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What Kind of Behavior Is Considered Sexual Harassment?


No one should ever have to endure sexual harassment at work, yet as much as 20 percent of American adults say they have. This pervasive problem can happen to anyone, but conventional wisdom tells us it’s a problem that tends to affect more women than men. Regardless of who may be a target of sexual harassment, though, it’s sometimes not always clear which types of behavior cross the line.

Prohibited by Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, sexual harassment is considered to be sex discrimination. Employers with 15 or more employees are subject to this law, but all employers in California are subject to a similar state law prohibiting employment discrimination.

Knowing how to identify sexual harassment is the first step toward asserting your rights. While you may think you could easily identify it when you see it, not all sexual harassment is so overt. It can be subtle or suggestive if the harasser understands what they’re trying to do is wrong. Too often, however, the survivor isn’t even aware that what’s happening to them is illegal.

Physical & Non-Physical Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment behavior can be classified as either physical or non-physical. Why not physical and verbal? Because “non-physical” includes any verbal forms of sexual harassment, as well as other types of behavior that you might not expect (we’ll get to that later, though).

For now, let’s focus on physical types of sexual harassment, which can be distilled as any kind of unwanted touching. You can probably think of a few examples right off the bat, but we’ll do our due diligence and list a few below.

Physical sexual harassment can include conduct such as:

  • Sexual assault and rape
  • Grabbing or groping someone’s genitalia or body
  • “Accidentally” brushing along someone’s body
  • Habitually brushing past someone in the hallway
  • Blocking someone’s path or cornering them
  • A lingering handshake
  • Gripping someone’s arm or shoulder
  • A “friendly” massage

Non-physical harassment, as previously mentioned, includes verbal and other forms of non-physical sexual harassment, such as the following:

  • Comments about someone’s body or appearance
  • Jokes of a sexual nature or that degrade a sex
  • Inappropriate display of one’s body
  • Staring or leering
  • Obscene gestures
  • Stalking
  • Sexually explicit or discriminatory content in emails
  • Sexually explicit or discriminatory content displayed in the office

Quid Pro Quo Sexual Harassment

Another form of sexual harassment is “quid pro quo,” a Latin phrase meaning “this for that.” The phrase is aptly applied because quid pro quo sexual harassment involves a harasser proposing an exchange where they receive sexual favors from an employee in exchange for a workplace incentive.

A workplace incentive can be any of the following:

  • Promotion
  • Raise
  • Placement on a special project
  • Protection during layoffs
  • Protection against termination for an otherwise legitimate matter

Any deal made between a supervisor and a subordinate that involved a sexual favor and workplace incentive is illegal.


We want to help our readers understand what kind of behavior can be considered sexual harassment so that they can better understand their situation. We hope that with that understanding, more people will come forward wanting to hold their employers and those responsible accountable for violating their rights.

If you wish to discuss your situation with one of our attorneys, please reach out to K2 Employment Law Group online or by calling (800) 590-7674.