“People Are Too Quick to Take Offense”: The Effects of Legal Information and Beliefs on Definitions of Sexual Harassment


  • Justine Tinkler is a postdoctoral researcher at the Michelle R. Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University. The author can be reached via e-mail at jtinkler@stanford.edu. The author would like to thank Rebecca Sandefur, Cecilia Ridgeway, Michele Landis Dauber, Stefanie Mollborn, Yan Li, and Tessa Tinkler for their helpful advice on earlier drafts.


Using data from a nationwide study of sexual harassment in the United States’ federal workplace, this article investigates how legal understanding, opinions about the regulation of sexual harassment, and social status affect whether people define uninvited sexual jokes or remarks as harassment. The results indicate that how people define sexual harassment is directly related to the extent to which they view sexual harassment rules as ambiguous and threatening to workplace norms. Moreover, results show that while women generally define sexual harassment more broadly than men, they actually resist defining sexual jokes or remarks as harassment. Finally, knowledge of the workplace sexual harassment policy moderates the effect of beliefs on definitions of sexual harassment. These findings suggest a complexity in the way people reconcile their knowledge of the law with their personal views about power and social interaction in the workplace.