Virtual Sexual Harassment: Same Workplace Problem, Different Context

Sexual Harassment

Every day, countless people are victimized by acts of sexual harassment. One of the most common places where this can be seen is the workplace. It is depressingly common for workers, especially women, to have a boss, coworker or client stare at, speak to or even touch them in inappropriate and non-consensual ways.

While the risk of in-person physical sexual harassment may be lowered as many workers now complete their tasks from home, remote sexual harassment is becoming more common, and the current environment makes it a growing concern for victims, employers, and legal professionals.

What is Remote Sexual Harassment?

Remote sexual harassment is just that: it’s sexual harassment that occurs from a remote distance using digital tools. Unfortunately, it’s become much more common in the days of COVID-19, when nearly half of all American businesses have expanded to include or entirely turned to remote working for their employees.

Despite the lack of physical interaction, remote sexual harassment can still be a traumatizing experience for the victim and is a terrible thing to realize is happening at your workplace.

What Forms Does It Take?

Like normal sexual harassment, remote sexual harassment focuses on unwanted and unwelcome behaviors, advances, comments, and any other activities that invade the private space of another person and/or reference them in a sexual manner.

The definition of sexual harassment has been expanded and clarified over the years. Here are a few major examples:

  • A man texts a female coworker pictures of his genitalia. This is remote sexual harassment since it deals with sexual context and it was unwelcome.
  • One employee repeatedly flirts with or hits on another employee when they work together on a project. This is not only inappropriate in a workplace conversation, but the second employee repeatedly tells the first employee to stop, to no avail.
  • A boss makes a comment about a female employee’s appearance during a teleconferencing meeting. The comment is unwanted and unappreciated, but he continues making insinuations as to her attractiveness.

These forms are very similar to the types of sexual harassment someone can experience in a physical workplace. But, unlike at work in person, remote sexual harassment can seem unending and inescapable in unique and sinister ways.

What Enables Remote Sexual Harassment?

There are several factors that may enable and even facilitate Remote Sexual Harassment:

  • At home, people are able to access recreational substances—such as alcohol—that may lower their inhibitions and impair their decision-making, leading them to sexually harass a coworker
  • Remote sexual harassment is a lot “easier” to do in terms of raw, physical effort. It’s also more difficult for the harasser to be caught in the act.
  • Remote sexual harassment is easier to maintain, again, because it takes less effort.

Do Sexual Harassment Laws Still Apply?

Yes. The same anti-sexual-harassment laws apply to remote sexual harassment as they do for in-person reports. This means that victims do have legal recourse if they experience remote sexual harassment, either while on the clock at work or even off regular work hours. No one deserves to be sexually harassed under any circumstances, and the law is there to protect those who are victimized.

What Can You Do?

If you’re an employee who has experienced remote sexual harassment, you can contact your supervisors. If your supervisors are the ones doing the harassing, you should contact your company’s HR representatives. You can also seek legal counsel if you want to sue.

If you’re an employer, it’s your responsibility to stamp out remote sexual harassment and punish or fire those who are the offenders. Be sure to check in with your workers during this time to ensure that they aren’t being remotely and sexually harassed by their coworkers or supervisors.