Male Victims of Sexual Harassment Double from 1992 to 2008

In June of 2010, a former California Starbucks barista settled a sexual harassment lawsuit with Starbucks for neglecting to protect her from her boss's sexual advances at work. At the time of such sexual harassment, which included statutory rape, the barista was 16 years old and her male manager was 24.

Recently, the city of Concord, California settled a sexual harassment lawsuit with a female police officer who sued the city for sexual advances and retaliatory conduct by her male supervisors.

Although these are the kinds of facts we often expect in sexual harassment lawsuits and the types of images we often see in depictions of sexual harassment in the news and on television, women are not the only victims of sexual harassment at work.

In a recent 9th Circuit US Court of Appeals review of a District Court opinion, EEOC v. Prospect Airport Services, Inc., the Court of Appeals summarizes the facts of the underlying case as follows. The victim was a male who was constantly sexually harassed while at work over the course of several months by a female co-worker. Such sexual harassment included the making of pornographic sexual gestures, the showing of lewd photos, minor unwanted touching, and the making of sexual innuendos and comments to the victim by the female co-worker, despite his consistent objections. The male victim's work performance was negatively affected by the hostile work environment. The District Court that heard the case granted the Defendant's Summary Judgment Motion, giving the Defendant an early victory in the case.

In its formal opinion, the District Court argued that the "Defendant's conduct was not severe and pervasive enough to amount to sexual harassment objectively for a reasonable man, noting that “[the victim] admits that most men in his circumstances would have ‘welcomed’ the behavior he alleged was discriminatory, but that due to his Christian background he was ‘embarrassed.’ ” The [District Court] emphasized that [the victim] had never filed a written complaint, and management had told [the Defendant] that her behavior was inappropriate." [Citations omitted.] The US Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit reversed the lower District Court's opinion, citing the fact that the victim suffered from constant pressure from the Defendant that ultimately seriously affected his psychological well-being and his work performance. Affirming that "[m]en as well as women are entitled under Title VII to protection from a sexually abusive work environment," the Court of Appeals noted that the case should be fully heard by the District Court, rather than being dismissed early in the litigation process by the granting of a Summary Judgment motion.

The interesting factor in this EEOC sexual harassment lawsuit is that the District Court considered how a "normal man" in the victim's shoes would "welcome" such sexual advances from an attractive female co-worker. Imagine the same argument applying to a female victim, and one can begin to see how sexism against men in sexual harassment lawsuits is at work in our courts.

According to the EEOC, while the number of sexual harassment lawsuits as a whole has declined over the last decade, the number of sexual harassment lawsuits filed by male victims has increased in that time period. In fact, between 1992 and 2008, the number of sexual harassment lawsuits filed by men doubled from 8% to 16%. David Grinberg, an EEOC spokesman stated, "While some people may think sexual harassment of male employees is a joke, the issue is real [...] We are seeing more of it, and such conduct has serious legal consequences for employers." It is quite possible that the number of male victims of sexual harassment are far greater than the EEOC data represents, since there may likely be psychological factors such as peer pressure and gender identity issues that prevent male victims from coming forward to report being victims of sexual harassment and unwanted advances at work. For example, in the EEOC case mentioned above, the male victim's entire workplace jeered at the man for rejecting the female co-worker's sexual advances. Such a fact pattern is rather common in sexual harassment lawsuits with male victims.

The cultural notion that we see emphasized in the media is that men should remain open and accepting of an attractive woman's sexual advances, even if they are in the workplace. Such sexist ideas reinforce the gender stereotypes that can be so damaging -- stereotypes that focus on men as the usual perpetrators of violence, sex crimes, and sexual harassment, women as the usual victims, men as being impervious to emotional pain, and women as being fragile, even when they're being hurtful. Lawsuits such as the EEOC case here, as well as so many other types of lawsuits, including divorces, restraining orders, criminal defense, and personal injury lawsuits, are common breeding grounds not only for racial discrimination and economic discrimination, but also sexual discrimination. All forms of discrimination are utterly destructive, but it seems that no form of prejudice receives so little attention as anti-male sexual discrimination.