Sexual Harassment

Sexual Harassment Definition

Sexual HarassmentThe term sexual harassment came into use in the U.S. federal courts in the 1970s to describe a form of gender-based discrimination in the workplace. There are two legally recognized forms of workplace sexual harassment: quid pro quo and hostile environment sexual harassment. In quid pro quo, unwanted sex or gender-related behavior constitutes a term or condition of employment or advancement at work. For example, an employer might require employees to tolerate the employer’s sexual advances to maintain employment or gain promotions. In hostile environment, unwelcome sex or gender-related behavior creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment. For example, employees might be offended by their coworkers’ displays of pornography in the workplace. U.S. law also recognizes sexual harassment as a form of discrimination in academic settings and in obtaining fair housing.

Although U.S. law does not stipulate the gender of either perpetrator or target of sexual harassment, most perpetrators historically have been male and most targets have been female. Central to the legal definition of sexual harassment is the notion that sexual harassment is unwelcome or unwanted behavior. Whether a behavior is deemed unwelcome ultimately depends on the interpretations made by the target of the behavior. In discerning whether something constitutes sexual harassment, U.S. courts consider whether a reasonable person similar to the target would judge such a behavior to be unwelcome under similar circumstances. Internationally, there are variations in both the legal and lay understanding of sexual harassment across countries. However, since the term was first coined in the United States, the meaning of sexual harassment in other countries has generally been influenced by its roots in the U.S. legal system.

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Sexual Harassment Research

Most of the early studies of sexual harassment within social science were primarily aimed at capturing the sexually harassing experiences of women in the workplace. Although different survey researchers have devised different ways of operationally defining sexual harassment, the most common experience of sexually harassing behavior reported by women in the workplace is generally called gender harassment.

Gender harassment is essentially the overt sexist treatment of women at work. It may include such things as being told that women are incapable of performing a job because they are women, having to endure a litany of offensive and sexist epithets from coworkers or supervisors, or being inundated with offensive pornographic images at work. The aim of gender harassment is not to gain sexual access to the target; rather, it is to express hostile attitudes based on a target’s gender. The next most common experience reported by working women in surveys is called unwanted sexual attention. This type of sexual harassment may include verbal behavior such as persistent requests for dates despite rejection and nonverbal behavior such as unwelcome sexual touching, conspicuous leering, and sexually suggestive gestures. The third and rarest type of sexually harassing behavior documented from surveys of female workers is called sexual coercion. Sexual coercion is essentially synonymous with the legal term quid pro quo sexual harassment. It is attempting to use threats or bribes to gain sexual access to a target. As research began to explore men as well as women as the potential targets of sexually harassing behavior, it became clear that even though men were less often targeted, a significant portion of men also experienced such behavior. In addition, a form of gender harassment sometimes called gender role enforcement or challenges to sexual identity was identified as an experience for men. This form of sexually harassing behavior includes ridiculing men who do not conform to masculine stereotypes. More recent studies have found that women may also experience similar harassment and find it just as emotionally upsetting as men do.

Social scientists have devoted a great deal of attention to the study of factors that influence interpretations of behaviors as sexual harassment. Although women and men more often agree than disagree on what should be considered sexual harassment, women have been found to interpret a broader range of behaviors as potentially sexual harassment. Women and men are less likely to disagree when it comes to more severe behaviors like sexual coercion and more likely to show some disagreement when it comes to less severe behaviors like unwanted sexual attention and gender harassment. Labeling one’s experiences as sexual harassment is related in part to their frequency and the severity of the consequences of these experiences. Many people who do not label their experiences as sexual harassment nevertheless suffer from negative psychological effects as the result of having been subjected to sexually harassing behavior. Experiencing sexually harassing behavior at work may be considered a form of work-related stress and has negative consequences on the personal and professional lives of men and women.

Research has found that sexually harassing behavior is more likely to occur in organizational settings where such behavior is tolerated or condoned. Traditionally masculine jobs where men dominate in numbers are settings in which sexually harassing behavior is also more likely to occur. As mentioned earlier, most perpetrators are men, but researchers have found that men vary widely in their proclivities for sexually harassing behavior. Individual differences in basic social cognition processes, such as associating ideas about sexuality with ideas about social power, seem to be correlated with male proclivities for some forms of sexually harassing behavior.

Sexual Harassment Interventions

Research on interventions designed to reduce sexually harassing behavior has produced mixed results. Although participants in training and educational programs conducted in organizational contexts generally report that such experiences are useful, there is little evidence that the mere experience or even the thoroughness of training actually reduces sexual harassment rates in organizations. In fact, some studies have found increased reporting of sexual harassment following training, perhaps attributable to enhancements of awareness. One possible way that training in an organization can have a positive effect is simply by communicating to employees that management takes the topic seriously and providing awareness of mechanisms for targets to report complaints.


  1. Gutek, B. A., & Done, R. S. (2001). Sexual harassment. In R. K. Unger (Ed), Handbook of the psychology of women and gender (pp. 367-387). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
  2. Pryor, J. B., & Fitzgerald, L. F. (2003). Sexual harassment research in the United States. In S. Einarsen, H. Hoel, D. Zapf & C. L. Cooper (Eds.), Bullying and emotional abuse in the workplace: International perspectives in research and practice (pp. 79-100). London: Taylor & Francis.