Sexual harassment is bullying or coercion of a sexual nature, or the unwelcome or inappropriate promise of rewards in exchange for sexual favors. In most modern legal contexts, sexual harassment is illegal. As defined by the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), “It is unlawful to harass a person (an applicant or employee) because of that person’s sex.” Harassment can include “sexual harassment” or unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature. The legal definition of sexual harassment varies by jurisdiction. Sexual harassment is subject to a directive in the European Union.
Where laws surrounding sexual harassment exist, they generally do not prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or minor isolated incidents. In the workplace, harassment may be considered illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment decision (such as the victim being fired or demoted, or when the victim decides to quit the job). The legal and social understanding of sexual harassment, however, varies by culture.
In the context of US employment, the harasser can be the victim’s supervisor, a supervisor in another area, a co-worker, or someone who is not an employee of the employer, such as a client or customer, and harassers or victims can be of any sex or gender.
It includes a range of actions from mild transgressions to sexual abuse or sexual assault. Sexual harassment is a form of illegal employment discrimination in many countries, and is a form of abuse (sexual and psychological) and bullying. For many businesses and other organizations, preventing sexual harassment, and defending employees from sexual harassment charges, have become key goals of legal decision-making.
The concept of sexual harassment, in its modern understanding, is a relatively new one, dating from the 1970s onwards; although other related concepts have existed prior to this in many cultures. The term sexual harassment was used in 1973 in “Saturn’s Rings”, a report authored by Mary Rowe to the then President and Chancellor of MIT about various forms of gender issues. Rowe has stated that she believes she was not the first to use the term, since sexual harassment was being discussed in women’s groups in Massachusetts in the early 1970s, but that MIT may have been the first or one of the first large organizations to discuss the topic (in the MIT Academic Council), and to develop relevant policies and procedures. MIT at the time also recognized the injuries caused by racial harassment and the harassment of women of color, which may be both racial and sexual. The President of MIT also stated that harassment (and favoritism) are antithetical to the mission of a university as well as intolerable for individuals.
In the book In Our Time: Memoir of a Revolution (1999), journalist Susan Brownmiller quotes the Cornell activists who in 1975 thought they had coined the term sexual harassment: “Eight of us were sitting in an office … brainstorming about what we were going to write on posters for our speak-out. We were referring to it as ‘sexual intimidation,’ ‘sexual coercion,’ ‘sexual exploitation on the job.’ None of those names seemed quite right. We wanted something that embraced a whole range of subtle and un-subtle persistent behaviors. Somebody came up with ‘harassment.’ ‘Sexual harassment!’ Instantly we agreed. That’s what it was.”
These activists, Lin Farley, Susan Meyer, and Karen Sauvigne went on to form Working Women’s Institute which, along with the Alliance Against Sexual Coercion, founded in 1976 by Freada Klein, Lynn Wehrli, and Elizabeth Cohn-Stuntz, were among the pioneer organizations to bring sexual harassment to public attention in the late 1970s.
Still the term was largely unknown until the early 1990s when Anita Hill witnessed and testified against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. Since Hill testified in 1991, the number of sexual harassment cases reported in US and Canada increased 58 percent and have climbed steadily.