If you look at Google Trends to see the recent history of the term “sexual harassment,” you can see that this phrase started being searched at a much higher rate about three and half years ago. This is no coincidence. October of 2017 marked the beginning of what has become a revolution against sexual harassment in the workplace. Before the end of that month, over eighty women had made accusations of sexual harassment against media mogul Harvey Weinstein. Allegations against other high-profile individuals quickly followed. Since then, many more women who had silently endured sexual harassment have come forward to report the behavior. Throughout this increased media attention, there has been a great deal of confusion and misinformation about terms like sexual harassment, sexual misconduct, and sexual assault.
Sexual harassment is a term that is frequently misused. Many people use this phrase to mean undesired sexual attention, and while that can be part of sexual harassment, it is by far not the full definition. From a legal perspective, sexual harassment can only exist in the workplace. So, while the construction worker who catcalls women walking past a construction site is inappropriate and annoying, he or she is not engaging in unlawful sexual harassment.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 led to the current laws regarding sexual harassment. The act prohibits employment discrimination based on ethnicity, sex, color, national origin, or religion. Workplace sexual harassment is considered a type of sex discrimination. There are only two types of sexual harassment according to the law: quid pro quo sexual harassment and hostile workplace sexual harassment. The former includes instances where a person in authority requires a subordinate to perform sexual favors in order to keep his or her job or to get a promotion or other workplace perks. Hostile workplace sexual harassment occurs when a colleague’s behavior is so offensive or intimidating that a reasonable person would be unable to perform his or her work duties. Suggestive or sexual remarks, sexual jokes, and placing pornographic material in view of coworkers are examples of behavior that can create a hostile workplace.