Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) About Sexual Harassment

Does sexual harassment have to involve sex?
No. Harassment does not have to involve any physical contact at all — words alone may be enough. Conduct that is sexual in nature but does not include any sexual contact is still sexual harassment. Behavior that is “sexual in nature” includes most situations people think of when they think of sexual harassment: sexual advances, repeated requests for dates, lewd remarks, pornographic pictures, or sexual jokes.

Of course, harassment can also include physical contact--and conduct that includes unwanted sexual touching, sexual assault or rape is not only illegal sexual harassment but is also a crime.

What does sexual harassment look like?
Sexual harassment can occur in a variety of circumstances. The harasser can identify with any gender and have any relationship to the victim, including being a direct manager, indirect supervisor, coworker, teacher, peer, or colleague.

Some forms of sexual harassment include:

  • Making conditions of employment or advancement dependent on sexual favors, either explicitly or implicitly
  • Physical acts of sexual assault
  • Requests for sexual favors
  • Verbal harassment of a sexual nature, including jokes referring to sexual acts or sexual orientation
  • Unwanted touching or physical contact
  • Unwelcome sexual advances
  • Discussing sexual relations/stories/fantasies at work, school, or in other inappropriate places
  • Feeling pressured to engage with someone sexually
  • Exposing oneself or performing sexual acts on oneself
  • Unwanted sexually explicit photos, emails, or text messages

What is the difference between sexual harassment and sexual assault? What about sexual misconduct?
Sexual harassment is a broad term, including many types of unwelcome verbal and physical sexual attention. Sexual assault refers to sexual contact or behavior, often physical, that occurs without the consent of the victim. Sexual harassment generally violates civil laws—you have a right to work or learn without being harassed—but in many cases is not a criminal act, while sexual assault usually refers to acts that are criminal. Some forms of sexual assault include:

  • Penetration of the victim’s body, also known as rape
  • Attempted rape
  • Forcing a victim to perform sexual acts, such as oral sex or penetration of the perpetrator’s body
  • Fondling or unwanted sexual touching

Sexual misconduct is a non-legal term used informally to describe a broad range of behaviors, which may or may not involve harassment. For example, some companies prohibit sexual relationships between coworkers, or between an employee and their boss, even if the relationship is consensual.

Where can sexual harassment occur?
Sexual harassment can occur in the workplace or learning environment, like a school or university. It can happen in many different scenarios, including after-hours conversations, exchanges in the hallways, and non-office settings of employees or peers.

What if the harassment is not sexual in nature, but is still directed at me because I am a woman?
Non-sexual conduct is still unlawful if it is severe and pervasive and singles you out because of your gender. For example, if your supervisor says he doesn’t think a woman should have your job and deliberately insults or ridicules you or gives you impossible tasks because you are a woman, that is harassment. It is also harassment when your employer insults you because you are not conforming to the employer’s stereotypes about how it is appropriate for women to behave.

Is it possible to be sexually harassed by someone who is the same sex as I am?
Yes. Males can sexually harass males, and females can sexually harass females. The key question the law asks is whether the conduct itself would have occurred if the victim had been of a different sex.

If I am being harassed because I am a lesbian or because I am transgender, is that illegal?
Yes, according to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which enforces Title VII. Some courts have held this as well; this is still an evolving area of federal law. In Vermont, state law explicitly prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, including workplace harassment on these bases.

What is a hostile work environment?
A hostile work environment is created when an employee feels uncomfortable or scared to be in their work space due to repeated offensive behavior, communication or actions by a coworker, supervisor or third party. The unwelcome conduct must discriminate against a protected class, most commonly: sex/gender, race, religion, age, disability, national origin, veteran status, or domestic violence victim status. In Vermont, sexual orientation is also a protected class.

What is Third-Party Sexual Harassment?
Third-party sexual harassment is done not by employees but rather by individuals outside of your organization. The sexual harassment may involve unwelcomed requests for sexual favors and verbal or physical harassment that creates a hostile work environment.

Examples

  • One source of third-party sexual harassment may be from vendors or suppliers. This group pretty much includes anyone that provides a good or service to your organization who has some form of contact with an employee that provides an opportunity for sexual harassment. Examples may include delivery people, repair workers, outside trainers, and consultants.
  • Another source of third-party sexual harassment is clients or customers. The type of customer or client or the type of business is of no consequence. An accountant or attorney can be sexually harassed just as easily as a waitress at a truck stop. It also doesn't matter if the harassment takes place on the employer's premises or at a client or customer worksite, so long as the employee is engaging in a work-related activity.

What are examples of VERBAL sexual harassment?

  • Abusive texting
  • Catcalling
  • Sexual remarks, jokes, or stories
  • Innuendos
  • Kissing noises
  • Sexist comments
  • Repeatedly asking out someone who is not interested
     

What are examples of VISUAL sexual harassment?

  • Looking a person up and down (elevator eyes)
  • Displaying suggestive photos or ‘pinups’
  • Lewd gestures
  • Leering or staring
  • Cartoons with sexual content
  • Sexually suggestive videos
  • Unwanted sexually explicit photos, emails, or text messages
     

What are examples of PHYSICAL sexual harassment?

  • Giving a massage around the neck or shoulders
  • Unwelcome touching on any part of a person's body
  • Brushing or bumping up against another person
  • Leaning over or standing too close
  • Touching or rubbing oneself sexually around another person
  • Cornering or obstructing someone’s movement
     

What is reasonable accommodation?

A reasonable accommodation is assistance or changes to a hiring process, position, or workplace that will enable an employee to do their job despite having a disability. Under Title 1 of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), employers are required to provide reasonable accommodations to qualified employees with disabilities, unless doing so would pose an undue hardship.