Legal Definition and Examples of Sexual Harassment

Definition of Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment can happen in many different ways, and typically the harasser takes advantage of the gray areas in the boundaries of social interaction at work. That’s why it’s important to know the legal definition of sexual harassment and become familiar with examples of what the law considers to be sexual harassment.

The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (or EEOC) states the following legal definition of sexual harassment: “It is unlawful to harass a person (an applicant or employee) because of that person’s sex. Harassment can include ‘sexual harassment’ or unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.”

The EEOC further defines “harassment” as “unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including sexual orientation, gender identity, or pregnancy)… etc.” The key term there is unwelcome: if you don’t reciprocate or welcome the comments, teasing, or implications and those comments or conduct focus on a protected class you belong to (i.e. your sex or gender), then harassment is happening in the workplace.


Examples of Sexual Harassment

  • Comments about your body, clothing, or personal behavior, including grooming, hygiene, and other personal topics
  • Repeatedly asking you out or telling you that you should leave your current romantic partner
  • Requesting sexual favors (either outright, or in exchange for money, gifts, or protection from demotion or termination)
  • Spreading rumors about your personal or sexual life
  • Sexual or sex-based jokes
  • Physical conduct – rape or assault, impeding or blocking your movement, inappropriate touching of your body or clothing, kissing, hugging, patting, tickling, or brushing against you
  • Giving your body an “up and down” look
  • Derogatory gestures or facial expressions of a sexual nature
  • Sexually suggestive sounds or motions
  • Following or stalking you
  • Sharing drawings, pictures, texts, or emails of a sexual nature
  • Direct or indirect threats or bribes for unwanted sexual activity
  • Using the explicit or implicit threat of termination, reduced hours, less desirable work assignments or other punitive measures to put pressure on you to have a romantic relationship or sexual relations
  • Using benefits or incentives – such as promotions, pay raises or a more desirable shift or assignment – offered in exchange for sexual or romantic favors


Misconceptions About Sexual Harassment

  • “Sexual harassment can’t happen between people who used to be in a relationship.”
    • This is actually a very common way that sexual harassment does happen. If you used to be in a consensual relationship with your coworker or supervisor, but the relationship ended, you are not required to continue to submit to the same sexual behavior or advances. Be firm and reject the behavior in a clear, straightforward manner.


  • “My harasser is straight/gay, but I’m a man/a woman, so it’s not harassment, right?”
    • Unwelcome behavior is unwelcome behavior, and sexual harassment is sexual harassment, no matter the harasser or victim’s gender, sexual orientation, or sexual identity. 


  • “The person who’s harassing me doesn’t work for the company, so there’s nothing I can do.”
    • If you encounter the harasser while you’re at work, your employer has a duty to stop that harassment from happening. If you experience sexually harassing behavior from a customer, a vendor, a delivery person, or a consultant or contractor, tell your supervisor immediately, and follow your company’s procedure, if any, for how to report harassment.


  • “I reported the behavior anonymously but the behavior didn’t stop, so my supervisor must not care.”
    • Anonymous reports may not give the company all the information they need to stop the harassment. It can be scary to report sexual harassment, but being open about who is harassing you, what they are doing specifically, when the harassment happened (or is happening on a regular basis), and how the harassment is happening (via text? In person? Over Facebook?) is very important to tell the company so that they can put a stop to the behavior. 
    • It’s also always better to make the complaint in writing to make sure there is a “paper trail” of your report. And if your employer has a specific procedure for reporting harassment, be sure to follow it.


  • “Someone in HR told me that it wasn’t a big deal, so it must not be worth complaining about.”
    • If anyone in a managerial position, HR position, or other supervisory position tries to downplay your report, convince you not to report, or tries to hide your complaint from someone else, call an experienced sexual harassment attorney right away. If something doesn’t feel right, talk to a person who can help you navigate your rights in the workplace.