How Is Sexual Harassment Defined? Here's What You Need To Know

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After The New York Times published a blistering list of sexual harassment accusations against film mogul Harvey Weinstein, the film producer denied the allegations as "patently false" and "sincerely" apologized for the "pain" he may have caused others. But it didn't end there. Over the following weeks, social media and offline, cultural conversations on sexual violence gained unmistakable momentum. As the conversation continues, it's vital to be aware of the different types of sexual violence, including workplace harassment, street harassment, and sexual assault. It's equally crucial to be aware of how they affect their victims.

Let's start with how the law defines it. John Winer, an attorney based in Los Angeles, who has given public lectures on sexual abuse and sexual harassment in the workplace, explains to Bustle that the definition of workplace sexual harassment is often contingent on its geological context. "[The definition] is different on a state-by-state basis," Winer says, "but the national standard is basically severe or pervasive conduct of a sexual nature."

Winer points to the difference between California and New York, for example. In California, state law demands that employers provide sexual harassment training but for that state of New York, there's no specific law requiring such education. Nevertheless, all states are encouraged by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to educate employees on preventing sexual harassment in the workplace.

This conflation of sexual harassment and sexual assault in everyday language isn't new. One reason? On a social level, one can feel as though sexual harassment and sexual assault are perceptibly similar in terms of the harm and disrespect they cause to the recipient. After all, both constitute unwelcome sexual advances.

However, Winer cautions against conflating the terms: "Sexual assault almost always assumes a physical assault of a sexual nature. Sexual harassment includes both physical assault of a sexual nature, verbal forms, and other forms."

There can be many different forms of harassment inside each definition. For example, there is no single form of workplace harassment: "Being called sexual names, being leered at, being trapped in a room — there are lots of different ways that there can be sexual harassment without sexual assault," Winer says.

The gravity of sexual harassment that Winer speaks of can be understood on a psychological level. Debra Borys, a UCLA psychologist based in Los Angeles, has been studying the emotional damage caused by sexual harassment and misconduct for over two decades. Borys tells Bustle that one of the reasons why sexual harassment is so jarring to a victim can be due to "betrayal."

"In the workplace," Borys explains, "an employee and employer have a fiduciary relationship, almost like a parental relationship or mentorship." A fiduciary dynamic normally refers to a relationship between someone in a higher position who is entrusted with the well-being of someone in a less powerful position or someone in a rank below them.

"When a mentor takes advantage of someone under them," Borys says, "there is moral betrayal." The psychological effects of such violation of trust is undoubtedly jarring, such as feeling heightened distress and anxiety.

It's worth remembering that sexual misconduct isn't confined to the workplace — far from it. Street harassment is a clear and present problem for millions of women in the United States. Around 85 percent women in the U. S. experience such harassment, according to research conducted by a non-profit organization known as "Hollaback!"

Like assault, sexual harassment has overwhelmingly negative psychological effects in its victims. Psychologists report feelings of anxiety, lack of productivity, and even physical illnesses in victims of such mistreatment.

Yet, the psychological effect of everyday sexual harassment — whether in the workplace or on streets — can be overlooked. "People don't take sexual harassment that seriously," Winer says. "I can promise you I've had cases where verbal sexual harassment has been as severe as an assault. I think that some people don't think of sexual harassment as a serious term."

Holly Kearl, expert on gender-based violence and founder of Stop Street Harassment, tells Bustle that there are several differences between workplace sexual harassment and street harassment. One is legal repercussion.

Under the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, sexual harassment in workplaces throughout the country is entirely illegal. "In public spaces, a lot of harassment is legal, unless it rises to the level of the threat of physical contact or is physical, or involves public masturbation or flashing," Kearl explains. Laws against street harassment change based on the state you're in, so Kearl recommends Stop Street Harassment's guide on knowing what is legal and what isn't.

One of the reasons why street harassment, in particular, can seem so terrifying is because there isn't a clear figure of authority to turn to. "In public spaces," Kearl says, "if it happens on public transit you could report it to the transit authority. If it happens in a place like a restaurant or bar or store, you could try to report it to a manager or bouncer and otherwise. If it's illegal, you can try to report it to the police. But it's a lot less clear cut regarding who to report to and who will actually be equipped to help you."

Kearl says that most street harassment is a "one-time encounter" between the harasser and the harassed. "Harassers at work are usually known to you, as in you likely know their name and how to identify them if you want to report it. In public spaces, you generally don't know your harasser and may never see that person again. So it's a lot harder to be able to report or do anything about that particular incident," Kearl explains.

In spite of workplace harassment, street harassment, and sexual assault being different in terms of general definitions, there is one thing that connects both. "I think the term that covers them," Winer says, "is sexual abuse." And as mentioned before, such sexual abuse is widespread. A Cosmopolitan survey claimed that 1 out of 3 women have experienced harassment in their workplaces while a separate research estimated that 75 percent fear backlash for reporting it.

In the face of such abuse, what can be done to address the issue? Kearl has advice that targets the need for more educational methods on informing people about street harassment as well as getting political figures involved.

"We need a lot more education at a young age on issues of consent, gender, and harassment," Kearl says. "It would be great if these lessons were mandated in all schools. We need publicly offered sessions in every community on what harassment is and what to do if it happens to you or if you witness it happening."

On a broader scale, powerful entities like governments need to step up too, Kearl says. "Governments can run PSA campaigns about harassment and also train law enforcement to better know how to handle these kinds of cases (as well as sexual assault, which too often they handle with insensitivity)."

If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673) or visit online.rainn.org.