Same-Sex Harassment: Know Your Rights

by | Jun 26, 2023 | sexual harassment |

Sexual harassment on the job by a supervisor, coworker, or even a third party such as a client or customer, is a violation of federal law and of many state and local laws. Sexual harassment can occur between members of the opposite sex, or it can occur between members of the same sex.

The sexual orientation and gender of the parties is not relevant to whether or not the event is or is not a form of sexual harassment. An employer cannot claim that a male employee or supervisor could not have engaged in sexually harassing another male coworker because all the parties involved are heterosexual. A heterosexual female supervisor can create a sexual harassing situation with either another heterosexual or homosexual female employee. Sexual desire between people need not be present in order for sexual harassment (discrimination) to occur.

Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Sexual harassment occurs when a coworker, supervisor, or other third party subjects an employee to unwanted conduct based on his or her sex. Such conduct includes demands for sexual favors, unwelcome sexual advances, jokes or comments of a sexual nature, or other physical or oral conduct of a sexual nature. This type of behavior is illegal when it creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment for the victim employee, or when it results in a tangible employment action (such as the employee being fired or demoted).

Sexual harassment need not be sexual in nature, so long as it is harassment based on the victim’s sex.  For example, a supervisor who routinely makes sexist (though not sexual) comments that female employees find offensive has likely engaged in sexual harassment.

Same-Sex Sexual Harassment

The U.S. Supreme Court has held that sexual harassment is illegal under Title VII, even if it is perpetrated by someone of the same sex.  In one case, a male employee was harassed by his male coworkers while working on an offshore oil rig. The male coworkers had subjected to him to humiliating, sex-related acts and had threatened him with rape. The Court held that Title VII prohibits same-sex harassment, noting that sexual harassment need not be motivated by sexual desire. (Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services, Inc., 523 U.S. 75 (1998).)

In other cases, courts have held that harassment based on gender stereotypes of how a man or woman should act is illegal under Title VII.  For example, it’s illegal to harass a woman for being too masculine or to harass a man for being too effeminate.  In one instance, a male waiter was harassed by his male coworkers for carrying his tray “like a girl” and for not wanting to have sex with a female coworker; he was referred to as “she” and “her” and called “faggot” and “female whore.” The federal Court of Appeals that decided the case found that this was sexual harassment: He was being mistreated because he did not conform to his coworkers’ gender-based stereotypes of masculinity. (Nichols v. Azteca Rest. Enterprises, Inc., 256 F.3d 864 (9th Cir. 2001).)