Sexual Harassment in America: A Documentary History

By Laura W. Stein | Go to book overview

Introduction

DEFINING SEXUAL HARASSMENT

Although sexual harassment has been around for a long time, it was only in 1986 that the U.S. Supreme Court held that sexual harassment could be an illegal form of sex discrimination. It was not until 1991, when law professor Anita Hill accused Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment, that the issue became front-page news. The recognition that sexual harassment is a wrong that the law should remedy is thus very recent.

Given the recent attention the issue has received, it is not surprising that there are many open questions about sexual harassment. The most basic question is what exactly constitutes sexual harassment.

At its broadest, people sometimes use the term "sexual harassment" to describe any incident in which one person directs unwanted sexual attention at another person. The legal definition of sexual harassment, however, is narrower. Several federal, state, and local laws prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex in particular contexts, such as in employment or education. These laws, for example, prohibit employers from refusing to hire women. Sexual harassment is prohibited by these laws because it is considered to be a form of sex discrimination. Consequently, sexual harassment in the legal sense of the term occurs only in contexts in which the law prohibits sex discrimination. If a construction worker makes suggestive comments to a woman passing by, that does not violate current law, since there is no law that prohibits construction workers from discriminating against those walking by the construction site. On the other hand, if those same suggestive comments are made by a supervisor to an employee or by a teacher to a student, it is unlawful sexual harassment.

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