Forms of sexual harassment at work

May 13, 2018
By: Charles Lamberton

Ken Cooper recently outlined what he called the “six levels” of sexual harassment. His summary is useful and worth walking through. But he omits an important feature of sexual harassment present in many, many cases: implicit or explicit threats of retaliation if the victim reports the harassment. Let’s take a look at Cooper’s six levels and then add what he left out.

Level 1 according to Cooper is “Aesthetic Appreciation.” This includes the seemingly non-aggressive compliment about a woman’s (or man’s) physical or sexual features. It’s a lifted eyebrow, wink, wolfish smile or a sexual joke. Individually, such comments merely sound rude. But, they can be offensive, too, particularly when they’re constant over time.

Level 2 is “Active Mental Groping.” “Mental Groping” is undressing someone with your eyes. It’s staring at certain body parts. It’s the more vicious, crude or insulting joke or innuendo. There’s been no physical contact yet, but it almost feels the same.

Level 3 is “Social Touching.” “Social Touching” is physical contact that carefully stays within the bounds of semi-acceptable behavior. It’s the unnecessary hand on the shoulder, on the small of the back or around the waist. It’s giving someone — usually a female lower on the corporate ladder — an unasked-for backrub or hug.

Level 4 is “Foreplay Harassment.” “Foreplay harassment” is where the touching starts to push the boundaries. The offender escalates the touching into more sensitive areas. The hand moves farther down the small of the back or is wrapped around the waist onto the stomach. A hand is draped over the shoulder. A woman is ushered around by the top of her arm, allowing the offender’s hand to brush up against her breast. This behavior also occurs when the offender stands closely behind someone who’s seated so she’s eye-to-zipper should she swivel around. It’s bar-level pickup lines said jokingly, but actually aimed at asking for sexual favors.

Level 5 is “Sexual Abuse.” “Sexual abuse” is touching of a sexual nature, such as pinching, grabbing or brushing up against sexual areas of the body.

Level 6 is “Ultimate Threat.” “Ultimate Threat” is not the right label; Cooper should call it “Ultimate Act.” “Ultimate Act” means a physical sexual assault, or the threat of assault unless there is compliance.

What Cooper leaves out are implicit or explicit threats of retaliation. All workplace sexual harassment is coercive, communicates expectations about compliance and the threat of consequences if the victim takes a stand. Sometimes the harasser is sufficiently powerful that he or she can make a phone call and end a career. Sometimes the harasser can take other actions to make his victim’s life miserable. Examples would be a bad performance review or changing her job duties. In this way, workplace sexual harassment is inherently extortionate.

We are Pittsburgh sexual harassment lawyers who can help people who have been sexually harassed at work. Call us at 412-258-2250 or email [email protected]