Sexual Misconduct

The term “sexual misconduct” refers to any conduct which is sexual in nature and which is unwelcome and engaged in without consent. For example, this type of misconduct can refer to everything from unwanted groping to rape. A person can be guilty of sexual misconduct whether male or female, and such wrongdoing can even occur between two members of the same sex. To explore this concept, consider the following sexual misconduct definition.

Definition of Sexual Misconduct


  1. Any behavior engaged in, or attention given, that is sexual in nature and done without consent.



What is Sexual Misconduct?

The term “sexual misconduct” refers to a category of crimes that are sexual in nature. For example, sexual misconduct is any act that a person engages in for the purpose of sexual gratification, which is either against the other person’s will, or without his or her consent. The specific acts that sexual misconduct refers to vary by state. Therefore, in order for an act to be criminal, it must meet the specifications of that particular state’s statute.

Types of Sexual Misconduct

There are several types of sexual misconduct. In addition to rape, there is also:

  • Sexual harassment
  • Unwanted touching
  • The exposing of oneself
  • Engaging in sexual acts in public
  • Forcing someone to engage in an unwanted sexual act

Types of sexual misconduct can also include behaviors that otherwise causes another person to feel harmed or offended for the purpose of providing the offender with sexual gratification. Those who may be victims of this type of offense can contact the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline for advice and support.


When it comes to sexual activity, both people must agree to, and be comfortable with engaging in the behavior, including where, when, and how to do it. This is the very definition of consent. This does not have to include sex either. Even for something as simple as hugging or cuddling, the other person must be sure their partner is ready and willing to participate.

Of course, in some situations, people don’t expressly say they are ready to have sex or engage in intimate behavior. However, it is still important that both people understand whether they have consent to proceed. If there is any doubt whatsoever, it never hurts to ask.

Is There a Difference Between Sexual Misconduct and Sexual Harassment?

There is no real difference between sexual misconduct and sexual harassment because sexual harassment is a form of sexual misconduct. In fact, it is one of the ways to narrow down the broader definition of sexual misconduct. Sexual harassment includes behavior of a sexual nature, be it verbal, written, or physical, that targets a person’s gender, or comes from a stereotype against that gender. Consider the following situation:

Robbie and Tommy are football players who have just lost a game. , and are After the game, they heading back to the locker room. Robbie tells Tommy that if he didn’t have such “small, girly hands,” then he’d be better able to catch a football and they would have won the game. To add insult to injury, Robbie says, “Well, with an ass like that, what else should I have expected?” and smacks Tommy on the bottom.

This is an example of sexual harassment because, not only is Robbie insulting Tommy’s body and then going so far as to touch him without consent, but he is also saying that Robbie isn’t masculine enough to win a football game. Robbie’s insults are rooted in the stereotype that a man’s body must look a certain way for him to be a successful football player.

This kind of harassment is two-fold, and it is common in sports. Many men shuck this kind of behavior off as nothing more than innocent ribbing, but sexual misconduct can exist between two people of the same gender. What Robbie is doing in this example is offensive and constitutes sexual misconduct.

Example of Sexual Misconduct in the Workplace

Janine works for ABC Company, and Charles is her boss. Charles tells Janine she needs to start wearing more dresses like the one she wore today because she looks ravishing in it. At first, she is flattered, even humbled, but Charles doesn’t stop.

Over the next few days, Charles tells Janine several more times how good she looks, and on a few occasions, she catches him staring at her breasts and bottom. Finally, he began stopping by her office, and saying that they should go to the company retreat together.

Janine is distraught when she gets home that night, and is unsure of whether to say anything. Should she tell him off? Should she tell HR? She obsesses over what to wear the next day that will take his attention away from her, and she finally decides to just call in sick and look for another job.

What Charles was doing is a form of sexual harassment. While it’s nice to give someone a compliment, Charles went way overboard with the attention he was paying to Janine, especially since he is her boss. He made Janine feel uncomfortable to the point that she wasn’t even sure how to dress, which led to her having such anxiety that she called in sick the following day. No one should be made to feel that way, especially in a place of employment.

Punishment for Sexual Misconduct

Just like the acts that fall under sexual misconduct can vary by state, so too can the punishment. For instance, in many states the punishment for sexual misconduct is a misdemeanor that includes jail time, or probation and fines. If, however, the misconduct is severe, or if the offender has a history of sexual misconduct, then the court may upgrade the punishment for sexual misconduct to a felony and sentence the offender to more jail time.

Sexual misconduct is not like other crimes. If a court finds a person guilty of sexual misconduct, the court can order the offender to register as a sex offender, which can affect his future employment prospects. This is perhaps the most serious form of punishment for sexual misconduct because it essentially places a brand of sorts on the person.

If the offender is a person of authority, a sexual misconduct conviction can not only cause him to lose his current job, but it may prevent him from obtaining a similar job in the future. For instance, a teacher with a sexual misconduct conviction can, and probably will, lose his job and will probably never work as a teacher again.

Sexual Misconduct Example Involving an Employer

There are, unfortunately, several Supreme Court cases related to this type of misconduct. One such example of sexual misconduct exists in the matter of Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson (1986). In this case, 19-year-old Michelle Vinson took a job in 1974, at the Capitol City Federal Savings and Loan Association, as a teller-trainee. By May of 1975, her supervisor, Sidney Taylor, started sexually harassing her, and his harassment continued for three years.


In September of 1978, Vinson sued Taylor and the bank, alleging that Taylor had pressured her into having sexual relations with him, and even demanded sexual favors in the workplace. Vinson confirmed that she had intercourse with Taylor 40 or 50 times, and that Taylor had touched her in public, exposed himself to her, and raped her on several occasions. Vinson argued that Taylor was creating a “hostile working environment.”

Around the time of filing her lawsuit, Vinson took an indefinite sick leave. In November of that same year, she lost her job. Vinson accused Taylor of discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and asked the court for compensatory and punitive damages against both Taylor and the bank.

Decision and Appeal

The District Court did not grant the relief Vinson was looking for, arguing that if she had a sexual relationship with Taylor on the numerous occasions she described, then their sexual relationship was voluntary and had nothing to do with her job. Therefore, they could not make a finding of sexual harassment. And, because Vinson had never filed a sexual harassment complaint with the bank, the Court could not find the bank liable for the treatment Vinson claimed she allegedly received.

Vinson then brought her case before the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, and the Court reversed the lower court’s ruling. Here, the Court argued that a remand was necessary for several reasons. For one thing, the Court argued, the district court did not consider that Vinson was filing a “hostile” complaint and needed to reconsider her claims under that guise. For another, said the Court, even if her relationship with Taylor was voluntary, that was no reason to rule out the possibility that Taylor might have connected it to her employment.

Supreme Court Decision

When the case later made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, the Court had to decide whether the Civil Rights Act would consider a “hostile work environment” a form of discrimination. Ultimately, the Court decided unanimously that yes, it would, and the Court remanded the case back to the District Court for reconsideration.

Specifically, the Court wrote:

“In sum, we hold that a claim of “hostile environment” sex discrimination is actionable under Title VII, that the District Court’s findings were insufficient to dispose of respondent’s hostile environment claim, and that the District Court did not err in admitting testimony about respondent’s sexually provocative speech and dress. As to employer liability, we conclude that the Court of Appeals was wrong to entirely disregard agency principles and impose absolute liability on employers for the acts of their supervisors, regardless of the circumstances of a particular case.

Accordingly, the judgment of the Court of Appeals reversing the judgment of the District Court is affirmed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.”

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Compensatory Damages – An award of money in compensation for actual economic loss, property damage, or injury, not including punitive damages.
  • Damages – A monetary award in compensation for a financial loss, loss of or damage to personal or real property, or an injury.
  • Discrimination – The practice of unfairly treating different categories of people, especially on the grounds of ethnicity, national origin, gender, race, religion, and sexual orientation.
  • Felony – A crime, often involving violence, regarded as more serious than a misdemeanor. Felony crimes are usually punishable by imprisonment more than one year.
  • Misdemeanor – A criminal offense less serious than a felony.
  • Punitive Damages – Money awarded to the injured party above and beyond their actual damages, to punish the wrongdoer for outrageous misconduct in a civil matter.
  • Remand – (Of a higher court) To send a case back down to a lower court for reconsideration.
  • Sex Offender – A person convicted of a crime involving sex, including rape, molestation, and production or distribution of child pornography.