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What is the Difference Between Sexual Harassment and Sexual Assault?

What is the Difference Between Sexual Harassment and Sexual Assault?

Unfortunately, many people are victims of highly inappropriate behavior or violence that is sexual in nature, whether in or out of the workplace. In modern parlance, the terms “sexual harassment” and “sexual assault” are sometimes used interchangeably. But from a legal perspective, they are very different. Sexual harassment is a civil offense that gives the victim the opportunity to obtain damages and other relief, while sexual assault carries criminal penalties.

Sexual harassment in the workplace is a form of employment discrimination based on gender. There are three common types of sexual harassment in an employment scenario:

  1. Coercion harassment — This occurs when someone who has control or influence over another employee subjects them to unwanted sexual advances. Coercion is most commonly used by an executive, manager or supervisor against a direct subordinate. The victim is threatened with termination or some other adverse job action if they resist or complain about the harassment.
  2. Attention harassment — This means making repeated sexual overtures to another person. These advances can be physical, such as unwelcome touching or massaging, or verbal, such as repeated invitations for dates or other romantic encounters. The behavior must be “pervasive” or “extreme” to support a claim. An isolated incident does not usually constitute harassment.
  3. Gender-based harassment — In this situation, the harasser abuses the victim by way of crude comments, images, writings or other materials that disparage people of one gender. This type of harassment is not founded on sexual desirability of an individual or group but is based on animosity towards one gender or the other.

Note that certain behaviors may encompass more than one type of sexual harassment.

In New Jersey, the crime of sexual assault means sexual penetration of another person without their consent. This covers a range of activity that includes oral sex and the use of hands or fingers. Sexual contact, which is defined in the law as touching the victim’s intimate body parts, does not alone constitute sexual assault unless the victim is under 13 years of age. Someone can commit sexual assault against another regardless of their relationship or absence of a relationship.

Lack of consent is an element of sexual assault. Consent must be entirely voluntary. A person cannot give legal consent when they are threatened with bodily harm or other negative consequences. Additionally, someone can lack the capacity to give legal consent due to intoxication, disability, age, social pressure or blackmail. In the workplace, a sexual encounter that one person claims to have been without their consent can be charged as a sexual assault.

Deutsch Atkins & Kleinfeldt, P.C. in Hackensack is one of the New York and New Jersey metropolitan area’s most respected employee rights law firms. Our team works diligently to try to bring about the best possible results for each client. If you feel you are being harassed or victimized at work, feel free to contact us online or call 551-245-8894 for a consultation.

Neil  H.  Deutsch Attorney Photo
Neil H. Deutsch

Neil H. Deutsch has been practicing law for over 35 years and is known as a skilled negotiator in employment and discrimination law. He believes in a bottom-line approach of risk analysis and cost effectiveness for his clients. "Case evaluation is something we take seriously," says Mr. Deutsch who seeks top net dollar for his…

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Bruce L. Atkins
Senior Partner

Bruce L. Atkins is the Senior Managing Partner at Deutsch Atkins & Kleinfeldt P.C., a prominent plaintiff employment law firm in the tri-state area. Mr. Atkins believes employees’ rights should be aggressively pursued when they’ve been wrongfully dealt with by their employers. He brings this philosophy to his practice when considering each case and its…

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Adam J. Kleinfeldt

Adam J. Kleinfeldt joined Deutsch Atkins & Kleinfeldt, P.C. in March of 2015.  He primarily represents individuals in employment litigation such as discrimination, retaliation and whistle blowing matters. He has extensive experience in all phases of the litigation process. Adam has obtained significant results for his clients, including a $525,000 jury verdict in a sexual…

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Debra M. McGarvey

Debra M. McGarvey joined Deutsch Atkins & Kleinfeldt, P.C. in December 2019. She has extensive experience defending employees and employers in state and federal court in employment litigation matters. She has represented clients on various issues arising out of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD), the New Jersey Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA), the…

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Carly Skarbnik Meredith

Carly Skarbnik Meredith, Esq. is a Partner at the firm. Carly has focused her career exclusively in the field of employment law. She has a plethora of experience representing both employees and employers with their employment issues, needs, and concerns. She believes representing both employees and employers has made her an extremely well-rounded client advocate.…


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