Does sexual harassment require intent to be a crime?

San Diego Mayor Bob Filner is finally resigning under the weight of, as I write this, eighteen allegations of sexual harassment. In his rather bizarre resignation statement he called the atmosphere of the last few weeks, as the allegations came in almost daily, a "witch hunt." He pointed out (and this is true) that not one of the claims had been substantiated or corroborated (though I think the old adage "Where there's smoke, there's fire" applies. 

However, his "crime" (for none has been established under criminal law...yet) raises an interesting question: Is sexual harassment an "In the eye of the beholder" crime or does it require someone who is conscious of his/her actions being harassment as they do them.

His claim is that he didn't intend to harass but rather to form a personal connection. And perhaps, in a twisted or inept mind, this can be the case.

Some crimes do not require intent, such as driving in excess of the speed limit. Others do, such as first degree murder. 

Do you think it does or should require intent, or is FEELING harassed BEING harassed?

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It's a fuzzy delimiter at best, isn't it?  When I was about 19 years old, a male supervisor at my first job literally cornered me, whilst I was taking out my clock-in pass from the machine, put one hand on the wall and one on the windowsill so I couldn't walk away, and suggested we get it together.  My response was to say, "sure, I'll check with your girlfriend in Accounts to see if she says your cock is big enough" and he quickly moved away and bustled on to something else.

I compare this with some 30 years later, when a female member of my staff, herself only 19, came to me to state that she felt uncomfortable with some vague innuendos being made to her on the phone by a broker whose help my department actually relied on.  I had to find a way to ask him to ease off the jokes with her, whilst still keeping our connection, and it was a tricky situation which gave me quite a headache to resolve.

In my era, women pretty much had to stand up for themselves.  Today, it seems they abdicate all responsibility by complaining to their boss or appropriate line manager. Maybe women should at least try to express an objection before they start formalising complaints.  This might give the guy (yes I know, and vice versa blah blah) a heads-up that their actions are not acceptable, before calling on a third party,

I don't know if we as a society have taken the situation too far or not - because I wasn't as 'protected' as women are today.

You didn't really even hint at whether the "crime" requires intent or not. Any ideas?

There is conscious intent and unconscious intent.  My post above was aimed at contemplating managing unconscious intent directly, by the person feeling harassed.  If that failed to achieve the desired result, and a continued harassment was experienced, then intent would have to be present, would it not?

I work in HR and part of my job is to do orientation for new hires and part of this is covering sexual harassment.  According to us it's considered sexual harassment if the conduct is unwelcome and essentially creates a bad work environment for the victim.  Intentions do not matter, all that matters is the perception of the victim.

I guess a good rule of thumb might be (if you are hetero) that if you wouldn't do or say whatever you are doing or saying to another person of your own gender, then you shouldn't do or say it to a person of the opposite gender. 

I have to say that whilst it makes logical sense, it still seems to me to be an abdication of personal responsibility when someone reports a minor offence without any attempt to address it themselves first.  I'm pretty sure that is, partly at least, because of the era I grew up in.

With all of her flaws, sometimes Camille Paglia makes a lot of sense. I saw a lecture by her when I lived in Portland, Oregon. One of the questions she took was about sexual harassment and she basically said that If someone harassed her, she'd call him out in front of their coworkers or, perhaps preferable, kick him in the balls. She would do this before he would report him. She asked, isn't part of getting rid of paternalism and becoming empowered as adults getting rid of maternalism as well? In other words, getting rid of a parentalist system which implies you're a child? Isn't going to the HR office with your complaint analogous to hugging mommy's apron and ratting on your brother? By all means go if you are literally helpless, otherwise grow up and deal with it like a grown up woman.

You use the word "crime" but generally with sexual harassment we're taking about violations of policy (e.g. of a workplace), with possible civil penalties (i.e. fines, law suits) not crimes.  For the policy violations, intent does not matter.  It couldn't, because anyone who makes sexual jokes, puts up sexual pictures, etc. will always say they didn't intend to offend anyone else.  The standard is whether the conduct bothers another person and creates a hostile work environment.  I remember some of the original cases had to do with firefighters hanging calendars with nude women up and leaving magazines of a similar nature around.  They didn't do it to harass women firefighters, but what kind of work atmosphere does that create for the one or two women who've been able to get into the "boys club" of a profession like that?   Anyway, courts sided with the women.   This is a matter of civil litigation, not crime.

As for any crime related to sexual harassment, you have 1st amendment issues to consider and there would be a high standard. Criminal harassment almost certainly requires intent.  

You also have to look at the actual behavior.  Actual touching would be a battery, which could be criminally prosecuted,  That is probably the kind of criminal charges being considered in Filner's case.    

Oh, while it's against policy, it's against policy in part because of the legal exposure it brings to the company: 

"Persons who are the victims of sexual harassment may sue under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (42 U.S.C.A. § 2000e et seq.), which prohibits sex discrimination in the workplace."

And, personally, I would encourage women to hang up pin-ups of either men who are probably better hung than their male coworkers or, if they are really brave, of hot women.


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