Ask a Sexual Harassment Lawyer: Is Sexual Harassment a Crime?

In recent years, sexual harassment, especially in the workplace, has become a focus of attention. While this is good in many ways, it does also highlight the sometimes complex nature of the laws surrounding harassment. If you believe you’ve been the victim of harassment or abuse, a sexual harassment lawyer is always your best choice for understanding how the law relates to your situation. In the meantime, it may be helpful to know something about how the law classifies harassment.

Ask a Sexual Harassment Lawyer: Is Sexual Harassment a Crime?

Sexual harassment is not in itself a crime. While it is illegal in many public situations, it may or may not become a crime depending on the circumstances surrounding the harassment. Harassment is a lesser charge than sexual abuse or rape, and for this reason, it can be more difficult to define. What one person considers harassment, another may see as “all good fun” or appropriate flirting.

Defining Harassment

In general, harassment is defined as unwelcome conduct that is one or more of the following:

  • Of a sexual nature
  • Directed against a gender
  • Behavior that creates a hostile work environment


The above definition makes it clear why this issue can be confusing, especially in the workplace. Some people are very welcoming to office flirting: they appreciate being told they look good or like being asked out by colleagues. Other people do not enjoy this behavior at all.

The key is that the behavior be “unwelcome.” If a victim has expressed that they do not want to engage in sexual banter, be asked on dates, be sent lewd photos, or engage in sex acts, and the harasser does not immediately desist their behavior, this is harassment. If a harasser makes life more difficult for the victim at work or even denies the victim a promotion or gives them a negative review in retaliation, this is also harassment.

Harassment and Crime

Harassment is a civil wrong in the US, which means that the victim may sue a perpetrator or an employer who allows the harassment to continue after being made aware of it. Harassment is not a crime, however, and would not be punished under criminal law unless criminal acts are used to perpetrate the harassment.

Harassment becomes a crime under conditions like the following:

When Harassment Includes Assault

If a harasser makes physical contact with a victim or even threatens assault or battery, this makes the harassment a crime.

When Harassment Is Taken Public or Involves Bullying

If a harasser bullies a victim, causing the victim to fear for their own safety, including posting pictures online or threatening to ruin someone’s reputation, marriage, or ability to work, this may rise to the level of a crime.

When Harassment Runs Afoul of Public Conduct Orders

Missouri has laws in place forbidding certain types of harassment in the street, including sexual harassment. These laws cover lewd and offensive language, disturbing the peace, flashing, soliciting sex, and more.

When Harassment Involves Stalking

Stalking can be physical or take place in the cyber world, as when a harasser follows a victim on social media sites, trolling their every comment and post. This behavior can mean the harasser will be charged with stalking.

When Illegal Pornography Is Involved

If a harasser sends a victim pornographic pictures, and if a person depicted in the photos is underage, the harasser could be charged with violating criminal laws about child pornography. An employer may even be charged if they were aware of concerns about pictures being circulated and did nothing about it (or even facilitated circulation).

Other Issues

While making a lewd joke in an office setting may not be a crime, it may be a violation of workplace rules. Many companies have official policies that prohibit this kind of behavior, even if the policy is not regularly enforced.

If you have been a victim of harassment in a Missouri workplace, sexual harassment lawyers in Kansas City can help you discover if a company has ignored its own rules and guidelines, which can help you in a lawsuit by showing how the company failed to provide a safe working environment.

What to Do

If you’ve been the victim of sexual harassment in the workplace, the first step is usually to discuss the matter with HR or with a manager. If they do not investigate and deal with the matter quickly, you should file a complaint with the Missouri Department of Labor. You should also contact a lawyer to get advice on the next steps and what to do if you do not get a satisfactory response from your company.

If the person you would normally report to is the harasser and there is no one else to go to, or if for any reason you do not feel safe, you may wish to skip the above steps and immediately contact a lawyer. A lawyer can advise you about what the right steps are based on the unique details of your situation.

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