Guide to Laws About Harassment in the U.S.

Female crime victim

Harassment comes in many forms and in many settings. It can consist of inappropriate comments, minor or major physical abuse, or sexual abuse. But while most harassment is morally wrong, not all of it is illegal.

Depending on what happened, where it happened (street, workplace, school, home, online, etc.), or who did it (e.g. boss, stranger, etc.), the law generally treats harassment differently.

It’s also important to note that laws related to harassment can be either civil or criminal. This affects how a perpetrator can be penalized. See our Guide to Civil Law vs Criminal Law. Harassment law also varies greatly by state. See our Guide to Harassment Law in California.

1. Harassment generally

What is the definition of harassment?

The legal definition of harassment can range from ongoing inappropriate comments, to threats of violence, to actual inappropriate touching and violence. Each of these are treated very differently depending on the severity, and depending on the state. While every state in the country criminalizes rape/assault, groping, or flashing, the penalties vary.

The most clearly illegal acts (in most situations) are unwanted physical or sexual touching where the perpetrator knows the subject does not consent to it. As for harassing comments or gestures, the law varies quite widely between states.

Many states have laws against “lewd conduct” which can include sexually explicit comments or catcalls, or obscene gestures or language. Some states also have laws against stalking or following people, and laws criminalizing abusive language or conduct that disturbs a person’s free movement (such as threatening or actually blocking someone from coming or going).

The organization Stop Street Harassment has a great state-by-state guide on these laws and resources for reporting harassment. For California, check out our California harassment law page.

What can be done about emotional harassment?

Emotional harassment can lead to feeling emotional distress, and you may be able to bring a civil claim against the harasser. See our Guide to Laws about Emotional Distress.

2. Harassment and Bullying at Work

What protections do I have against harassment and bullying at work?

Under federal law, you have the right to protection against harassment and bullying by your employer (including a supervisor or possibly coworkers), if done on the basis of your race, color, religion, sex, national origin, sexual orientation, or gender identity. You also have the right to protection against sexual harassment by your employer.142 U.S. Code Sec. 2000e-2 Most states also have additional protections on this.

3. Online Harassment

What is cyberstalking?

You have the right to protection against stalking and cyberstalking that makes you fear for your life or health. The police have an obligation to investigate any such stalking, and if they find a credible threat, to prosecute the offender. (Unfortunately, if the offender lives outside the U.S., there is little law enforcement can do at this time).218 U.S. Code § 2261A

Is it illegal to threaten someone online?

It is illegal to use social media to make a serious threat to harm or kidnap another person. The penalty is up to 5 years in prison.318 U.S. Code Sec 875(c) But the person making the threat must actually intend it as a threat, rather than simply “expression.” Otherwise it may be protected by as “free speech” by the 1st amendment.

See more laws about the Internet and Social Media.

4. Harassment by police officers

Is it illegal for police to harass or “rough up” people?

Generally police must have justification for any use of force. See more at our Guide to Police Conduct.

Is it illegal for police officers to have sex with someone in their custody?

As of February 2018, in 35 states it is NOT illegal for law enforcement to have sex with a person they have arrested or detained, as long as it is consensual. Only 16 states prohibit officers from having consensual sex with someone in their custody. Those 16 states are: California, Florida, New Jersey, Washington, Oregon, Alaska, Hawaii, Arizona, Utah, Oklahoma, North Dakota, Indiana, Ohio, Georgia, North Carolina, and Connecticut.

See the Feb 2018 Buzzfeed story on this.

5. Rape Shield Laws

What are rape shield laws?

When a woman (or man) accuses someone of rape, in a state that has a rape shield law, the defense cannot ask her about her history of sexual activity or bring this into evidence. This type of evidence is often used to paint the woman as a “slut” and thus probably consented to the sexual intercourse in question. But a rape shield law is based on the idea that her sex life with others is irrelevant to whether she was raped in the instances in question.

Exercise Your Rights

See our Guide to Laws about Emotional Distress.

See options for getting legal help on harassment issues.

If you are a victim of harassment at work, you can file a claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or talk to a lawyer about it.

If you are a victim of stalking or cyberstalking, you can report it to the Department of Justice.

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