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Would you know sexual harassment if you saw it?

One of the most notable phrases from U.S. Supreme Court decisions to have filtered into the broader culture is "I know it when I see it."

Justice Potter Stewart was the source. It came in a concurring opinion he wrote in a case regarding an allegedly pornographic film. Stewart wrote, "I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description (of pornography), and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that."

We bring this up in the context of the current focus on sexual harassment in the workplace. In this age of social media, the topic has enjoyed a grassroots groundswell in the form of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. While the attention is worthwhile, one thing the debate has done is reveal that harassment is so normal a part of life that many victims don't know it when they see it.

Confusion is perhaps understandable. While both federal and New York law offer protections for workers against sexual harassment, it can be hard to identify what crosses the line. Many will acknowledge that things happen or are said every day that have sexual connotations and which are offensive, but do they rise to the level of sexual harassment?

Let's be clear. Harassment is illegal and the laws even go so far as to specify what is outlawed. It includes:

  • Inappropriate touching
  • Jokes of a sexual nature that make you uncomfortable or feel vulnerable
  • Comments or gestures of a sexual nature
  • Benefits made dependent on sexual favors

Touching and talking don't even have to be factors. A leering look or stare can be harassment. However, many legal observers note that standards of severity and pervasiveness need to be present to make a case viable, and courts have interpreted the standards differently.

The bottom line is that if you are subject to behavior that makes you uncomfortable, you have a right to call it out. If it continues, you have a right to seek legal redress. And to be sure of your options, it's wise to consult an experienced attorney.

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