment early can be key to preventing bigger harm. Sexual harassment is like an exposed electrical wire in the workplace. Even if one person is experiencing the shock, it worth calling an electrician to see what can be fixed.

Legally. It is important to talk to a lawyer in your state if you want to know about your rights, especially if you would like to know whether you should file a lawsuit based on sexual harassment. Most people don't want to talk about sexual harassment, let alone sue someone for it, but trained lawyers can help you with your specific situation, and if you are experiencing harassment, there is nothing to be ashamed of.

This does not substitute for legal advice from a lawyer, but this is an overview of the situations when sexual harassment is illegal in the United States:

Federal law makes sexual harassment illegal in a few contexts. Generally, these contexts are that your employer and the government are not allowed to harass you. Businesses also can be responsible for sexual harassment that happen in places open to the public. Sometimes, states also have laws that make some types of sexual harassment crimes. Talk with a lawyer in your state or your local police department if you want to find out more about that.

In those contexts, sexual harassment is generally illegal if it meets one of these standards:

(1) When someone makes sexual favors or compliance with sexual harassment a condition of employment, accessing government services, or accessing a business open to the public. This is called "quid pro quo" sexual harassment and can look like rewarding someone for giving sexual favors or punishing someone for declining to give sexual favors.

(2) When the harmful or offensive conduct is unwanted and is severe or pervasive. When this is the category of harassment someone is considering, in some contexts someone attempting to enforce the law might have to prove that the employer, government entity, or business knew about the harassment

Again, it is important to get support and talk with a lawyer about your specific situation if you are interested in bringing a legal claim.


If you want to know more about what sexual harassment is, its root causes, solutions to it, how to report sexual harassment, how to be a good bystander in a harassment situation, and how to effectively respond as a supervisor, check out our Sexual Harassment Workshop by clicking here.

You can also get a free copy of our book about how to stop sexual harassment in the workplace at

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