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Sexual harassment is harassment of a sexual nature, typically in the workplace or other setting where raising objections or refusing may have negative consequences. In American employment law, it is defined as any unwelcome sexual advance or conduct on the job, having the effect of making the workplace intimidating or hostile. Sexual harassment is considered a form of illegal discrimination and is a form of sexual and psychological abuse, ranging from mild transgressions to serious abuses. Indeed, psychologists and social workers report that severe and/or chronic sexual harassment can have the same psychological effects on victims as rape or sexual assault. Backlash and retaliation for complaining about the harassment can further aggravate the effects. For example, in 1995, Judith Coflin committed suicide after chronic sexual harassment by her bosses and coworkers. (Her family was later awarded 6 million dollars in damages.)
The definition of the phrase Sexual Harassment can be broad and controversial, depending on each individual's opinion of what harassment is, and misunderstandings can abound. Some people have thought that the term was coined in 1974 at Cornell University, but in fact the term was in common use, at least in Cambridge MA in 1973 (MIT seems to have been the first large institution to have used the term and to have developed first a "point of view" and then policy on this subject in 1973. The term may also have been used much earlier). While typical sexual harassment behaviour usually includes unwanted touching of a co-worker's private parts, lewd comments, talk about gender superiority, sexual jokes, demands for sexual favors, etc., some companies have reported that they have had to fire employees (after a co-worker has complained of sexual harassment) for such actions as telling the complaining co-worker how good he or she looks for that co-worker's date with another person, or for simply handing what seemed, to the fired employee, to be just a harmless compliment. Street harassment is generally considered another form of sexual harassment.
The situation is further complicated by the fact that an individual's career can easily be destroyed when they become the target of sexual harassment, or if they are accused of harassment. Employers need to be careful to protect the rights of both complainants and individuals who have been the subject of complaints, as both may find themselves in vulnerable positions, and the rights and wrongs of a case may not be straightforward. Those who have been accused must be assured that their rights will be fully protected, and that accusation will not automatically be taken as proof. They must also be counselled not to take matters into their own hands if they believe themselves unjustly accused, and that any retaliation will be viewed seriously, irrespective of the merit of the original complaints.
Sexual harassment can occur in a variety of circumstances:
The harasser can be the victim's supervisor, a client, a co-worker, a teacher or professor, a student a schoolmate, or a stranger.
The victim does not have to be the person directly harassed but can be anyone who finds the behavior offensive and is affected by it.
While adverse effects on the victim are common, this does not have to be the case for the behavior to be unlawful.
The victim can be male or female. The harasser can be male or female.
The harasser does not have to be of the opposite sex.
The harasser may be completely unaware that their behavior is offensive or constitutes sexual harassment, or they may be completely unaware that their actions could be unlawful.
However, one constant is that the harasser's behavior must be unwelcome
The concept of sexual harassment has both colloquial and legal meanings. Many more people have experienced sexual harassment than have a solid legal case against the accused. For many businesses, preventing sexual harassment, and defending its managerial employees from sexual harassment charges, have become key goals of legal decision-making. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has pointed out that sexual harassment in the workplace is not a freestanding tort, but is only, in its legal sense, a subcategory of employment discrimination. Similar definitions have been established for academic environments, with a similar burden of proof.