How Common Is Female Sexual Harassment?

Two women speaking in conference room at work
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When former Thinx CEO Miki Agrawal came up with the concept of “period proof underwear,” the company was applauded for its commitment to empowering women and de-stigmatizing menstruation. So when Agrawal, a self-described feminist who claimed she created an open and safe working environment, was accused of sexually harassing her predominately female staff, people were shocked.

Here was a company touted as a trailblazing feminist organization with a former CEO accused of female-to-female sexual harassment. How could that be?

What Is Same-Sex Sexual Harassment?

When most people think about sexual harassment in the workplace, they envision a man harassing a woman. But there are cases where women harass women, men harass men, and women harass men. In fact, the law prohibits sexual harassment by either men or women against people of the same and opposite gender.

Sexual harassment falls under Title VII, which is a law against sexual discrimination in the workplace. It occurs when someone engages in unwelcome sexual conduct in the workplace that affects you, your job, the work environment, as well as others in the workplace.

Under the law, there are two types of sexual harassment claims:

  1. Quid pro quo claims
  2. Hostile environment claims

With quid pro quo claims, a supervisor or someone with authority over an employee requests or implies an unwelcome sexual demand in exchange for something on the job, such as getting a promotion or not being fired. Meanwhile, a hostile environment occurs when the environment at work becomes intimidating or offensive because of sexual actions and comments. Examples might include sexual jokes and comments, sexual bullying, lewd remarks, demeaning pictures, and unwanted sexting

In the Thinx case, Agrawal allegedly had an obsession with one employee’s breasts, touching them without permission and asking her to expose them. She was also accused of holding routine video conference meetings while naked in bed and frequently changing clothes in front of employees. 

What’s more, there are reports that she conducted at least one FaceTime meeting while sitting on a toilet and regularly discussed her sexual exploits, including polyamory. Other reports indicate she expressed an interest in having a sexual relationship with at least one of her female employees.

Why Don't People Report Same-Sex Sexual Harassment?

Most researchers suggest that the actual number of people who have experienced same-sex sexual harassment is likely higher than what is currently being reported. In fact, it is extremely difficult to measure how frequently it occurs in the workplace because people often never file a complaint. 

Aside from the fact that it is difficult to report and prove, victims of sexual harassment often worry that they are somehow to blame for the unwelcome sexual advances. What's more, they worry about what others will think of them if they do file a report, especially when the harasser is the same gender. They are often riddled with embarrassment and shame over what is happening to them.

Another reason for failing to report sexual harassment includes fear of retaliation. Research has found that sexual harassment is often ignored or trivialized by management within organizations. Additionally, when victims do say something about the treatment or ask that it stop, they are often met with hostility and accusations.

Experts expect to see a rise in the number of same-sex sexual harassment complaints as employees become more empowered. In general, people are more willing to stand up to others and point out that their civil rights have been violated.

Why Do People Sexually Harass Others?

Too often, when someone is sexually harassed at work, people start to question the role the victim played in the abuse. But psychologists caution against this victim-blaming viewpoint. Most would argue that regardless of the perpetrator's gender and sexual orientation, sexual harassment is driven by anger and insecurity as much as it is by attraction. 

In fact, most people who sexually harass others, regardless of whether they are men or women, are looking to control and dominate others. The harasser feels more in control when she has power over someone else. What's more, some harassers are looking to embarrass and humiliate their targets rather than sexually stimulate or flirt with them.

Sexual harassment is more about using a position of power to control and hurt someone else. Meanwhile, others say that in the workplace sexual harassment is a form of manipulation. It's a way to inadvertently devalue someone's work by calling attention to their sexuality instead.

How Often It Occurs

According to a 2015 survey, one out of three women between the ages of 18 and 34 experiences sexual harassment at work. Of those women, 81% of them have experienced verbal harassment, 44% have received sexual advances and unwanted touching, and 25% have dealt with lewd texts or emails. Meanwhile, 75% of women were harassed by male coworkers and 10% by female coworkers. 

Yet, very few women are reporting the abuse. In fact, 71% of women say that they never reported the sexual harassment they endured at work. And of the 29% who did report the harassment, only 15% felt it was handled properly. 

For those who work to educate others about sexual harassment prevention, these figures are particularly disappointing—especially considering that the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 70% of employers provide sexual harassment training and 98% of companies have sexual harassment policies. 

If you have been a victim of sexual harassment at work, let someone in management or human resources know what you are experiencing. And if they do not take you seriously, contact the EEOC or an attorney for suggestions on what to do next. 

8 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Sexual harassment claims against a SHE-E-O: Thinx boss Miki Agrawal wanted to break taboos about the female body. The Cut. 2017.

  3. Human Rights Campaign. Degrees of equality: A national study examining workplace climate for LGBT employees. 2009.

  4. Keplinger K, Johnson SK, Kirk JF, Barnes LY. Women at work: Changes in sexual harassment between September 2016 and September 2018. PLoS ONE. 2019;14(7):e0218313. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0218313

  5. Johnson SK, Kirk JF, Keplinger K. Why We Fail to Report Sexual Harassment. Harvard Business Review. 2016.

  6. Gravelin CR, Biernat M, Bucher CE. Blaming the Victim of Acquaintance Rape: Individual, Situational, and Sociocultural Factors. Front Psychol. 2019;9:2422. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2018.02422

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  8. Ruiz M, Ahn L. Survey: 1 in 3 Women Has Been Sexually Harassed at Work. Cosmopolitan. 2015.

By Sherri Gordon
Sherri Gordon, CLC is a published author, certified professional life coach, and bullying prevention expert. She's also the former editor of Columbus Parent and has countless years of experience writing and researching health and social issues.