Sexual Harassment Laws In the United States: A Timeline

woman hands


Kristina Udice
Kristina Udice
In the United States, sexual harassment has been deemed illegal. It’s been illegal since 1964, but ever since, our country has done little in the way of taking an active role in stopping sexual harassment in the workplace. This can be seen in the lack of additional laws protecting victims of sexual harassment and the varying laws from state to state that relate to harassment.
What is the law on harassment? Sexual harassment laws differ from state to state. Some states have more strict and specific laws when it comes to assault and harassment. Some have laws that dictate practices and policies that companies must abide by. But some states have none at all.

What is sexual harassment?

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commision states: “It is unlawful to harass a person (an applicant or employee) because of that person’s sex. Harassment can include ‘sexual harassment’ or unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature. Harassment does not have to be of a sexual nature, however, and can include offensive remarks about a person’s sex. For example, it is illegal to harass a woman by making offensive comments about women in general.
Both the victim and the harasser can be either a woman or a man, and the victim and harasser can be the same sex. Although the law doesn’t prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that are not very serious, harassment is illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment decision (such as the victim being fired or demoted). The harasser can be the victim's supervisor, a supervisor in another area, a co-worker, or someone who is not an employee of the employer, such as a client or customer.”
This statement is backed by the anti-discrimination law enacted by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And yet, people are still confused as to what constitutes sexual harassment.

Harassment in the Workplace

Sexual harassment and sexually aggressive behaviors have always existed — but sexual harassment laws are relatively new and are ever-evolving. They are not a 20th- or 21st-century problem, it's somewhat recently that we're actually putting into effect these sexual harassment laws. Even still, often times these laws and regulations fall flat when it comes to preventing sexual assault and sexual harassment in and out of the workplace, and dealing with how harassment affects individuals' lives and their work.
According to a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, nearly half of women (48%) have reported experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace. The survey also showed that 67% of Americans believe sexual harassment does indeed happen in the workplace. Sixty-two percent of men and 71% of women believe sexual harassment in the workplace is widespread.
These results come even after years of court cases and legislation that was put into effect to stop sexual harassment and make it easier for victims to speak up.

What types of sexual harassment are illegal?

What constitutes sexual harassment has evolved since the first time laws were put into effect. And still, the leaps and bounds made over the last century still don’t seem to resonate with the American people today who are affected by this unwelcome conduct.

What are the two most common types of harassment?

There are two different types of sexual harassment that we have since put into name — quid pro quo sexual harassment and hostile work environment sexual harassment.
• In the case of quid pro quo, employment status and decisions are made and dependent on an employee providing sexual favors. These decisions include firing, hiring, and granting promotions or raises in exchange for sexual favors.
• Hostile work environment refers to a workplace that makes the employee so uncomfortable that it affects her work or ability to do her job. One example crude, sexual jokes at the employee's expense.

Timeline of Laws Concerning Sexual Harassment

To better understand sexual harassment and the laws around it, it’s important to take a step back and look at the timeline of sexual harassment laws in the United States.

• 1964

In 1964, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed. This piece of legislation prohibited discrimination of employees in the workplace based on race, religion, color, sex, and national origin. This discrimination was made illegal in Title VII of the act. To this day, people still go to court and make their case using Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

• 1968

In 1968, Executive Order 11246 is amended. The amendment prohibits discrimination by sex for government contractors. It also instills an affirmative action plan for hiring more women.

• 1972

In 1972, Title IX of the Education Amendments is put into law. This was a piece of legislation that prohibited discrimination by sex in schools that were receiving money from the federal government. This law broadened the scope of sexual harassment legislation.

• 1978

In 1978, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act was put into legislation. This piece of law prohibited employment discrimination of pregnant women.

• 1980

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) was founded in 1965, but in 1980 the EEOC declared that sexual harassment was a form of sexual discrimination. This meant that sexual harassment was essentially illegal under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

• 1986

In 1986, the first true case on sexual harassment was taken to the courts. This landmark case is that of Meritor Savings Bank v. Winson. In this case, the Supreme Court ruled that sexual harassment was indeed sexual discrimination. This meant that it was prohibited by Title VII. This case also established the idea of a hostile work environment being a form of sexual harassment, changing future case rulings.

• 1991

In 1991, the Civil Rights Act of 1991 was passed. This added additions to Title VII that gave people across the country more protections when it came to discrimination at work. This act allowed victims of sexual harassment and discrimination the right to a jury as well as compensatory and punitive damages as a result of the harassment.

• 1993

In 1993, the Supreme Court changed the process of trying sexual harassment cases. In the case of Harris v. Forklift Systems, The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that victims of sexual harassment did not need to prove that they suffered physical or detrimental psychological injury as a result of the unwelcome behavior thrust onto them.

• 1994

In 1994, the Violence Against Women Act of 1994 was passed. This act made it easier for women to take sexual harassment cases to court by limiting the amount of evidence based on their sexual history to be entered into trial. Essentially, they could no longer be tried on their past sexual behavior, but the assault and harassment that took place. It did, however, allow the previous history of the accused to be entered into court.

• 1995

In 1995, Congress was forced to pass the Government Accountability Act. This made congressmen and women liable to be charged with sexual harassment in the same way workers could be charged across the country.

• 1998

In 1998, The Supreme Court made a ruling that changed the way employers and employees were liable for sexual harassment. In the cases Burlington Industries, Inc. v. Ellerth and Faragher v. City of Boca Raton, The Supreme Court ruled that employers were liable for sexual harassment even if threats and favors weren’t followed through with. This mean that employers were responsible for the behavior of their supervisors. Employers, however, could defend themselves if they could show that there were steps taken to prevent or stop the behavior and that the affected employee did not heed take advantage of these opportunities. This was the case that solidified quid pro quo sexual harassment.

• 2005

In 2005, The SUpreme Court ruled that punishing someone for reporting sexual harassment and sex discrimination was illegal according to Title IX. This decision was made based on the case Jackson v. Birmingham Board of Education.

• 2005

In 2005, Congress passed the Reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. This reauthorization gave federal funds to help victims of sexual violence and sexual assault. The point of these funds was to ensure victims wouldn’t become homeless, that they had the ability to pay for a fair trial and to create programs for women and children of sexual assault and domestic violence.

• 2013

In 2013, the Reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act was extended. The new bill increased coverage to women of Native American tribal lands. This meant that victims on reservations were protected when attacked by non-tribal residents. It also extended coverage to lesbian individuals and immigrants.

• 2018

Recent cases have prompted states to rethink their laws on sexual harassment. Over 125 pieces of legislation have been introduced across 38 states. Some of these acts have been enacted, while others have been rejected. Many are still pending. Laws concern issues such as sexual harassment of and by government employees, sexual harassment training, resources provided by workplaces regarding harassment, and other topics.
There has been no new national law regarding sexual harassment in recent years.

What are the consequences of sexual harassment charges?

If you've experienced or are experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace, you should contact a superior or HR immediately. Follow your company's sexual harassment complaint process and file a complaint with your local law enforcement. This may lead to a court hearing.

Can you go to jail for sexually harassing someone?

It's unlikely that someone can go to prison for sexual harassment, since most cases are civil suits, meaning the victim sues the employer or perpetrator. Still, if the perpetrator committed a more serious crime as part of the harassment, such as molestation, forcible touching, or rape, than the state may file criminal charges, and, if found guilty, the perpetrator could face prison time. Most sexual harassment charges are misdemeanors that lead to fines.

Potential solutions for addressing sexual harassment

Even with all of these laws, sexual harassment, sexual assault, and sexual misconduct are still major problems that plague our society. There are countless harassers out there who get away with their behavior and who see very little in terms or repercussions in response. So where does that leave our society?

• Sexual harassment training

One of the first things we can do is push for more effective sexual harassment training in the workplace. Workplace sexual harassment training is vital for harassers and victims because it sheds a light on what kinds of behavior constitutes sexual harassment. Many companies already have an anti-harassment policy, but these often leave something to be desired and only meet anti-discrimination law requirements set forth by the federal government.
Thorough training gives individuals the facts on sexual harassment — what is legal, what is illegal, and what your rights are when reporting a complaint. Sexual harassment is defined in many different ways, with different behaviors like quid pro quo and hostile environment that can be taken to supervisors and authorities. By making sexual harassment training more of a priority and integrating it more thoroughly into the workplace environment, we can raise awareness and hopefully lessen the number of instances in the workplace and its impact on individual work. At the very least, making sexual harassment education more mainstream will propel more victims to speak out.
This can be done via more traditional training methods like seminars and workshops, or through women in action groups that give people in the workforce a place to have these conversations about sex discrimination and its effects on individual employees.

• Educating students

This is not only important in the workplace, but also in our education systems. Instances of sexual assault and sexual harassment have skyrocketed across college campuses. By including mandatory training and education, we are educating our society at a younger age to stand up to harassers and stop this behavior in its tracks.
It’s also important that we change the rhetoric surrounding sexual harassment. For one, it is not a behavior that solely affects women. This means that there needs to be a more well-rounded training and education system when it comes to talking about workplace harassment.

• Holding people accountable

It’s also important we start holding people accountable for their actions. This means holding the harasser accountable for their behavior and holding those who let the behavior happen responsible as well. The bystander effect is not something that can be hidden behind when it comes to workplace harassment. This will go a long way in showing that victims are being supported by their supervisors and peers.

• Applying more effective policies

We also need to make a motion and call for a more stringent anti-discrimination policy. There needs to be stricter laws, requirements, and punishments. People simply cannot make sexual advance or as for a sexual favor and get away with it. They can’t be allowed to create a hostile environment for their peers. They should not have the power to make anyone's work experience unbearable. More people need to stand up and speak out, demanding more policy changes. You can do this by contacting members of Congress and getting your voice heard.

• Avoiding a conflict of interest

It’s also important that when inspecting a sexual harassment claim, a company hires an outside entity to oversee the claim. This will reduce bias and encourage more people to speak out about instances of workplace sexual harassment they’ve experienced because they won’t be judged by people within the company itself. We must make victims more comfortable with filing sexual harassment claims and complaints both within the workplace and within the criminal justice system itself.

Addressing sexual harassment in the workplace

There is no quick and easy solution when it comes to dealing with sexual harassment. There will always be harassers and there will always be victims. But we can do more to make society understand the importance of protecting victims of sexual harassment and condemning perpetrators.
And sexual harassment is not something that only affects some people — it’s a widespread problem that affects everyone. Even if you’ve never experienced sexual harassment or sexual violence, there is almost a guarantee that you know someone that has. This could be a sibling, a friend, a partner, and even a parent. It affects men and women regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. And perpetrators aren’t easy to spot on the surface — they look like everyday people. It’s time we put them in the spotlight.
We are on the right path. Victims are coming out and harassers are being condemned — even if it’s only publicly and not legally. It’s a start. And these movements are gaining momentum. Powerful and influential people are taking a stand. Movements like #MeToo are gaining traction. We need to keep this up in order to change the state of sexual harassment in the United States. It won’t be easy. It won’t be quick. But it will be worth it.