In the middle of Herman Cain's campaign for the 2012 U.S. Republican Party presidential nomination, multiple women who were once Cain's coworkers came forward with allegations of sexual harassment. Cain immediately deemed the allegations "totally baseless and totally false."' However, after continued questioning about whether his previous actions were inappropriate, Cain responded, "In my opinion no, but as you would imagine, it's in the eye of the person who thinks that maybe I crossed the line." Unfortunately, Cain's vague and evasive response is evocative of current sexual harassment law, which generally lacks clarity and is often dependent on individual perceptions.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") did not recognize sexual harassment in the workplace as a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 until 1980, and the Supreme Court did not define sexual harassment until Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson in 1986. In Meritor, the Court defined actionable sexual harassment as harassment that "must be sufficiently severe or pervasive 'to alter the conditions of [the victim's] employment and create an abusive working environment.' " Today, the Court recognizes two forms of sexual harassment: quid pro quo and hostile work environment. Quid pro quo harassment occurs when a supervisor demands sexual favors from an employee in return for advancement or continued employment in the workplace. Hostile work environment harassment occurs when workplace harassment is so severe or pervasive that it alters the conditions of employment. This latter form of harassment is incredibly difficult for most courts to define, as they must determine what actions meet the vague standard of "severe or pervasive." The task is especially difficult because individuals have different perceptions of what behaviors are severe enough to constitute harassment.
Druhan V. Blair,
Severe or Pervasive: An Analysis of Who, What, and Where Matters When Determining Sexual Harassment,
66 Vanderbilt Law Review
Available at: https://scholarship.law.vanderbilt.edu/vlr/vol66/iss1/6