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Updated to include a discussion on the role of technology, and includes a new section on sexual harassment in the US military.

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Sexual Harassment

Abstract and Keywords

Sexual harassment is a form of discrimination as well as a complex social issue with psychological implications for both those who are harassed and those who perpetrate the harassment. Women continue to be primary targets, although men, youths, and sexual minorities are increasingly pursued. Legally prohibited in the workplace and educational institutions, sexual harassment persists in personal interactions as well as by electronic means despite prevention efforts such as education programs and zero-tolerance policies. This entry will define sexual harassment, provide an overview of its prevalence, and describe approaches for its remedy.

Keywords: sexual harassment, discrimination, civil rights, women, equality

History

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 set the legal foundation for a claim of sexual harassment in the workplace. It protected employees in private companies with 25 or more workers from discrimination based on “race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” It was extended in 1972 to cover local, state, and federal offices, businesses with 15 or more employees, and educational institutions (Gutman, 2000). In 1976, sexual harassment was first legally recognized under Title VII as a form of sex discrimination in a federal court decision (Williams v. Saxbe, 1976).

In 1985, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency responsible for enforcing Title VII, defined sexual harassment as:

Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment when:

  1. 1. Submission to such conduct is made either explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of an individual’s employment,

  2. 2. Submission to or rejection of such conduct by an individual is used as the basis for employment decisions affecting such individual, or

  3. 3. Such conduct has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual's work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile or offensive working environment (Singer, 1995, p. 2149).

The following year, the Supreme Court rendered its first decision on sexual harassment in the 1986 Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson case. The Court concluded that there must be either an implicit or explicit quid pro quo situation (conditions 1 or 2) or a hostile environment (condition 3) in sexual harassment cases (Chan, 1994). Subsequent Supreme Court cases considered issues of how to determine a hostile environment (Harris v. Forklift Systems, 1993), same-sex harassment (Oncale v. Sundowner, 1998), employer liability (Burlington v. Ellerth, 1998; Faragher v. City of Boca Raton, 1998), and expanding guidelines to protect claimants from retaliation (Burlington Northern & Santa Fe Railway Co v. White, 2006).

Title IX of the Education Amendment of 1972 prohibits sex discrimination in educational environments receiving federal assistance. The Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (ORC), which is responsible for enforcing sexual harassment, laws defines it as:

Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors and other verbal, nonverbal, or physical conduct of a sexual nature by an employee, by another student, or by a third party, which is sufficiently severe, persistent, or pervasive to limit a student’s ability to participate in or benefit from an education program or activity, or to create a hostile or abusive educational environment. (Strauss, 2003, p. 107)

Notable Supreme Court rulings include: schools can be held liable for punitive damages (Franklin v. Gwinnett County Public Schools, 1992), school districts can be liable if a school official with authority acted with indifference to a report (Gebster v. Lagos Vista Independent School District, 1998), and recognition of peer-to-peer student harassment under Title IX (Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education, 1999).

Despite increased legislation prohibiting sexual harassment in various settings, public attention to this issue increased dramatically during the October 1991 Supreme Court confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas, an African American. During these sessions, testimony from Anita Hill, an African American law professor, charged that Thomas had sexually harassed her while she was working as his assistant. These statements were vehemently denied by Thomas, who was later confirmed by an all-male Senate Committee. The hearing process, carried by various media outlets, highlighted the multifaceted issues involved in sexual harassment cases, such as power differentials, gender solidarity, time relevance, reluctant witnesses, and race politics. This helped to ignite a public discourse about the complex issue of sexual harassment. When later cases of alleged sexual harassment by powerful men such as Senator Robert Packwood, and former Governor and later President Bill Clinton were reported by the media, these cases received increased scrutiny and public outrage (Black & Allen, 2001). The way these cases were resolved can be traced back to the Hill/Thomas hearings (Gould, 2000; Hartman, 1992).

Reports of sexual harassment continue to grow. Technology has made it easier for victims to experience harassment, especially among youths, who engage in peer-to-peer harassment (Petersen & Hyde, 2009). A 2012 U.S. Department of Defense Sexual Assault Prevention and Response report indicates increasing numbers of sexual harassment of both men and women in the U.S. military. In addition, sexual harassment is recognized to be a global problem (Markert, 2005; McDonald, 2011).

Theories of Sexual Harassment

Theories to explain sexual harassment are varied and continue to emerge. Power theory (Powell, 1986), differences in the formal and informal power structures in organizations (Lundberg-Love & Marion, 2003), the interaction of gender, race, and class (Rospenda, Richman, & Nawyn, 1998) and the “routine activities” model, adapted from criminological theory (Hindelang, Gottfredson, & Garofalo, 1978), are often cited. Since Lengnick-Hall’s (1995) review of the literature on sexual harassment and the limitations of the research in this area, there has been a renewed scholarly interest in this topic.

New frameworks for understanding what constitutes sexual harassment continue. There is increased research in the experience of sexual harassment based on one’s position in the scenario, such as if one is an observer, perpetrator, or victim of sexual harassment (O’Leary-Kelly, Bowes-Speery, Bates, & Lean, 2009). In addition, broader theoretical models are also being developed as noted in the work of Berdahl (2007), who proposes that sexual harassment is a goal-directed behavior that can be understood by understanding underlying social-status and gender positions. O’Leary-Kelly, Tiedt, and Bowes-Sperry (2004) use “accountability theory” to explain harasser and observer action or inaction. Finally, there continues to be further development of the “routine activities” theoretical perspective to understand how, to whom, and by whom sexual harassment is experienced (De Coster, Estes, & Muller 1999). Understanding the actions of the harasser has also been examined using the “outrage management model” proposed by Scott and Martin (2006).

Male-dominated occupations, such as the military, machinists, police, and firefighters, and work environments that condone unprofessional behaviors have been linked to higher levels of harassment (Gruber, 2003; Lundberg-Love & Marmion, 2003). Social workers and social work students are not immune from harassment on the job or in field settings (Anderson & Kreuger, 2005; Fogel & Ellison, 1998; Fogel, Ellison, & Morrow, 2001; Maypole, 1986; Pomeroy, 2012; Risley-Curtiss & Hudson, 1998; Valentine, Gandy, Burry, & Ginsberg, 1994).

Prevalence of Sexual Harassment As a Social Problem

Anyone can experience sexual harassment. It can be subtle as well as overt, occurring in both public and private settings. Statistics available through the EEOC (http://www.eeoc.gov) indicate that since 1997, the overall number of complaints of sexual harassment or discrimination has been declining. The number of complaints filed by men is rising, however. In 2011, 16.3% of the 11,364 complaints to the EEOC were filed by men. Approximately all claims filed to the EEOC in 2011 that were investigated were resolved. More than half of all cases filed, 53.0% were found to be without cause. This suggests the continued difficulty of establishing proof that the offending behavior or incident(s) constitutes sexual harassment. There is growing evidence that males and females differ in regard to what is perceived as sexual harassment and the tolerance for it in the workplace (McCabe & Hardman, 2012). Organizational culture and the extent of employee social ties are also indicators of risk for sexual harassment in the workplace (Snyder, Scherer, & Fisher, 2012).

Characteristics of perpetrators who are male include holding conventional attitudes about women (Zalk, 1996) and conforming to and displaying stereotyped male behaviors (Doyle & Paludi, 1998). Prior research findings suggest that demographic characteristics such as age, marital status, or occupation do not predict the likelihood that a male will engage in sexual-harassment behaviors (Lundberg-Love & Marmion, 2003). There is, as of 2013, scant information regarding women who harass, or harassment by same-sex individuals. Research efforts to understand men’s experience as targets of sexual victimization and harassment is growing (Kearney & Rochlen, 2012; Settle, Buchanan, & Colar, 2012).

Studies of sexual harassment in educational institutions from elementary school through college indicate that it is prevalent (American Association of University Women Educational Foundation, 2001; Fineran & Bennett, 1998; Petersen, & Hyde, 2009; Stein, 1995; Till, 1980; Yoon, Funk, & Kropf, 2010), and most likely, under-reported (Clodfelter, Turner, Harman, & Kuhs, 2010). While the scenario of teacher/faculty to student has been well documented (Bursik & Gefter, 2011; Dziech & Weiner, 1990), peer-to-peer student harassment, including the targeting of sexual minorities (Fineran, 2002; Fineran & Bennett, 1999; Fineran & Bolen, 2006), and student-to-teacher, including harassment of teachers who are gay or lesbian (Human Rights Watch, 2001), is growing.

The Internet provides another venue for sexual harassment to occur at work, school, or even in the privacy of one’s home (Barak, 2005; Finn, 2004; Finn & Banach, 2000). Unwanted emails, unsolicited pornographic materials, and cyberstalking are common methods used to harass through the Internet. The extent and harm caused by such activities is unknown, but it is acknowledged that Internet harassment is growing as well (Barak; Cooper, Safir, & Rosenmann, 2006).

While not all harassment though media sources is specifically sexual harassment, the consequences of being a target of harassment through any technological source have led many to suffer severe psychological distress and some, especially adolescents, to commit suicide (Finkelhor, Mitchell, & Wolak, 2000; Schneider, O’Donnell, Stueve, & Coulter, 2012).

Due to the newness of these various technologies and the plethora of social media sites, research in this area continues to develop. Common research topics include the demographics of the victim and harasser, settings in which the harassment takes place, and the technology and specific patterns of interaction used to initiate the harassment with that technology. In this nascent stage, there are limited findings on the pervasiveness of sexual harassment over the life span.

Adolescents’ experiences with unwanted sexual harassment from social media outlets and the Internet have been more systematically studied. It is estimated that 13% to 23% of youths have been victims of sexual harassment at some point during their adolescence. According to Baumgartner, Valkenburg, and Peter (2010), female youths and early-adult women are more likely to be victims of online sexual harassment. In contrast, male adolescents and male young adults were no more likely to be the recipients of online harassment during these ages. Encouraging findings from research by Mitchell, Jones, Finkelhor, and Wolak (2013) indicate a decline in unwanted online sexual solicitations to youths from 2000 to 2010, suggesting that prevention activities initiated in the early 2000s have had a positive impact on the ability of youths not to be enticed to participate in suspicious e-mail or Internet activities. These authors also suggest that online sexual harassment is most likely to happen among similarly aged peers, not necessarily by strangers.

Adolescent bloggers, who typically are female, were found not likely to engage with unknown persons online, however, decreasing their risk for sexual harassment. If the adolescent does make contact with an unknown online responder to a blog, or any other form of media source, such as chat room, instant messaging, or text exchanges, however, the risks for unwanted sexual harassment increase (Mitchell, Wolak, & Finkelhor, 2008). On college campuses, cyberstalking is noted to be especially problematic, although research on the extent and remedies for this problem area are also limited (Finn, 2004).

Workplace settings as well, are environments in which online sexual harassment may occur. This is particularly relevant for those who are in supervisory, administration, and human resource positions. In these environments, it is not uncommon for co-workers to engage in online social networking sites and share information with other colleagues, such as “liking” a co-worker on Facebook. The information shared may be used to sexual harass at a later time. In addition, office intimate relations that end may trigger online harassment that escalates into sexual harassment. When sexual harassment occurs in the workplace, workplace productivity and office morale can decline (Mainiero & Jones, 2013).

Prevention efforts to reduce online sexual harassment should be based on research documenting prevalence, impact, type of technology used, setting, and demographics of victims and harassers (Mitchell, et al., 2013). Currently, a commonly used prevention approach is that of education programs for youths and adolescents to raise awareness of this situation and how to avoid contact with risky online persons. Parents and guardians are also engaged in these education efforts (Bossler, Holt, & May, 2011). Further research is need that develops theoretical models for understanding this behavior from the perspective of victim or harasser. Finally, it should be expected that as this type of harassment becomes more prevalent, the court system will become more involved in defining and determining the legal remedies for those involved in these cases.

The U.S. Military

In 2012, the U.S. military reported that 3,374 members had been sexually assaulted that year. Women soldiers made up the majority of victims in these complaints (86%), while 12% of male soldiers reported sexual assaults. The military estimates, however, that there could have been 26,000 assaults in 2012, but that many of these were not reported. Due to this latest acknowledgement of the problems within the service and how disciplinary actions are often reduced for offenders, demands to end sexual harassment in all the military branches are receiving renewed attention.

As a consequence to sexual harassment in the military, the Department of Veteran Affairs has identified many returning soldiers as experiencing “military sexual trauma” (MST). It is defined as “sexual harassment that is threatening in character or physical assault of a sexual nature that occurred while the victim was in the military, regardless of geographic location of the trauma, gender of the victim, or the relationship to the perpetrator” (Katz, Cojucar, Beheshti, Nakamura, & Murry, 2012, p. 487).

Research suggests that both men and women suffer from MST, but women are more likely to have experienced it. Furthermore, MST occurs in war zones as well as in noncombat settings. For active-duty soldiers, there are numerous hurdles to filing a complaint against the harasser, especially if the perpetrator is of a higher rank. MST, particularity verbal sexual harassment, has been shown to impede readjustment to civilian life (Katz, et al., 2012). In addition, both men and women who have been victims of MST in early 21st century wars are more likely to be diagnosed with “PTSD, other anxiety disorders, depression, and substance use disorders” (Kimerling, et al., 2010, p. 1409).

Race, gender, and rank appear to influence the type and amount of MST victims’ experience. While women are more likely to experience MST, a recent study suggests that black male enlisted soldiers were more likely to experience sexual harassment than white male enlisted soldiers (Settles et al., 2012). For women soldiers, there appears to be a difference in the type of harassment actions based on gender and race. White female soldiers reported more gender harassment, while black female soldiers experienced more sexual attention and sexual coercion. Not surprisingly, lower-rank enlisted soldiers experienced more harassment than officers (Buchanan, Settles, & Woods, 2008).

The Effects of Sexual Harassment

There are many reactions to experiencing sexual harassment. For youths, symptoms may include changes in appetite, sleep patterns, or interest in daily activities; decline in attention to school work or participation in school activities; and increased expressions of sadness, anger, or isolation (Fineran, 2002). Youths who are sexual minorities and harassed, particularly through the Internet, may also be at greater risk for suicide (Fineran, 2002; Finn, 2004).

Among adults, sexual harassment can cause emotional and physical problems similar to those of PTSD (Avina & O’Donohue, 2002; McDermut, Haaga, & Kirk, 2000). Increasingly, investigators are confirming the psychological consequences of sexual harassment to the workplace as well as to the victim. Based on these works, sexual harassment has been shown to reduce job satisfaction, worker productivity, and worker participation in the organization; increase negative emotions in the victim, such as anger, fear, and depression; and disturb bodily functions in the worker, such as reducing sleep and appetite and increasing headaches, and pains (Chan, Lam, Chow, & Cheung, 2008; Lundberg-Love & Marmion, 2003; Pina & Gannon, 2012). Long-term life satisfaction is decreased if one experiences sexual harassment (Munson, Hulin, & Drasgow, 2000). Prior victimization increases poor psychological outcomes from the event as well (Collinsworth, Fitzgerald, & Drasgow, 2009). Victims may demonstrate learned helplessness, and exhibit conditioned responses and changes in their world view and social relationships (Avina & O’Donohue; Gould, 2000; Lundberg-Love & Marmion; MacKinnon, 1979). Early twenty-first-century research suggests that many victims do not seek professional services but rather rely on informal support systems, such as friends and family for help (Rospenda, Richman, & Shannon, 2006).

Best Policies and Practices

A zero-tolerance policy toward sexual harassment is recommended for organizations and educational institutions (Rose, 2004); however, questions remain regarding the effectiveness of this strategy (Stockdale, Bisom-Rapp, O’Connor, & Gutek, 2003). At a minimum, policies should include a clear definition and guidelines on what constitutes sexual harassment, how to report it, grievance procedures, and training programs to educate all employees, faculty, students, and those in management as to what sexual harassment is. Gender-specific programs are recommended in order to clarify perceptions of behaviors that can be interpreted as sexual harassment (Antecol & Cobb-Clark, 2003). Education and training programs such as assertiveness and conflict-resolution training should extend to youths in schools and colleges to reduce peer-to-peer harassment as well. Appropriate mental health treatment for the individual as well as the family may be needed to address the psychological impact of experiencing sexual harassment (Woody & Perry, 1993). Research continues to confirm that experiencing sexual harassment can lead to significant psychological impairment including PTSD (Larsen & Fitzgerald, 2011).

Given the increase in the use of the Internet as a means of engaging in sexual harassment, it is also critical to educate users of technology in practices that protect their identity online, such as creating a screen name that does not reveal gender or age, using different screen names for different purposes, and sharing information only on secure Web sites (Barak, 2005; Finn, 2004). Furthermore, organizations and educational institutions should limit access to employee and student information (Cooper et al., 2006; Finn).

At a minimum, employers need to inform employees that all e-mails transmitted on company networks can be reviewed (Finn, 2004). This, as well as the other prevention strategies suggested previously, can create an environment where workers are challenged to be authentic in their daily interactions and in e-mail communications. It is critical that trainings on this topic be repeated often in the workplace or educational setting so that all workers are informed as to what constitutes harassment. In addition, supervisors must remain attuned to the interaction subtleties among employees within the work environment.

Implications for Social Work

It is critical for social workers to be aware that sexual harassment continues despite legal and organizational policies to prevent its occurrence in the workplace, educational settings, and over the Internet. Social workers must also stay current with emerging research and best practices for the identification, evaluation, and treatment of victims (Phipps-Yonas, 2012). Social work roles are vital at the micro and macro levels. Emerging issues on this topic include understanding how age, race, culture, gender, sexual orientation, and the socio-economic status of the individuals involved are factors in the event, as well as an understanding of the offending behavior (Berdahl & Moore, 2006). In addition, attention is needed to understand and assist men who are harassed in the workplace as well (Das, 2009). Given the extent of reported and suspected sexual harassment within military units, social workers should regularly screen for this type of military trauma. Additional research focusing on the cases that are deemed “without reasonable cause” by the EEOC should also provide useful information about what is legally interpreted as sexual harassment. Finally, further legislative and advocacy efforts are needed to encourage reporting and to protect those who report harassment in the workplace from retaliation. Social workers are bound by the Code of Ethics and professional mission to act to prevent discrimination (Gould, 2000; Hartman, 1992). Sexual harassment is a discriminatory practice that needs continued attention in our clinical, employment, and educational settings in order to provide appropriate education and other interventions to victims and perpetrators and to decrease its frequency. Social work managers can set the appropriate climate and culture for a caring yet careful environment.

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                                                                                                                          O’Leary-Kelly, A. M., Tiedt, P., & Bowes-Sperry, L. (2004). Answering accountability questions in sexual harassment: Insights regarding harassers, targets, and observers. Human Resource Management Review, 14, 85–106.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                            Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services, 118 S.Ct. 998 (1998).Find this resource:

                                                                                                                              Petersen, J. L., & Hyde, J. S. (2009). A longitudinal investigation of peer sexual harassment victimization in adolescence. Journal of Adolescence, 32(5), 1173–1188.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                Phipps-Yonas, S. (2012). Sexual trauma and psychological injuries: What experts need to know. Psychological Injury and Law, 5(1), 12–36.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                  Pina, A., & Gannon, T. A. (2012). An overview of the literature on antecedents, perceptions, and behavioural consequences of sexual harassment. Journal of Sexual Aggression, 18, 209–232.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                    Pomeroy, E. C. (2012). The bully at work: What social workers can do. Social Work, 58, 5–8.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                      Powell, G. N. (1986). Effects of sex-role identity and sex on definitions of sexual harassment. Sex Roles, 14(1/2), 9–19.Find this resource:

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                                                                                                                                          Rose, K. J. (2004). “Zero tolerance” for sexual harassment by supervisors in the workplace: Employers don't have a real choice. Journal of Forensic Psychology Practice, 4(1), 57–64.Find this resource:

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                                                                                                                                                Schneider, S. K., O’Donnell, L., Stueve, A., & Coutler, R. W. S. (2012). Cyberbullying, school bullying, and psychological distress: A regional census of high school students. American Journal of Public Health, 102, 171–177Find this resource:

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                                                                                                                                                    Settles, I. H., Buchanan, N. T., & Colar, B. (2012). The impact of race and rank on the sexual harassment of Black and White men in the U.S. military. Psychology of Men & Masculinity, 13, 256–263.Find this resource:

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                                                                                                                                                          Stein, N. (1995). Sexual harassment in school: The public performance of gendered violence. Harvard Educational Review, 65, 145–162.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                                            Stockdale, M. S., Bisom-Rapp, S., O’Connor, M., & Gutek, B. (2003). Coming to terms with zero tolerance sexual harassment policies. Journal of Forensic Psychology Practice, 4(1), 65–78.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                                              Strauss, S. (2003). Sexual harassment in K-12. In M. Paludi & C.A. Paludi, Jr. (Eds.), Academic and workplace sexual harassment: A handbook of cultural, social science, management, and legal perspectives (pp. 105-145). Westport, CT: Praeger Publisher.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                                                Till, F. (1980). Sexual harassment: A report on the sexual harassment of students. Washington, DC: National Advisory Council on Women’s Educational Programs.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                                                  Valentine D., Gandy, J., Burry, C., & Ginsberg, L. (1994). Sexual harassment in social work field placement. In M. O. Weil, M. Hughes, & N. R. Hooyman (Eds.), Sexual harassment and schools of social work: Issues, costs, and strategic responses (pp. 39–53). Washington, DC: Council on Social Work Education.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                                                    Williams v. Saxbe, 413 F. Supp. 645 (D.C. Cir. 1976).Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                                                      Woody, R. H., & Perry, N. W. (1993). Sexual harassment victims: Psycholegal and family therapy considerations. The American Journal of Family Therapy, 23(2), 136–144.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                                                        Yoon, E., Funk, R. S., & Kropf, N. P. (2010). Sexual harassment experiences and their psychological correlates among a diverse sample of college women. Affilia, 25(1), 8–18.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                                                          Zalk, S. R. (1996). Psychological profiles of men who harass. In M. S. Paludi (Ed.), Sexual harassment on college campuses: Abusing the ivory power. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                                                            Further Reading

                                                                                                                                                                            Education Amendments of 1972, P.L. 92–318, 86, Stat.235.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                                                              United States Department of Defense Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Annual Reports. Available at: http://www.sapr.mil/index.php/annual-reports