Defining Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment is both a psychological and a legal construct. Behavioral scientists define sexual harassment psychologically as unwanted gender-based comments and behaviors that the targeted person appraises as offensive, that exceeds his/her available coping resources, and/or that threatens his/her well-being.12 Three subtypes of sexual harassment behaviors have been identified.13,14 Gender harassment refers to nonsexual, negative, gender-based comments and behaviors, such as comments that women are not as smart as men or that certain jobs are "men's work" that women should not have. Unwanted sexual attention includes nonverbal and verbal comments, gestures, or physical contact of a sexual nature, such as repeated requests for dates or attempts to kiss or fondle someone against his/her will. Sexual coercion includes compelling someone to comply with sexual demands via job-related threats or benefits, such as promising a promotion if the worker is sexually cooperative or threatening to fire the employee if uncooperative. Sexual harassment can be perpetrated by employers, coworkers, or customers or can involve a subordinate sexually harassing his or her superior (contrapower sexual harassment).15

The legal framework defining sexual harassment is based upon precedent and evidence of threatening behaviors in the workplace. In Meritor Savings

Bank v. Vinson16 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that sexual harassment constitutes a form of sex discrimination and as such, is a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.17 More specifically, they ruled that sexual misconduct can be defined as sexual harassment, even if the target did not suffer any tangible economic losses. Thus, sex-based discrimination includes circumstances in which unwanted negative, gender-based experiences become pervasive enough that an employee perceives it as hostile and/or it negatively affects his/her job performance (hostile work environment).16,18,19 The second legal standard used to define sexual harassment is quid pro quo (equivalent to sexual coercion) and includes any attempt to coerce sexual interactions by threatening one's employment status.

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