John B. Pryor and Louise F. Fitzgerald
In the United States, the concept of workplace sexual harassment developed first as a legal concept and subsequently as a concept empirically studied by social and behavioural scientists. In the US, workplace sexual harassment is considered a form of gender-based discrimination under Federal Law. In 1980, the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued a set of guidelines that have become the cornerstone of legal and policy definitions of sexual harassment throughout the United States. These guidelines describe two general types of sexual harassment: (1) unwelcome sex or gender-related behaviour that creates a hostile environment and (2) quid pro quo behaviours, where the unwelcome behaviour becomes a term or condition of employment or advancement. The EEOC Guidelines emphasise the importance of examining the specifics of each case in determining whether sexual harassment has taken place. This point seems to acknowledge the importance of contextual factors in judging whether behaviours should be considered to be sexually harassing.
Many subsequent legal cases have since refined and added to the legal understanding of sexual harassment. It is generally understood that unwelcome sexual or gender-related behaviour must be sufficiently severe or pervasive so as to alter the work environment in order to cross the threshold of sexual harassment in a legal sense. While sexual harassment often represents a pattern of behaviour in workplaces where it exists, it is possible for single episodes of behaviour to cross a threshold of severity to be considered sexual harassment in a legal sense - particularly instances of blatant quid pro quo sexual harassment. Legal precedents also uphold the notion that victims sometimes may voluntarily participate in behaviours that they nevertheless find unwelcome or offensive (Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, 1986).
From a legal standpoint, intentions for sexually harassing behaviour are superfluous. The US legal understanding of sexual harassment focuses upon potential employment consequences for victims. Sexual harassment is illegal because it is thought to represent a barrier for equal employment.