What is Sexual Harassment?

Page updated on Feb 13, 2018 at 3:50 PM

Sexual harassment is an illegal form of gender discrimination that consists of unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and/or verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature. Sexual harassment can occur in a variety of contexts, including housing, employment, public accommodations, health and social services, education, and credit.

Forms of Sexual Harassment

There are generally two different theories of proving sexual harassment:

  • Quid Pro Quo

Occurs when the victim's status, benefits or opportunities with regard to employment, housing, education, etc. are explicitly or implicitly conditioned upon the victim submitting to the harasser's sexual advances, either by engaging in sexual activity or tolerating other conduct of a sexual nature.

  • Hostile Environment

Occurs when someone's behavior (a fellow co-worker, a supervisor, non-employee, housing provider, etc.) is sexual in nature and is perceived as offensive and undesirable. This type of sexual harassment may occur without economic injury to or discharge of the victim. With these types of claims, the behavior must:

  • Be unwelcome
  • Be gender-based (but the harasser does not have to be of the opposite sex)
  • Gender (including sexual harassment)
  • Be sufficiently "severe and pervasive" to as to create an "abusive environment"
  • Unreasonably affect a term, condition, or privilege of employment, housing, education, etc.

For more information on sexual harassment in the workplace, visit www.eeoc.gov.

Is it Sexual Harassment?

Sexual harassment comes in many forms, such as:

  • Suggestive comments about your appearance
  • Unwanted touching or other physical contact
  • Unwelcome sexual jokes or comments
  • Exposure to sexually explicit or inappropriate pictures or emails

Preventing and Addressing Sexual Harassment

Prevention is the best tool to eliminate sexual harassment in the workplace. Employers, managers, and employees all play a vital part in preventing and addressing sexual harassment. Employers are encouraged to take steps necessary to prevent sexual harassment from occurring. They should:

  • Clearly communicate to employees that sexual harassment will not be tolerated
  • General treatment not based on the above bases
  • Take all complaints about harassment seriously
  • Take immediate and appropriate action when an employee complains
  • Investigate complaints thoroughly
  • Train supervisors and employees about sexual harassment
  • Ensure that supervisors report complaints and incidents of sexual harassment to proper company authorities
  • Discipline supervisors and employees who violate the policy
  • Keep thorough records
  • Check up with employees who complain about harassment to make sure the harassment has stopped
  • Conduct exit interviews to uncover hidden sexual harassment

It is helpful for the victim to directly inform the harasser (or the harasser's supervisor) that the conduct is unwelcome and must stop. If the behavior continues, write a memo addressed to the harasser requesting that he or she stop. The victim should use any employer complaint mechanism or grievance system available.

How is Sexual Harassment Proven?

As with other forms of discrimination, the Complainant bears the burden of proving sexual harassment. When investigating allegations of sexual harassment, our Office looks at the whole record, and will make a determination on the allegations on a case-by-case basis. Considerations include:

  • The nature and frequency of the sexual advances
  • The context in which the alleged incidents occurred
  • The extent to which the harasser was told, or knew, that the advances were unwelcome
  • The affect that the harassing behavior had on the Complainant's work and mental/physical/emotional well-being
  • Whether the Respondent was aware, or should have been aware, that the harassment was happening
  • Whether efforts were made to correct the harassment

You should contact a Human Rights Investigator if you suspect sexual harassment.

Resources for Sexual Assault

In the most serious cases, sexual harassment can lead to sexual assault. We want to ensure that victims of sexual harassment and assault seek, and are provided with, adequate support. If you have been the victim of a sexual assault, the City has several resources available through:

  • The Alexandria Police Department 703-838-4444 (non-emergency) or 911 (emergency).
  • The Department of Community & Human Services has a Sexual Assault Center with 24-hour crisis intervention and support available (24-hour hotline at 703-683-7273 (voice/TTY)). All Sexual Assault Center services are strictly confidential.
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