US widens sexual harassment law to cover same-sex bullying

Click to follow
The Independent Online
MEN bullied by male colleagues, and women by female colleagues, will be able to sue under US sexual harassment laws if there is a sexual aspect to the bullying, following a landmark judgment handed down by the US Supreme Court yesterday. Until now, lower courts have rejected "same- sex" harassment claims, arguing that sexual harassment is possible only between the sexes.

The test case was brought by a Louisiana oil worker, Joseph Oncale, who gave evidence that he was subjected to sexual taunts, physical assault and threats of rape from two supervisors and a fellow worker while employed on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico seven years ago.

Mr Oncale said he reported the harassment twice to management on the rig, but no action was taken.

He resigned after four months, citing fears that the harassment would escalate into rape and sued for sexual harassment. The three defendants said what happened on the all-male rig was just horseplay.

In their unanimous ruling, the Supreme Court justices said Mr Oncale could pursue his case for sexual harassment, though they cautioned that such suits could succeed only if there was proof that the discrimination or attacks were based on gender, "not merely tinged with offensive sexual connotations".

"The prohibition of harassment on the basis of sex", the court ruled, "forbids only behaviour so objectively offensive as to alter the conditions of the victim's employment." Anything less, it said, was beyond the reach of the law.

The Equal Employment Advisory Council, a national watchdog, had opposed any change, fearing that allowing same-sex harassment suits could dilute the significance of claims brought by women for sexual harassment.

The Supreme Court, however, tried to preempt such criticism, stressing that the context of the alleged harassment had to be taken into account: "A professional football player's working environment is not severely or pervasively abusive, for example, if the coach smacks him on the buttocks as he heads on to the field - even if the same behaviour would reasonably be experienced as abusive by the coach's secretary (male or female) back at the office."

Comments