‘Sex harassment’ doesn’t require sexual interest

The classic image of sexual harassment is a boss who makes passes at employees or tries to use his position to extract sexual favors. But it’s important to know that “sexual harassment” is really much broader than that, and can include any situation where workers are made to feel uncomfortable in a way that relates to their gender – even if the culprit isn’t trying to seduce the victim.

For instance, one recent case was brought by a member of a bridge maintenance crew in Louisiana who didn’t seem to fit his supervisor’s idea of what a “rough ironworker” should act like. The supervisor, who viewed the worker as effeminate, allegedly harassed him by doling out verbal abuse, engaging in taunting gestures of a sexual nature, and exposing himself to the worker.

When the case went to court, the employer claimed that this couldn’t be sexual harassment because the supervisor wasn’t motivated by sexual desire. In addition, the employer noted that the supervisor didn’t treat men and women differently on the job, and had no particular hostility to either gender.

But a federal appeals court sided with the worker, saying the supervisor’s actions could still be sexual harassment because they were directed at the employee’s masculinity (or perceived lack of it).

Of course, the law can vary. The California Court of Appeals rejected a similar case of “macho” discrimination, which was also brought by an ironworker. But the court did allow the worker to sue for retaliation (because the taunting worsened after he complained about it). And afterward, the California legislature changed the law to make it clear that sexual harassment can be illegal even if it’s not motivated by sexual desire.

Meanwhile in Idaho, an assistant school principal claimed that after he was hired, he was subjected to a constant stream of jokes from his male boss and others suggesting that he was sleeping around with large numbers of women. Although there was no suggestion that the jokes were anything other than misguided attempts at humor, the Idaho Supreme Court said the school district could still be sued because it could be expected that the principal would find this kind of conduct upsetting.

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