Debra Leggett, Ph.D.

Sexual harassment has come to the forefront of our culture as famous individuals have been exposed in the news for making unwanted sexual advances or obscene remarks in social situations or work environments. This was brought to our attention significantly when Oprah Winfrey recently won the Cecil B. DeMille Award at the Golden Globes. Oprah took this opportunity to speak on behalf of women who previously have not been heard regarding this issue. Please take the time to listen to her speech here ( She refers to the critical Me Too! movement in America today. Millions of women have expressed through social media platforms that they too have been subjected to this type of abuse called sexual harassment.

This form of pressure or intimidation consists of three types of related but distinct psychological dimensions: sexual coercion, unwanted sexual attention, and gender harassment (Fitzgerald, Gelfand, & Drasgow, 1995). Sexual coercion consists of the attempted extortion of sexual cooperation in exchange for some job-related consideration. Unwanted sexual attention is specifically that – offensive, unwanted, and unreciprocated sexual behavior. Gender harassment is used to describe a wide range of behaviors not aimed at sexual cooperation but rather at demeaning, degrading or insulting individuals on the basis of gender, most commonly women. Examples of gender harassment range from hostile acts including gender-based hazing, threats, intimidation, slurs, taunts, gestures, sexual epithets, to the display or distribution of pornographic materials.

Sexual harassment has been illegal in the United States since 1964. Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 listed sex as an area of discrimination. However, it took years before the courts began enforcing this area of the law It has been interpreted to apply to two types of behavior that encompass the concepts explained above – Quid pro quo sexual harassment and hostile work environment. Quid pro quo applies to an exchange of sexual favors for work security for example, while hostile environment applies more to the situation within the workplace. This conduct still occurs daily and the EEOC estimates that 3 out of 4 individuals who experience sexual harassment in the workplace do not report it. In a European study of 727 participants (Mennsink et al., 2016) 84% of the women reported sexual harassment in the past two years. The figure below demonstrates the theoretical relationship between the psychological and legal variables as born out in the literature (Fitzgerald et al., 1995).

In Mennsink et al.’s mixed-methods study regarding coping strategies and barriers to support, thematic analysis revealed that victim blaming, shame, and normalization were key barriers keeping the women from seeking support. Passive coping strategies were used when harassment was perpetrated either by a stranger or non-stranger. The leads us to further explore inculcated gender roles and inherent sexism. In an October 2016 article for The New York Times, Amanda Taub described the cost to women as a gender tax on opportunity. She cited the example of the leaked tape of Donald J. Trump and Billy Bush in the 2005 Access Hollywood segment where the host, Bush and Trump approach actress Arianne Zucker and request hugs. Ms. Zucker looked uncomfortable but stiffly complied. After her compliance Bush asked her which of them she would prefer to date. She has to decide which could be more harmful to offend before she responds. Her decision could have implications for her career and what was probably meant in a joking manner had a real implication for Zucker. The taxes are the broader cost of the kind of behavior Trump boasted about in the clip. When men are alone, they boast to each other of this type of behavior. When women are alone, they warn each other about these behaviors to watch out for. This limits what women can do in the context of the workplace or in society.

What is Sexual Harassment?

Sexual harassment is a form of discrimination that consists of unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature (Alllaw, 2018). It is embedded in our culture in what Stern (Slate News, Oct., 2018) identified as toxic sexism. It has been applied to discrimination in the workplace through Title Vii. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was enacted by Congress to address discrimination due to age, race or sex in the workplace.

Types of Sexual Harassment

Legally sexual harassment has been recognized as either Quid pro quo or hostile work environment.

Quid Pro Quo

In quid pro quo harassment, there is an inherent power differential, where the person in power (e.g., supervisor) puts pressure on the supervised individual for sexual favors. The employee or subordinate individual feels threatened (whether explicitly stated or not) with losing position, status, or employment. An example of quid pro quo sexual harassment is when a boss threatens to fire an employee who does not submit to sexual advances, or alternatively offers promotion in exchange for sexual favors.

Hostile Work Environment

The other form of sexual harassment recognized by the law is hostile work environment. This situation is created when the environment has become intimidating, hostile, or offensive due to unwelcome sexual conduct. For example, the conditions for this type of hostile environment may occur from unwelcome sexual advances by a colleague. However, it does not have to be sexual advances at all. The environment may be created by offensive sexual language, discussions about sex or jokes or displays of sexually oriented materials. The implication is that the employer or supervisor should make sure that the work environment is free from any inherent harassment.

Targets of Sexual Harassment

It is inaccurate to believe that only women are sexually harassed. Both men and women may be victims of sexual harassment. The victim and harasser may be of the same or opposite sex. An individual does not have to be a direct target to be a victim of sexual harassment. Anyone who witnesses the conduct is considered a victim.

Employer Responsibility to Protect against Sexual Harassment

Employers must maintain a work environment that is free from sexual harassment. They must take remedial actions as soon as any sexual harassment has been identified as they may be held liable. They should establish a policy providing for the prevention, reporting, investigation, and punishment of sexual harassment. When employers fail to perform their fiduciary responsibility for employees through reckless indifference, they may be held liable. While indiscretions by a supervisor demonstrates violation of sexual harassment protection, even violations by low level employees or outside third parties are considered violations for which the employer may be held liable. Another way employers can be held liable is to know of the situation but do nothing to resolve it. These egregious examples of disregard for employee well-being contribute to harm that may be physical or psychological.

Side Effects of Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment, especially if it is ongoing, may cause significant harm to victims. This harm may be physical, psychological or vocational. Individuals who have been victims of sexual harassment have described many psychological symptoms similar to response to traumatic stress. Stanford University (Effects of Sexual Harassment, retrieved 1.5.2018) reported the following side effects:

Although sexual harassment may or may not include physical interaction, it may cause significant physical side effects due to additional trauma or stress.

Due to the physical and psychological effects of this undue harassment, many individuals have to change academic programs, leave jobs, change career paths and even life goals. The Stanford study reported implications such as:


Fitzgerald, L.F., Gelfand, M.J., & Drasgow, F. (1995). Measuring sexual harassment: Theoretical and psychometric advances. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 17(4), 425-445

Sexual Harassment in the workplace defined

Supreme Court to Blame for America’s Sexual Harassment Nightmare

Effects of Sexual Harassment

LeMaire, K. L., Oswald, D. L., & Russell, B. L. (2016). Labeling sexual victimization experiences: The role of sexism, rape myth acceptance, and tolerance for sexual harassment. Violence and Victims, 31(2), 332-346. doi:

Menssink, J., Ricciardelli, L., Satyen, L., & McCabe, M. (2016). Stranger and nonstranger harassment: coping strategies and barriers to support seeking. The European Health Psychologist, vol. 18 Supp. retrieved from

Taub, A. (October 10, 2016). Special tax on women: Trump tape is a reminder of the cost of harassment. New York Times (online), New York Times Company, NY. doi: