If Sexual Harassment Is Illegal, Why Is It So Rampant?

When Anita Hill testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in October 1991, sexual harassment had already been declared illegal by the Supreme Court five years earlier. In Vinson v. Meritor Savings Bank of Washington, the court held that sexual harassment that is ''sufficiently severe or pervasive'' to create ''a hostile or abusive work environment'' violates Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act’s prohibition against sex discrimination in the workplace. Yet, it was not until the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings that the public fully engaged in a discussion about sexual harassment.

Supreme Court rulings don’t translate into changes on the ground overnight.

It is hard to imagine that today the Thomas hearings would proceed to confirmation the way they did 27 years ago. But this has far less to do with developments in the law than it does with changes in societal views.

Sexual harassment has been prohibited for more than a quarter century. Yet, this form of sex discrimination is still rampant. In 2016, nearly 7,000 charges of sexual harassment were filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). But that number doesn’t represent the full scope of the problem as the vast majority of sexual harassment victims don’t report it or file any claim. The reasons women stay silent are manifold. They don’t want to risk their jobs, they fear others won’t believe them, they don’t want to relive the experience or suffer through a legal proceeding, they worry about a defamation suit being filed against them, or they are legally prohibited from speaking up or filing a legal action by non-disclosure clauses or mandatory arbitration.

When Anita Hill testified, she was disbelieved and chastised by members of the all-white, all-male Judiciary Committee. Senator Arlen Specter accused her of perjury. Senator Orrin Hatch referred to her as the tool of “slick lawyers.” Senator Alan Simpson remarked, “I really am getting stuff over the transom about Professor Hill. I’ve got letters hanging out of my pocket. I’ve got faxes. I’ve got statements from Tulsa saying: Watch out for this woman.” In the end, as members of the Senate had to decide whether they believed Hill or Thomas, the majority voted to confirm – following a long tradition in he-said/she-said disputes of siding with the man in power.

Today, with #MeToo and the national conversation about sexual violence, less shame attaches to women who share their stories and fewer women are being blamed for the harassment and abuse they have suffered. Indeed, attention is turning from questions about the victim to a focus on the perpetrator, his actions and the structures and institutions that hid the abuse. For the first time, we are seeing real consequences for sexual harassment. Powerful men are being fired or stepping down in Hollywood, in media, in the restaurant business, in Congress, and even in the federal judiciary.

How can we carry this moment forward? First, we must ensure that all women (and men) who suffer sexual harassment are able to be heard. This includes low-income women, immigrant women, and women of color who lack access to lawyers eager to sue the rich and famous. Second, we must provide victims of gender-based violence and harassment that occurs outside the employment context or other spheres protected by civil rights laws with more tools to hold perpetrators accountable, including civil rights remedies. Further, we need more women in positions of power in every industry, legislature, and court system, so that not all bosses are men and harassment at the workplace will not be brushed under the rug.

Have you been harassed on the job? Tell us your story. 

Finally, we need cultural change that starts with the young, like educational reforms that treat boys and girls the same rather than relying on sex stereotypes and programs that teach the meaning and harm of sexual harassment in early grades.

There should be no turning back from this watershed moment. But lasting transformation will require vigilance and structural change.

Read more in our series, "Dismantling Sexual Harassment"

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Dr. Timothy Leary

Where is my previous comment? Was it too piquant for the A.C.L.U. censor?




Good beginning. I think we must do more to teach young girls what is sexual harassment, but before that can happen we need a better understanding of what is the legal definition. Based on this article do we define it as a behavior that ''sufficiently severe or pervasive'' to create ''a hostile or abusive work environment?" I believe you could ask 20 women what is sexual harassment, and you would get 20 different answers. Someone momentarily laying their hand on your knee, or putting their hands on your shoulder as they talk to you - is that sexual harassment? In all sincerity, I do not think women know what constitutes sexual harassment, and without a well informed platform women will lose credibility by making legally frivolous claims. What is a good working definition?


"Someone momentarily laying their hand on your knee, or putting their hands on your shoulder as they talk to you - is that sexual harassment" is that really what you think this is about?
" In all sincerity, I do not think women know what constitutes sexual harassment" is that really what you think? is it really? is it? really? but is it tho? do you really think that tho? do you honestly believe what you just typed?


I have a story about Steven Win. I need to talk to someone!!


There is a marked difference between behavior which is criminal and that which is merely boorish.

The liberal witch-burners are incensed that Vice President Pence will not dine or be in other situations alone with a woman not his wife. Yet, the result of guilt by accusation (the standard promoted by the Osama Department of Education) will force more and more men as employers, public figures, or deep-pockets to practice something akin to defensive medicine - where doctors order all manner of expensive tests as a guard against malpractice accusations.


Man, you’re soooo wrong about the adverse effects of Sexual harassment in this “mans’s world” we live in! Women are far too often viewed by men in a sexual manner, rather than seeing their intelligence, wit, determination, skills, education, and OMG, the adjectives are too numerous to list for you here! I’m 66 years young, worked for 35 years in municipal & federal government, as well as 10 years in the private sector. Men (& once in awhile women) have perpetrated harassment and controlling, devisive, & manipulative preconceived ideas about women, and how they should be regarded!
In short, don’t degrade or harass women, and men won’t need to worry!!!’

J. Sheff

What does having an "all white" Senate committee approve an African-American justice mean? And, if the gist of Ms. Hill's testimony was that Judge Thomas was morally unfit to be approved, what does his behavior since he was appointed say about that?


If we want to dismantle sexual harassment, we need to stop trying to dismantle high profile celebrity men who DO NOT represent the average person, or even the average sexual harassment encounter. Few are the men who are raping or trapping women in their offices to sexually assault them. Many are the men who are making very uncomfortable comments to women, a culture that is no doubt changing. However, we must be careful not to set boundaries of sexual harassment beyond our human nature. Both men and women still rely on flirting and yes sexual innuendos in order to test the waters and determine if the other person is interested in them, or at last willing to be. These are risks men have taken for eons, they had to, and it is arguably how we came to be. Perhaps society is evolving away from this logic, if so, and as absurd as it may sound, people (men specifically) need some education on what is expected from them in humanity 2.0. It is not enough to say anymore, one is sexually harassed if they feel that way, because this could be an opinion predicated on bias, emotion, or even spite. There needs to be conversations. The latest case involving Morgan Freeman is a great example. I think society would be better served by cornering him on the issue and make him explain his male misbehavior and then allow him participate in the empowerment of women…which I am sure he would. Instead, we have made watching the total destruction of high profile celebrity men an act of theater. It does nothing but generate distain and mistrust in men, even the good guys.

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