We Asked How You Define Sexual Harassment At Work — And Your Answers Are In

The definition of workplace sexual harassment has varied widely over time, especially in the legal system. We asked how you define it now.

Sexual harassment is
Submitted by a woman who is between 25 and 34 years of age.

Source: selected BuzzFeed reader submissions

There’s been significantly more attention paid to workplace sexual harassment since the Harvey Weinstein exposé this past October. But for years, people, courts, and the media have struggled to answer the question: What exactly constitutes sexual harassment?

Compared to the violence of sexual assault, harassment is much harder and more complicated to define. It can differ from culture to culture and generation to generation. And it’s certainly changed wildly over time.

So, to get a better understanding of how we individually and as a society define sexual harassment, we did some historical research into legal cases and New York Times headlines — and also asked how you, today, define it.

We asked people on social media to click this link to take a nonscientific survey. Of the more than 9,700 responses, we selected 77 that seemed to represent a cross-section of answers to the question "Sexual harassment is..." for the graphic above. (You can submit more definitions at the end of this story.)

Then, after weeding out a few obviously trolling answers, we gauged your responses to another question: “Which of the following constitutes sexual harassment to you?” Here’s how you answered:

Source: selected BuzzFeed reader submissions

Of the respondents we counted, a bit more than 82% identified as women, roughly 13% as men, and 0.7% as nonbinary or a third gender. A little more than 3% didn’t answer the question or preferred not to say what gender they were. Of the respondents who gave us an age range, roughly 38% said they were between the ages of 16 and 24, another 38% were between 25 and 35, 17.5% were older than 35 years, and 6% were 15 years and younger.

That’s one way of looking at how we define sexual harassment today. But how did we get here?

One way to answer that is to look at the number of times “sexual harassment” was used in the headlines of the New York Times — a national publication of record that, conveniently, has an easy way to scrape all that data back to 1975.

This year, of course, has the most, especially after the explosion of reporting on sexual harassment that began in October with the Times’ first Weinstein piece.

Source: Data provided by The New York Times

Note: Data collected through Dec. 20, 2017

Note that in 1975, more and more women were entering the American workforce. Between 1964, when the data, compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, was first recorded, and 1974, for instance, the percentage of women among working Americans climbed from 31% to 37%, and it kept steadily rising:

Still, many people don’t label “certain forms of unwelcome sexually based behaviors — even if they view them as problematic or offensive — as ‘sexual harassment,’” according a 2016 report from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Which brings us to how the legal world interprets the phrase “sexual harassment.”

First, a caveat: It’s problematic to get bogged down on the legal definition of sexual harassment. Getting too wrapped up in what is and isn’t legal could distract from the fact that problematic behavior at work results in a toxic environment. But looking at legal interpretations of sexual harassment and sexual coercion in the workplace over time can help us understand just how much they reflect historical cultural norms at the time.

Using Reva B. Siegel’s introduction for the book Directions in Sexual Harassment Law as a guideline, we gathered information on some of the most significant cases. The Supreme Court did not formally recognize “sexual harassment” as a form of discrimination until 1986. But the timeline below also includes cases that broadly document how the law protected a person’s right to work free of sexual misconduct of any kind — whether it be protection from rape at work, from being fired after getting pregnant by your boss, or from being denied a job as a woman for wearing pantsuits.


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    Must be fewer than 500 characters.
    tolerating it when someone tells you a suggestive story
    tolerating crude sexual remarks about another person
    displays of sexist materials
    when a coworker treats you differently because of gender
    when a coworker makes sexist remarks
    when a coworker makes sexist remarks about you
    when a coworker stares, leers or ogles you
    when a coworker attempts to discuss sexual matters
    when a coworker displays unwelcome seductive behavior
    when a coworker deliberately touches you
    when a coworker rewards you for sexual cooperation
    when a coworker threatens you for lack of sexual cooperation
    when you experience negative consequences for refusing sexual cooperation
    Please enter one response per row
    Must be fewer than 500 characters.

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