Much of America was still sleeping this morning when the president of the United States used sexual innuendo to denigrate and attack a United States Senator.

The attack came after Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) called for the resignation of President Trump yesterday due to allegations that he sexually harassed and assaulted 19 women. “President Trump has committed assault, according to these women, and those are very credible allegations of misconduct and criminal activity, and he should be fully investigated and he should resign,” Gillibrand stated in a CNN interview with Christiane Amanpour.[1]

Trump’s claim that Gillibrand “would do anything for” campaign contributions raised the ire of many, who regarded the innuendo as a double entendre that amounted to sexual harassment. A well-played double entendre invites innocent and not-so-innocent interpretations while preserving a veneer of deniability. Indeed, the White House later denied any sexual innuendo in Trump’s words, rationalizing that “only if your mind is in the gutter would you have read it that way.”[2]

The fact is that many read Trump’s tweet as a sexual innuendo signifying that Gillibrand would even have exchanged sexual favors for campaign contributions. Throughout the day there was confusion among the media and public alike when it came to describing the nature of Trump’s statement. Was it sexual innuendo? Sexual harassment? Sexual assault?

In an early article in The Washington Post titled, “Trump Sends Sexually Suggestive and Demeaning Tweet About Gillibrand,” authors variously portrayed Trump’s tweet as “sexual harassment, sexually suggestive, sexual misbehavior,” and “sexually suggestive,” also quoting BBC World News America anchor Katty Kay’s description of the tweet as “clearly sexual” and “demeaning to women.”[3]  

Deadline Hollywood was no more certain about what, exactly, Trump had done, referring to the tweet as “attacking/harassing Gillibrand.”[4]

So what, exactly, is sexual harassment?

What is Sexual Harassment?

In the United States, teasing, offhand comments, and casual remarks of a sexual nature are not prohibited—but such comments become illegal harassment when they are so frequent or severe that they create a hostile or offensive work environment, or when they result in damages to the target of such remarks.

Sexual harassment consists of many behaviors, including sexual innuendos or telling lies and spreading rumors about a person’s personal sex life. Many believe that the president’s tweet and his frequent sexual innuendos and disparagement of women constitute sexual harassment.[5]

In the United States, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964  governs sexual discrimination and harassment, along with other categories of discrimination. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enforces federal anti-discrimination laws that protect job applicants and employees. It is illegal to discriminate “on the basis of race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy, gender identity and sexual orientation), national origin, age (40+), disability or genetic information,” and it is also “illegal to discriminate against a person because they complained about discrimination, filed a charge of discrimination, or participated in an employment discrimination investigation or lawsuit.”[6]

Sexual harassment . . .

  • is illegal
  • includes unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature
  • can include offensive remarks about a person’s sex in general; it is illegal to harass a woman by making offensive comments about women in general
  • has victims and harassers of all genders; victim and harasser can be the same sex
  • can apply to the victim’s supervisor, a supervisor in another area, a co-worker, or someone who is a client, contractor, consultant, delivery person, vendor, or customer
  • laws apply to employers with 15+ employees, including state and local governments, employment agencies, labor organizations, and the federal government
  • laws protect not only the victim being harassed, but also anyone else affected by the offensive conduct
  • does not require economic injury or discharge of employment to be litigated
  • must be unwelcome from the perspective of the victim
  • can involve unwanted flirting
  • may involve repeated, unwanted requests for dates
  • includes suggestive whistling, leering, and catcalls
  • leering
  • can be long stares and sexually suggestive looks
  • uses crude or offensive language
  • makes derogatory comments about a person’s sexual orientation
  • jokes or comments about a person’s physical attributes
  • can be physical behaviors such as hugging, back or neck rubs etc
  • is gossip, spreading rumors or telling sexual stories that are overheard
  • uses offensive names: honey, sweetie, hottie, baby, girl, boy, or hunk
  • views or posts sexual pictures, magazines, posters, videos, or images
  • sends sexually explicit emails, views sexually-based websites and uses social media for sexually-based messages or pictures
  • is offensive gender-based comments or behaviors that denigrate people simply because of their gender
  • is sending sexually explicit messages or pictures via your cell phone
  • applies to educators at all levels of school, including universities and colleges

If you are an employer . . .

  • know the law
  • eliminate sexual harassment in the workplace by communicating to employees that sexual harassment will not be tolerated
  • train your employees to understand the definitions and scope of sexual harassment
  • establish an effective complaint or grievance process
  • take immediate and appropriate action when an employee complains
  • do not retaliate or allow employees or management to retaliate against an individual for opposing workplace discrimination, for bringing charges or complaints forward, or for participating in a Title VII investigation, proceeding, or lawsuit

If  you are harassed . . .

  • make it immediately clear to the harasser that the behavior is unwelcome and must stop
  • use any employer complaint mechanism or grievance system available immediately

Sexual Harassment Worldwide

The United Nations and many nations around the world recognize sexual harassment as a form of discrimination and violence against women.[7]  However, new research from UCLA’s WORLD Policy Analysis Center indicates that more than one-third of the world’s countries do not have any laws prohibiting sexual harassment at work, leaving as many as 235 million women worldwide without legal protections.

According to the United Nations, “unwelcome” is the critical word in defining sexually harassing behaviors. “Unwelcome does not mean ‘involuntary,’ [for] a victim may consent or agree to certain conduct and actively participate in it even though it is offensive and objectionable. Therefore, sexual conduct is unwelcome whenever the person subjected to it considers it unwelcome. Whether the person in fact welcomed a request for a date, sex-oriented comment, or joke depends on all the circumstances.”[8]

The United Nations says that sexual harassment may include . . .

  • Actual or attempted rape or sexual assault.
  • Unwanted pressure for sexual favors.
  • Unwanted deliberate touching, leaning over, cornering, or pinching.
  • Unwanted sexual looks or gestures.
  • Unwanted letters, telephone calls, or materials of a sexual nature.
  • Unwanted pressure for dates.
  • Unwanted sexual teasing, jokes, remarks, or questions.
  • Whistling at someone, cat calls.
  • Sexual comments.
  • Turning work discussions to sexual topics.
  • Sexual innuendos or stories.
  • Asking about sexual fantasies, preferences, or history.
  • Personal questions about social or sexual life.
  • Sexual comments about a person’s clothing, anatomy, or looks.
  • Kissing sounds, howling, and smacking lips.
  • Telling lies or spreading rumors about a person’s personal sex life.
  • Neck massage; touching an employee’s clothing, hair, or body.
  • Giving personal gifts.
  • Hanging around a person.
  • Hugging, kissing, patting, or stroking.
  • Touching or rubbing oneself sexually around another person.
  • Standing close or brushing up against a person.
  • Looking a person up and down (elevator eyes).
  • Staring at someone.
  • Sexually suggestive signals.
  • Making sexual gestures with hands or through body movements.
  • Giving a massage around the neck or shoulders.
  • Touching the person’s clothing, hair, or body.


Sexual Harassment is Non-Partisan

Sexual harassment is a form of discrimination and violence against its victims. Whether at work, at school, or at church, sexual abusers and harassers don’t ask their victims about their political party affiliations. Indeed, victims come from every political party and walk of life. Sexual harassment is a non-partisan issue.

Part of growing as human beings and leaving a legacy for our children and children’s children is to make the world a healthier and safer place for all of us. We do this by acting morally in our communities. We do this by voting for decent people who will represent us fairly. We will change the world when we stop being political in the voting booth and start being ethical.

The next time you are tempted to discount the claims of a woman who says a man in power and in your political party sexually assaulted or harassed her, ask yourself some hard questions. Ask yourself, “If an equally powerful person in the other party did this to a woman, would I consider it wrong?” and ask yourself, “If someone did this to me or to my wife or to my daughter or granddaughter or son, or to my elderly mother, would it be wrong?” 

If the answer is “yes,” act accordingly. We will never change our culture otherwise.


1. CNN Exclusive: Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand calls on Trump to Resign
2. The Washington Post: Sanders on Trump’s Tweet
3. Trump Attacks Gillibrand in Tweet Critics Say is Sexually Suggestive and Demeaning
4. Sen. Gillibrand Responds to Donald Trump’s Vulgar Tweet
5. Donald Trump Just Sexually Harassed Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Critics Say
6. EEOC Facts About Discrimination
7. Sources of International Law Related to Sexual Harassment
8. Preventing Sexual Harassment and Other Workplace Harassment

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