Sexual harassment in U.S. employment and housing

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The scope of this article is to discuss sexual harassment in employment and housing in the United States of America as defined by various state and federal statutes. What precisely constitutes sexual harassment depends largely on the jurisdiction and whether state or federal law is being applied to a given set of facts.

State differences

It should be noted that what is sexual harassment in one state may not be in another, and what is sexual harassment under one state's law may not be actionable under federal law, and vice versa.

For example, in California, sexual harassment in employment and housing is forbidden under provisions of the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), which is codified in Government Code section 12940. Federal law also prohibits discrimination and harassment, as set forth in what is commonly referred to as Title VII, but often has different requirements than those under California state law.

Sexual harassment is illegal in civil law and sometimes also in criminal law. It is comprised of harassing acts which are directed at another based on sex or gender. This includes all forms of harassment based not only on a desire to gratify, stimulate or fulfill romantic or sexual urges, but also other forms of mistreatment based on a person's gender or sexuality. This includes harassment based on misogyny, pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions, and harassment based on sexual orientation or perceived sexual orientation. It also includes "sexual favoritism" which often results in a system where some persons are favored over others based on a willingness to submit to sexual conduct by a decision maker.

The Fair Employment and Housing Commission (FEHC) regulations define sexual harassment as unwanted sexual advances or visual, verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature. Sexual harassment includes many forms of offensive behavior and includes harassment of a person who is the same sex as the harasser. In California sexual or gender harassment may include, but is not limited to:

1. Unwanted sexual advances;

2. Offering employment benefits in exchange for sexual favors;

3. Making or threatening reprisals after a negative response to sexual advances;

4. Visual conduct, e.g., leering, making sexual gestures, displaying of sexually suggestive objects or pictures, cartoons or posters;

5. Verbal conduct, e.g., making or using derogatory comments, epithets, slurs and jokes;

6. Verbal sexual advances or propositions;

7. Verbal abuse of a sexual nature, graphic verbal commentaries about an individual’s body, sexually degrading words used to describe an individual, suggestive or obscene letters, notes or invitations;

8. Harassment based on a person’s gender, such as targeting a person for offensive or hostile treatment because she is a woman;

9. Physical conduct, such as touching, assault, impeding or blocking movements.

The breadth of this article will continue to expand with time and contributions from others.