Sexual Assault and Harassment in the Workplace
Sexual assault and harassment happen in American workplaces at an astounding rate. Recent movements, such as #MeToo, have brought the issue to the forefront, but the problem persists.
Learn more about sexual assault and sexual harassment in the workplace, red flags, and what to do if a co-worker sexually harasses or assaults you.
What Is Sexual Assault in the Workplace?
It may be helpful to understand non-sexual assault before jumping to sexual assault. Legal definitions vary from state to state, but one definition of assault is an intentional action that makes you reasonably apprehensive of imminent harmful or offensive contact.
Some definitions of assault don’t require you to be physically injured or even touched. However, the other party must have intended offensive or harmful contact. Additionally, you must have been aware that such contact might occur. However, some states, such as Texas, require physical contact, while others do not.
As with assault, sexual assault definitions differ by state. Generally, sexual assault is any sexual behavior or contact that happens without your consent.
It can include activities such as:
- Forced intercourse
- Attempted rape
- Forcible sodomy
- Child molestation
Sexual assault includes instances in which the victim cannot consent due to intoxication, disability, age, fear, or other circumstance.
It’s important to understand that while rape is a type of sexual assault, it’s not the only type. Unwanted touching and other forms of sexual contact are also considered sexual assault.
Sexual assault can and does occur regularly in workplaces across America, but victims rarely report it. The statistics regarding victims of sexual harassment show that sexual harassment and assault are more common than you might think, with 38 percent of all women and 14 percent of all men reporting an experience at work. The World Health Organization reports that nearly a third of women worldwide report experiencing sexual violence at least once.
In the workplace, the courts can still hold the employer responsible even if a sexual assault occurs outside the office walls or off the clock. An employment relationship between the parties may be enough for the basis of a claim. This is particularly true if the incident is severe, repetitive, or contributes to a hostile work environment.
What Is Sexual Harassment in the Workplace?
Sexual harassment in the workplace indicates behavior of a sexual nature that creates a hostile work environment. Sexual harassment in the workplace can be verbal, nonverbal, or even digital.
Examples of verbal sexual harassment include:
- Inappropriate comments
- Sexual jokes
Examples of nonverbal sexual harassment include:
- Facial expressions
- Lewd or suggestive gestures
Examples of sexual harassment via digital communication include:
- Sexual emails
- Sending pornographic content
- Online stalking
- Any verbal sexual harassment delivered digitally
If the action feels sexual and makes you uncomfortable in the workplace, there’s a good chance that it qualifies as workplace sexual harassment.
Sexual Harassment v. Sexual Assault
Sexual harassment is a broad term that covers many types of unwanted sexual attention. It can include comments, gestures, and jokes.
Alternatively, sexual assault is sexual behavior that occurs without the victim’s consent. It is often physical in nature or a failed attempt to be physical. It can include groping, rape, and attempted rape.
Many may assume that sexual assault is more serious than sexual harassment. However, the legal definitions can vary between states, and both can be highly traumatizing. Different states categorize sexual actions differently and can apply different penalties.
Whether an employee experiences sexual harassment or sexual assault, the event would constitute a dreadful experience. Neither should be permitted to occur inside or outside the workplace.
Who Is Affected by Workplace Sexual Assault?
Although anyone can be affected by sexual assault in the workplace, most commonly, sexual assault is committed against women. In general, one out of every six American women has experienced rape or attempted rape. Meanwhile, about one in 33 American men has had a similar experience.
Female farm workers are especially vulnerable to workplace sexual assault. In California, 265,000 female farm workers are among its most vulnerable demographics.
A new study out of the UCLA School of Law found that LGBT+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) people are almost four times more likely than non-LGBT+ people to experience violent victimization, including rape and sexual assault.
Lesbian, bisexual, and transgender women (LBT) are five times more likely than non-LBT women to be victimized. Gay, bisexual, and transgender men (GBT) are more than twice as likely as their non-LGBT+ counterparts to experience violent victimization.
Meanwhile, the types of industries most likely to fuel sexual assault include:
However, as industries dig more deeply into the data for sexual assault, they are uncovering alarming statistics. A First Round State of Startups survey found that 78 percent of female founders and 48 percent of male founders had been sexually harassed in the workplace or knew someone who had.
Other particularly at-risk groups include:
The federal minimum wage for tipped employees is $2.13 per hour. Employers in states that pay this minimum wage force restaurant workers rely on tips, leaving workers little choice but to tolerate inappropriate behavior.
According to Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, “Women who rely on customers’ tips for the bulk of their income are twice as likely to be harassed as women who work in states in which the tipped subminimum wage has been abolished.”
How Workplace Sexual Assault Affects Mental and Physical Health
Workplace sexual assault harms employees’ mental and physical health. A recent American Heart Association study showed that workplace sexual assault and sexual harassment were associated with a higher risk of hypertension in female nurses.
Data from that same study showed a link between workplace sexual assault/harassment and women’s cardiovascular health. They found that women who experienced sexual assault or workplace sexual harassment were more likely to develop high blood pressure.
Other physical health effects can include:
- Eating issues
- Sexually transmitted infections (STIs)
Workplace sexual assault can also negatively impact mental health. It can result in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, dissociation, panic attacks, and anxiety.
Another study found that sexual assault is linked to a greater occurrence of poor sleep, anxiety, and depression.
Effects of Workplace Sexual Assault and Harassment on the Company
Workplace sexual assault and harassment don’t benefit anyone, including the company. Sexual assault and harassment in the workplace can produce many unwanted side effects.
For example, it can contribute to the following:
- Gaps in leadership
- Drops in employee productivity and performance
- Drops in employee retention
- Drops in hiring
Additionally, sexual assault and harassment in the workplace can lead to criminal and civil charges. These can result in lengthy and expensive court cases, negatively highlighting your company name.
Recommendations for Prevention of Workplace Sexual Assault & Harassment
One of the best things employers can do to prevent sexual assault and harassment in the workplace is to provide regular training. Your employees should know how to identify warning signs and unacceptable behavior. Your staff should also know the steps to take if they have experienced sexual assault or harassment.
The warning signs of workplace sexual assault usually start with sexual harassment. The perpetrator may begin to get too touchy or invade their co-worker’s personal space by standing too close. They may attempt to engage in sexual conversations, make sexual jokes, or share pornographic images.
The aggressor may make “quid pro quo” demands to trade work-related favors for sexual favors. Or, they may harass their victim with demeaning conduct or remarks based on the victim’s gender identity. If the victim attempts to file a complaint, the perpetrator may retaliate inside or outside the workplace.
The employer must offer a method for filing complaints that allows victims to seek help without fear of reprisal.
What To Do If You Have Been Assaulted in the Workplace
If you have experienced sexual assault in the workplace, you can take steps to ensure your safety and legal rights.
First, you should ensure your physical safety. If sexual penetration occurred, you should seek out a sexual assault forensic exam, or rape kit, in your area. A rape kit can be critical to legal action, should you pursue it. You should also document any cuts, bruises, or other injuries with photographic evidence. It is best if the medical practitioner notes your injuries, too.
Next, you should report your sexual assault. If your workplace has a method for reporting the assault internally, you should consider this option. Additionally, you should consider contacting the police, depending on the sexual act.
Your state will have a statute of limitations for reporting sexual assault and filing a lawsuit. Some deadlines are as short as two years. You can check the statute of limitations and other laws related to sexual assault. Because statutes of limitations sometimes have complicated exceptions, it is strongly advised that you speak with a lawyer about important litigation deadlines.
Don’t neglect your mental health in the aftermath of workplace sexual assault. You can call the National Sexual Assault Online Hotline to chat with a trained staff member who can provide you with crisis support while maintaining your confidentiality.