Criminal Law
last updated 13 July 2007

Some countries have criminalized certain forms of sexual harassment. Criminal legislation has been directed particularly at quid pro quo harassment and harassment that results in some form of sexual assault. There are potential disadvantages to this approach particularly if it is the only available redress for sexual harassment. Criminal cases usually require a higher standard of proof than civil cases. In addition, women may be unwilling to report harassment where it is illegal, because, although they want the harassment to stop, they do not want to subject the harasser to criminal prosecution. Finally, criminalizing sexual harassment may limit a victim's ability to recover damages, because an employer usually will not be liable for the harassing employee's criminal conduct. Despite these disadvantages, criminal prohibitions of sexual harassment may have a strong deterrent effect on employers and employees who contemplate committing acts of sexual harassment.

Adapted from International, Regional and National Developments in the Area of Violence Against Women 1994-2003, Addendum 1 to 2003 Report of the Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, E/CN.4/2003/75/Add.1 (Feb. 2003)(PDF and Word, 397 pages); Robin Phillips, Violence in the Workplace: Sexual Harassment in Women and International Human Rights Law, Vol. 1, Eds. Kelly D. Askin & Dorean M. Koenig, 257 (1999).

Quid Pro Quo Harassment

France and the Philippines are examples of countries with criminal laws against quid pro quo sexual harassment. The French Penal Code specifies that the "harassment of another person for the purpose of obtaining favours of a sexual nature is punished by one year's imprisonment and a fine of € 15,000." French Penal Code, Article 222-33. The Philippines has criminalized this form of sexual harassment in its Republic Act No. 7877, Act Declaring Sexual Harassment Unlawful in the Employment, Education or Training Environment, and for Other Purposes (1995). The act provides that sexual harassment is committed in a work-related or employment environment when, among other instances:

The sexual favor is made as a condition in the hiring or in the employment, re-employment or continued employment of said individual, or in granting said individual favorable compensation, terms, conditions, promotions, or privileges; or the refusal to grant the sexual favor results in limiting, segregating or classifying the employee which in a way would discriminate, deprive or diminish employment opportunities or otherwise adversely affect said employee.

The penalty for this crime ranges from 10,000 to 20,000 pesos. In the CEE/FSU region, there are some criminal laws which may be used to prosecute quid pro quo sexual harassment. These laws carry over from the Soviet period and therefore include common elements: obtaining sexual favors from a woman who is dependent on the perpetrator materially or for employment. The following are examples of this type of criminal law: 

  • Article 118 of the Russian Penal Code provides that, "[f]orcing a woman to engage in sexual intercourse or in the satisfaction of sexual passion in any form by a person on whom the woman is dependent either materially or in terms of employment—is punishable by deprivation of freedom for a period of up to three years."  However, it has been noted that similar provisions relating to educational settings are “virtually never used in connection with sexual harassment cases,” and that the Russian government “does not address the problem of sexual harassment in the workplace, as an issue of workplace safety, sex-based discrimination or as a form of violence against women.”  From American Bar Association, CEDAW Assessment Tool Report for the Russian Federation (2006).
  • Article 116 of the Belarus Criminal Code provides that "sexual harassment occurs when the victim's dependence or defencelessness is used to force intimate contact. If a person forces a woman who is materially or professionally dependent on him to have sexual contact in order to satisfy perverted sexual desires, he is liable to imprisonment for up to three years."
  • Article 199 of the Penal Code of Poland reads as follows: "[w]hoever, abusing a relationship of dependence or taking advantage of a critical situation, subjects such a person to sexual intercourse or makes him/her submit to another sexual act or perform such an act shall be subject to a penalty" of three years of imprisonment." From The Advocates for Human Rights & Georgetown Law Center, Employment Discrimination and Sexual Harassment in Poland 41-50 (July 2002)(PDF, 63 pages); International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, Women 2000: An Investigation into the Status of Women's Rights in Central and South-Eastern Europe and the Newly Independent States 338 (2000).

Hostile Work Environment Sexual Harassment

France and the Phillipines are two of the few countries that also criminalize hostile work environment harassment. The French penal code criminalizes hostile work environment sexual harassment under its provisions prohibiting "moral harassment." This concept of harassment is gender neutral and focuses on protecting the dignity of the individual worker: "Harassing another person by repeated conduct which is designed to or which leads to a deterioration of his conditions of work liable to harm his rights and his dignity, to damage his physical or mental health or compromise his career prospects is punished by a fine of € 13,000." From French Penal Code, Article 222-33-2.

The Philippines has criminalized hostile work environment sexual harassment under its Republic Act No. 7877, Act Declaring Sexual Harassment Unlawful in the Employment, Education or Training Environment, and for Other Purposes (1995). The act provides that prohibited sexually harassing conduct at work is criminal conduct if such acts "would impair the employee's rights or privileges under existing labor laws" or " would result in an intimidating, hostile, or offensive environment for the employee." The penalty for this crime is 10,000 to 20,000 pesos.

Criminal Law Remedies

In countries where sexual harassment is treated as a criminal offense, harassers may be subject to prison sentences and fines. The following are two examples of the penalties for sexual harassment crimes:

  • In France, a person who harasses another for the purpose of obtaining sexual favors is imprisoned for one year and pays a € 15,000 fine. From French Penal Code, Article 222-33. A person who harasses another so as to create a hostile work environment will pay a € 13,000 fine. From French Penal Code, Article 222-33-2.
  • In Germany, a person who coerces another "by exploiting a situation in which the victim is unprotected and at the mercy of the perpetrator's influence, to suffer the commission of sexual acts of the perpetrator or a their person on himself or to commit them on the perpetrator or a third person," shall be imprisoned from six months to 10 years depending on the seriousness of the act. From German Penal Code, Section 177.