Sexual harassment is illegal primarily because it has been interpreted by the courts as sex discrimination, which makes it a civil rights violation. The journey from precedent to enforcement, however, has been arduous.
The following landmark successes helped pave the way, and in 1998 the Supreme Court of the United States will rule on more cases of sexual harassment than ever before.
- 1964: Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 makes it unlawful for employers to discriminate against employees on the basis of sex.
- 1972: Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 outlaws sex discrimination in schools that are federally funded.
- 1977: Barnes v. Costle produces the first ruling by a court (the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia) that identifies sexual harassment in the workplace as a form of sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
- 1980: The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issues new standards prohibiting sexual harassment of employees by their supervisors in all government agencies and in private businesses with 15 or more employees.
- 1986: In Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, the Supreme Court of the United States unanimously upholds EEOC guidelines, affirming that an individual need not demonstrate specific economic consequences of sexual harassment and that the creation of a "hostile environment" at work was sufficient grounds for a civil suit.
- 1991: Anita Hill brings sexual harassment to the forefront of public awareness during the confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas by accusing him of creating a hostile work environment with unwanted sexual advances.
- 1991: Civil Rights Act of 1991 extends potential liability of companies to include compensatory and punitive damages in cases of sexual harassment.
- 1992: In Franklin v. Gwinnett County Public Schools, the Supreme Court affirms Title IX right to pursue sexual harassment claims in federal courts
- 1992: Inquiry into the Tailhook sexual harassment scandal cover-up results in forced resignation of two U.S. Navy admirals.
- 1993: In Harris v. Forklift Systems, Inc., a unanimous decision by the Supreme Court of the United States broadens the legal definition of sexual harassment. Now workers do not have to prove psychological damage or job impairment in order to win a tort of sexual harassment.
- 1998: Astra U.S.A. pays out the largest EEOC sexual-harassment settlement in history: $10 million.
- 1998: In Oncale vs. Sundowner Offshore Services, the Supreme Court of the United States upholds legitimacy of sexual harassment complaints where all parties are of the same sex.
- Pending at the Supreme Court: Ellerth v. Burlington Industries, which will determine if job consequences must be proved to establish "quid pro quo" sexual harassment; Faragher v. City of Boca Raton, which could further define employer accountability even when the company is unaware of the harassment perpetrated by one employee on another; Doe v. Lago Vista involves sexual harassment in public schools, which is prohibited under Title IX.
Written by Curtis Grisham.
Graphic design by Chris Larsen