How do you determine whether you’re a victim of sexual assault vs. sexual harassment? What you need to know explains the actions you can take to get justice or compensation.
The age of #Metoo revealed how astonishingly common sexual harassment and sexual assault have been in US society and workplaces. When thousands of women finally declared, “Time’s up!” and came forward with their stories, consequences for unacceptable behavior followed.
If you’ve been the victim of sexual misconduct, it’s important to understand the difference between sexual assault and sexual harassment. As explained below, defining the two can help you decide which course of action you can take to seek justice and compensation, and to impose consequences on the perpetrator.
One of the most important distinctions between sexual assault and sexual harassment is the law that governs the misconduct. Sexual assault is a crime, and it is prosecuted under applicable state criminal laws in the jurisdiction where the crime occurred.
Sexual harassment is governed by federal civil rights law, specifically, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination that violates civil rights.
The crime of sexual assault can occur anywhere, including homes, schools, workplaces, and even doctor’s offices. It’s possible that you have been the victim of both sexual harassment and sexual assault. The location and context of where the alleged act or acts took place may be significant in the type of relief victims can ask the courts to impose.
Consult with an experienced civil rights lawyer, patient sexual assault lawyer, or employment lawyer to determine whether to file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC) or a report to your local police or prosecutor’s office.
While state laws may be more specific, “assault” is generally understood any intentional action that puts a person in reasonable fear of imminent harm, whether or not the perpetrator ever touches the victim.
Sexual assault, on the other hand, is a non-consensual sexual act: it can take the form of unwanted and non-consensual touching, groping, kissing, or penetration of the body by another person’s body part or by an object. It happens when a perpetrator makes physical contact of a sexual nature with your body without your consent. It also occurs when the victim is incapable of giving consent.
Sexual assault may be violent, the result of coercion, or it may have happened when the victim didn’t understand that what happened was a sexual assault, as in some cases of doctor-patient abuse.
The legal definition of sexual assault varies from state to state, so your options to seek a remedy for the harm done to you may depend on where you live or where the assault took place.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 made sex discrimination illegal. Specifically, it states that no employer can refuse to hire, fire, or discriminate against a person in the terms and conditions of employment, including wages, based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.
Title VII also prohibits employers from classifying, limiting, or segregating employees or job applicants in ways that would deprive individuals of employment opportunities or affect their status as employees based on the protected classes listed above.
In June of 2020, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in Bostock v. Clayton County that discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation constitutes unlawful sex discrimination. While that case was narrowly decided in the context of firing the plaintiffs based on their gender identity or sexual orientation, the EEOC has applied the same principle to discrimination in hiring federal employees.
Sexual harassment in the workplace can be divided into two main types: quid pro quo (“this for that” or “something for something”) or hostile environment.
Quid pro quo harassment happens when a person in a position of power over an employee requires that employee to perform sexual acts or grant sexual favors, or makes them endure unwanted touching, as the price for a pay raise, promotion, or other benefit of employment.
Threats of demotion, unfavorable work assignments, bad performance reviews, or termination of employment because of a refusal to acquiesce to a demand for sexual acts is also a form of “quid pro quo” discrimination.
A victim doesn’t have to be the subject of a quid pro quo sexual demand to be the object of sexual harassment. When an employer creates or tolerates an atmosphere that persistently makes an employee so uncomfortable on the basis of their sex that they can’t perform their job, that employer is presiding over an unlawful hostile work environment.
Things that create a hostile work environment based on sex may include persistent sexual innuendo, jokes, distributing sexually explicit images, unwanted touching, unwelcome flirting, or bullying based on a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
But hostile environments don’t necessarily depend on sexually explicit language, jokes, images, or touching. Where an employer encourages, tolerates, or ignores a work atmosphere that persistently discriminates against anyone because of their sex, including their sexual orientation or gender identity, to the extent that an employee feels so intimidated or uncomfortable they can’t perform their job, that employer is maintaining an unlawful hostile work environment.
This kind of discrimination could take the form of inferior working conditions, lack of appropriate or equal accommodations like lockers or changing rooms, or onerous and demeaning uniform requirements (such as being required to wear revealing clothing as a condition of employment).
Sexual assault is a crime. Non-consensual sexual acts constitute sexual assault, including when the victim was unable to consent, or didn’t know they had been assaulted.
There is a variety of actions a victim can take to seek justice, and to address the trauma and emotional harm of a sexual assault. Contacting a rape hotline, victim’s advocacy organization, or sexual assault unit of your local police department are a few options.
If you feel intimidated, or as if you won’t be believed about what happened, contact a lawyer with experience representing victims of sexual assault. Your attorney can help you determine the best course of legal action to take and advise you on the possible outcomes of reporting the crime.
Sexual assault can happen in the workplace. Sexual harassment may or may not be a prelude to sexual assault. The perpetrator may be someone previously unknown to the victim. In these cases, the victim may have recourse under federal and state anti-discrimination laws, as well as under criminal law to seek prosecution of the assailant.
Someone who has been discriminated against on the basis of sex in hiring, termination, or wages, conditions of employment, or who has been subjected to insufferable working conditions that make doing their job impossible based on sex, may have a claim for unlawful sex discrimination.
When determining the difference between sexual assault vs. sexual harassment, what you need to know is that contacting an attorney as soon as you recognize that what has happened to you is sexual harassment is critical. There are legal procedures and deadlines you may be required to meet, such as exhausting your remedies through your HR department and the EEOC before you file a lawsuit, or you could lose your opportunity to pursue your claim.
The Law Firm of Tamara N. Holder, LLC stands ready to fight for your rights and your dignity. If you have been victimized by sexual harassment, call Tamara N. Holder today.