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What's the difference between sexual harassment and assault?

Sexual harassment and assault have been at the forefront of the news lately in the midst of accusations against numerous famous and powerful men. While accusations of either can have serious implications, it's important to understand that sexual assault is criminal, while sexual harassment is not.

That's not to say that sexual harassment allegations aren't taken seriously. They can and do cost people their careers and can result in costly lawsuits. Ask former Fox News host Bill O'Reilly, who settled a sexual harassment suit against him for $32 million.

For an alleged action to be considered sexual assault, there must be unwanted contact of a sexual nature. That contact must involve force, incapacitation or even extreme coercion.

Sexual harassment is commonly associated with the workplace or with someone who is a boss, potential boss, colleague or client. In many cases, sexual harassment involves a quid pro quo. A person who has authority over someone demands some type of sexual act in exchange for either preferential treatment or for not taking punitive action against him or her.

Many of the allegations against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein (which include both sexual harassment and sexual assault) involved a quid pro quo of a promise to make women stars if they complied and harm their careers if they didn't.

A hostile work environment also falls under the umbrella of sexual harassment. Employers and others in authority can face penalties for civil rights violations as well as civil litigation if they allow a behavior or comments of a sexual nature that employees find offensive or intimidating.

Even if you don't believe that your behavior toward someone else is inappropriate or unwanted, it's essential to be aware of indications from that person that it is. Many people accused of sexual harassment or assault believed that what they were doing was consensual until they wound up under arrest, out of a job and/or facing a lawsuit.

Sexual assault allegations in particular are extremely serious because they involve potential jail time, sex offender registry and other penalties. If you are facing such allegations, it's essential to seek experienced legal guidance.

Source: FindLaw, "Is Sexual Harassment a Crime?," George Khoury, Esq., accessed Nov. 03, 2017

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