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Is Sexual Harassment a Crime?

When an individual is sexually harassed in the workplace, often victims are left feeling violated as if they were victims of a crime. Although an individual can sue after being sexually harassed, sexual harassment is not a crime. But, if it involves unwanted touching, physical intimidation, or even some extreme forms of coercion, it can quickly turn into sexual assault, which is a serious crime.

Types of Sexual Harassment

Sexual Harassment comes in two distinct forms:

  • Quid Pro Quo: A person in authority demands or requires sexual acts in exchange for preferential treatment, or to avoid punitive actions.
  • Hostile Work Environment: A person in authority/employer fails to remedy a work environment where sexually inappropriate behavior, comments, or other actions are occurring, making the workplace intimidating or offensive.

Sexual harassment in either form is not a crime. Instead, there are civil liabilities involved.

Is Harassment Different From Sexual Assault?

Yes, harassment is different from sexual assault, which can be a serious crime. Sexual assault involves unwanted sexual contact as a result of force, coercion, or incapacitation.

If a victim of sexual harassment has suffered unwanted sexual touching, they should contact the police. Particularly if the unwanted touching was forceful, contacting the police is the first step in having a person charged with sexual assault.

Victim's Rights Under the Law

Both types of sexual harassment listed above are violations of an individual's civil rights, since they are both considered forms of illegal discrimination under Title VII, under federal law, and under each state's own laws.

However, sexual harassment claims are frequently difficult to prove in court as the evidence generally only includes statements from the victim and the aggressor. Also, hostile work environment claims require the victim to provide their employer with an opportunity to cure the problem, unless the employer had actual notice, or should have had notice, that the aggressor was prone to that sort of conduct.

Fortunately, once a victim reports sexual harassment, even internally, they will be protected by Title VII's anti-retaliation provisions, and likely also the anti-retaliation provisions under state law. However, a victim will still need to file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or the state equivalent agency (such as the DFEH in California), regarding the sexual harassment, and/or the retaliation, as a pre-requisite to filing a claim in court. EEOC complaints, generally, must be filed within 6 months from the last discriminatory incident or adverse action.

Although sexual harassment lawsuits may be difficult to prosecute, victims can take some solace in the fact that their allegations will be made part of the public record. This means that the allegations will follow their aggressors, whether found guilty or not, for life. This is well illustrated by the recent backlash over Casey Affleck's Oscar win.

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