What’s the difference between sexual abuse, sexual assault, sexual harassment and rape?

Sarah L. Cook, Georgia State University; Lilia M. Cortina, University of Michigan, and Mary P. Koss, University of Arizona


The terms “sexual abuse,” “sexual assault,” “sexual harassment” – and even “rape” – crop up daily in the news. We are likely to see these terms more as the #MeToo movement continues.

Many people want to understand these behaviors and work to prevent them. It helps if we are consistent and as precise as possible when we use these terms.

But what does each term mean?

We are three scholars who have specialized in the scientific study of sexual abuse, rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment over several decades. Let’s start by defining each of these terms. Then, we can look at how these behaviors sometimes overlap.

Sexual abuse

The term that has been in the news most recently with reference to sports doctor Larry Nassar’s trial is sexual abuse, a form of mistreating children. Sexual abuse is mainly used to describe behavior toward children, not adults.

All 50 states have laws that recognize that children are not capable of giving informed consent to any sex act. In the United States, the age at which consent can be given ranges from 16 to 18 years.

Sexual abuse can include many different things, from touching a victim in a sexual manner to forcing a victim to touch the perpetrator in a sexual way to making a victim look at sexual body parts or watch sexual activity. Sexual abuse of a child is a criminal act.


In 2012, the FBI issued a revised definition of rape as “penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.” The revised law is gender neutral, meaning that anyone can be a victim.

When carefully examined, the FBI definition does not look like most people’s idea of rape – typically perpetrated by a stranger through force. The FBI definition says nothing about the relationship between the victim and the perpetrator and it says nothing about force. It does, however, say something about consent, or rather, the lack of it. Think about consent as your ability to make a decision about what happens to your body.

A perpetrator can compel a victim into a penetrative sex act in multiple ways. A perpetrator can ignore verbal resistance – like saying “no,” “stop” or “I don’t want to” – or overpower physical resistance by holding a person down so they cannot move. A person can penetrate a victim who is incapable of giving consent because he or she is drunk, unconscious, asleep, or mentally or physically incapacitated; or can threaten or use physical force or a weapon against a person. Essentially, these methods either ignore or remove the person’s ability to make an autonomous decision about what happens to their body. State laws vary in how they define removing or ignoring consent.

Perpetrators can’t defend against charges of rape by claiming they were drunk themselves or by saying they are married to the victim.

Sexual assault

Rape and sexual assault have been used interchangeably in coverage of events leading to the #MeToo movement, and this practice, though unintentional, is confusing. In contrast to the specific criminal act of rape, the term sexual assault can describe a range of criminal acts that are sexual in nature, from unwanted touching and kissing, to rubbing, groping or forcing the victim to touch the perpetrator in sexual ways. But sexual assault overlaps with rape because the term includes rape.

Social and behavioral scientists often use the term “sexual violence.” This term is far more broad than sexual assault. It include acts that are not codified in law as criminal but are harmful and traumatic. Sexual violence includes using false promises, insistent pressure, abusive comments or reputational threats to coerce sex acts. It can encompass noncontact acts like catcalls and whistles, which can make women feel objectified and victimized. It includes nonconsensual electronic sharing of explicit images, exposure of genitals and surreptitious viewing of others naked or during sex.

Sexual harassment

Sexual harassment is a much broader term than sexual assault, encompassing three categories of impermissible behavior.

One is sexual coercion – legally termed “quid pro quo harassment” – referring to implicit or explicit attempts to make work conditions contingent upon sexual cooperation. The classic “sleep with me or you’re fired” scenario is a perfect example of sexual coercion. It is the most stereotypical form of sexual harassment, but also the rarest.

A second, and more common, form of sexual harassment is unwanted sexual attention: unwanted touching, hugging, stroking, kissing, relentless pressure for dates or sexual behavior. Note that romantic and sexual overtures come in many varieties at work, not all of them harassing. To constitute unlawful sexual harassment, the sexual advances must be unwelcome and unpleasant to the recipient. They must be “sufficiently severe or pervasive” to “create an abusive working environment,” according to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Unwanted sexual attention can include sexual assault and even rape. If an employer were to forcibly kiss and grope a receptionist without her consent, this would be an example of both unwanted sexual attention and sexual assault – both a civil offense and a crime.

Most sexual harassment, however, entails no sexual advance. This third and most common manifestation is gender harassment: conduct that disparages people based on gender, but implies no sexual interest. Gender harassment can include crude sexual terms and images, for example, degrading comments about bodies or sexual activities, graffiti calling women “cunts” or men “pussies.” More often than not, though, it is purely sexist, such as contemptuous remarks about women being ill-suited for leadership or men having no place in childcare. Such actions constitute “sexual” harassment because they are sex-based, not because they involve sexuality.

Come-ons, put-downs: They’re both bad

In lay terms, sexual coercion and unwanted sexual attention are come-ons, whereas gender harassment is a put-down. Still, they are all forms of sexual harassment and can all violate law, including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Historically, social attitudes towards all these hostile actions have assumed a continuum of severity. Sexist graffiti and insults are offensive, but no big deal, right? Verbal sexual overtures cannot be as bad as physical ones. And, if there was no penetration, it can’t have been all that bad.

These assumptions do not hold up to scientific scrutiny, however. For example, researchers at the University of Melbourne analyzed data from 73,877 working women. They found that experiences of gender harassment, sexist discrimination and the like are more corrosive to work and well-being, compared to encounters with unwanted sexual attention and sexual coercion.

We have tried to clarify terms that are now becoming household words. Of course, life is complicated. Abusive, assaulting or harassing behavior cannot always be neatly divided into one category or another – sometimes it belongs in more than one. Nevertheless, it is important to use terms in accurate ways to promote the public’s understanding. The Conversation

Finally, we take heed that society is in a period like no other and one we thought we would never see. People are reflecting on, and talking about, and considering and reconsidering their experiences and their behavior. Definitions, criminal and otherwise, change with social standards. This time next year, we may be writing a new column.

Sarah L. Cook, Professor & Associate Dean, Georgia State University; Lilia M. Cortina, Professor of Psychology, Women’s Studies, and Management & Organizations, University of Michigan, and Mary P. Koss, Regents’ Professor of Public Health, University of Arizona

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


In related news — harassment at the State Department affects not just FSOs, not just Foreign Service employees, but also Civil Service employees, and contractors (remember the Female Contractor at DS Training Center who was reportedly fired 3 hours after filing a harassment complaint?) Click here for our prior posts on sexual harassment, and here for our posts on sexual assaults and rape.

And, the long rumored FP piece is finally out.



After Congressional Queries, @StateDept to Mandate Sexual Harassment Training

Posted: 3:31 am ET


On January 11, Deputy Secretary Sullivan held a session “Harassment in the Workplace” at the State Department (see @StateDept to Hold “Harassment in the Workplace” Session But First, Read This FSI Sexual Harassment Case).  The following day, Secretary Tillerson delivered his remarks on values, also specifically addressing sexual harassment.

We understand that for a while there on January 12, Secretary Tillerson’s Conversation on the Value of Respect was reportedly the “tip of the day” when you log in to the Department’s OpenNet. That’s right, just mere hours after the President of the United States was reported to call certain countries “shitholes” during a meeting with lawmakers at the White House. Click here for reactions from different countries.

We’re not sure why both Deputy Secretary and the Secretary talked about sexual harassment two days in a row. Our most charitable take is that this is something the State Department cares very much, and the senior leadership would like to impress upon employees the  importance it places on sexual harassment (see our posts on sexual harassment here).  The less charitable take is that they’ve heard about folks talking to Congress about sexual harassment at the State Department, and they did not want to be perceived as not doing anything. (See Senators Seek Review/Analysis of @StateDept and @USAID Sexual Harassment and Assault DataCongress Seeks Info on @StateDept Senior Executives Who Are Subjects of Multiple ComplaintsInbox: “State Department absolutely deserves to have a trial by media”).

Of course, we also have our jaded take and we’re not alone on this — that Tillerson’s folks had atrocious timing, and did not want to seem like the Secretary was criticizing his boss on the day when the “shitholes” comment was  bouncing around the globe.

Fast-forward to February 12, Tillerson has now reportedly announced mandatory sexual harassment training for State Department employees. Reuters reports that the mandatory training is supposed to be completed by June 1:

“There is no form of disrespect for the individual that I can identify, anything more demeaning than for someone to suffer this kind of treatment,” he said. 

“It’s not OK if you’re seeing it happening and just look away. You must do something. You must notify someone. You must step in and intervene,” Tillerson added, speaking in Cairo to about 150 U.S. embassy staff outside the ambassador’s residence.

We’d be interested to know who provides the training, and what’s the source of the training material. For those who experienced sexual harassment first hand, we’d like to know if you think this mandatory training would help remedy the problem.

AND NOW THIS — Randy Rainbow’s ‘Stand By Your Man’ is quite memorable.


Congress Seeks Info on @StateDept Senior Executives Who Are Subjects of Multiple Complaints

Posted: 12:47 am ET


Last week, we blogged about Senators seeking a review/analysis of @StateDept and @USAID sexual harassment and assault data. We have issues with the current harassment data, and sexual assault data in particularly is hard to come by. We want to know how many sexual harassment settlements were made, and how much. We also want to know how many sexual assaults reports have been made, how many cases were refused prosecution by the Department of Justice, and what happens to these cases/victims and their careers. We realized that we can scream our head off in this blog, but only Congress can force the State Department to make this data public (anonymized with no personally identifiable information). That time may be slow in coming, but it is coming.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, the Ranking Member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, on January 22 sent a letter to Secretary Tillerson requesting information about members of the Department’s Senior Executive Service (SES) who have been the subjects of multiple complaints, including Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) complaints. We don’t know what are the specific complaints in this case but EEOC discrimination complaint types include AgeDisabilityEqual Pay/CompensationGenetic InformationHarassmentNational OriginPregnancyRace/ColorReligionRetaliationSex, and Sexual Harassment.

Representative Cummings notes in his letter that “Several career employees at the State Department, including one of my constituents, have written to me raising serious allegations that the Department has repeatedly failed to eliminate the hostile work environment created by a member of the SES, [NAME REDACTED].” Mr. Cummings letter says that the employees indicated to him that numerous complaints have been filed against this individual “that resulted in settlements, but the Department has taken little action to hold this executive accountable or protect employees from abusive management practices.”

We understand that there are multiple individuals involved in the complaints shared with the House Oversight Committee but we don’t know the exact numbers, and whether or not this specific inquiry involves one specific SES member or more. It is telling that the trend on the complaints has moved to the Hill, and no longer localized within the agency. Is this an indicator that the current reporting system is not responsive to the needs of those affected? Or are we just living in a different era?  We do not want to see a trial by media, especially in the hands of politicians, but victims with no real recourse for redress may decide that talking to the Hill or the press is the only action left for them, no matter the personal consequences.

Also worth noting that Mr. Cumming’s request is specific to the Senior Executive Service, the senior ranks of the Civil Service, and does not include the senior ranks of the Foreign Service.

Mr. Cummings letter is asking the State Department to respond to the following requests:

1. an itemized list, with personally identifiable information removed, enumerating  each informal and formal complaint filed against [NAME REDACTED] at any time during his career, including but not limited to EEO complaints, citing:

  • (a) the date on which each complaint was filed;
  • (b) the base(s) of the complaint;
  • (c) the dates on which the complaint advanced through the informal and formal complaint steps;
  • (d) whether there was any finding arising from the complaint that discriminatory or retaliatory action had occurred;
  • (e) whether the complaint resulted in a settlement; and
  • (f) the terms of any settlement (including any monetary amounts included in the settlement); and

2. The number of Senior Executives against whom more than one informal or formal complaint has been filed with the Department of State at any time during the past five years.

3. All Department policies governing how evaluations of Senior Executives’ performance account for their work creating equality of opportunity for all employees.

See HOGR Cummings January 22, 2018 letter to Tillerson


Senators Seek Review/Analysis of @StateDept and @USAID Sexual Harassment and Assault Data

Posted: 2:29 am ET


U.S. Senators Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Ranking Member of the SFRC Subcommittee on State Department and USAID Management, led the Committee’s Democrats in a letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and USAID Administrator Mark Green on January 17, requesting a review and analysis of data to better understand the scope of sexual harassment and assault issues at the Department and Agency, in order to consider appropriate policy changes to address the problems.


Note that back in September 2016,  this blog wanted to know the statistics on sexual assault in the Foreign Service, specifically in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2003. We were also interested in overall statistics on sexual assault in the Foreign Service worldwide, during the last 10 years. We did not ask for names, only numbers. We simply asked for an accounting of sexual assault reports since the invasion of Iraq in 2003 to the present, and the worldwide number of reports spanning over 280 overseas posts in the last 10 years. We were sure the data must be available somewhere. How could it not?

This was the State Department’s official response at that time:

“The Office of Special Investigations receives and catalogues allegations and complaints. Allegations are neither categorized by location nor by alleged offense.”

That remains a shocking response.

Without looking at their data by location and offense, or for that matter by individuals accused, how is the State Department to know when there are serial offenders in its ranks? (See The State Dept’s Sexual Assault Reporting Procedure Appears to Be a Black Hole of Grief).

In its 4th Quarter 2017 report for period ending September 30, 2017, the Office of Civil Rights (S/OCR) does have some information on Equal Employment Opportunity Data required by the No Fear Act.  The public report indicates that reprisal is the number one complaint by basis in FY2017.  Non-sexual harassment went from 72 complaints in 2016 to 103 at the end of FY2017. The comparative report notes 3 complaints of sexual harassment in 2016 and 6 complaints at end of FY2017.

The average number of days in investigation? 207.17 days.

Total Findings of Discrimination after a hearing for sexual harassment? Zero. In 2012.

Also zero in 2013, in 2014, in 2015, in 2016, and through the end of FY2017. Zero.

Apparently, S/OCR does not also count cases reversed by the EEOC like that 2016 case where S/OCR did not find sexual harassment but where the EEOC decided that the complainant was indeed subjected to sexual harassment and ordered the State Department to take remedial actions (see @StateDept to Hold “Harassment in the Workplace” Session But First, Read This FSI Sexual Harassment Case).

S/OCR was recently a presenter in a State Department Q&A session “Should I Report That? How (and when) to Report Workplace Conflict, Harassment & Bias in the Department”.

To read more about our previous posts on sexual assault, click here; for sexual harassment, click here.

Below is the text of the letter to Secretary Tillerson and USAID Administrator Mark Green:

We write to draw to your attention the November 28, 2017 letter signed by over 200 national security professionals who have served, often with distinction, in the State Department, the intelligence community, USAID, and the Pentagon about their experiences of (or serving as witnesses to) incidents of sexual harassment or sexual assault inside our national security bureaucracies.

This letter speaks to what we believe remains a critical issue that too many of our national security institutions have been too slow to address: sexual assault and harassment and its effects on the professionalism and effective functioning of those institutions. These incidents and the pervasive culture that all too frequently excuses these behaviors and actions have had serious and detrimental consequences for the careers and lives of those affected – and by depriving the United States of the service of some of our best and brightest, a deep and negative effect on our national security.

To better address this issue, we would urge you to provide the Foreign Relations Committee a review of your current methods for data collection, oversight, reporting structure, victim protections, analysis and anti-sexual harassment training, including employee feedback on these mechanisms and how they are being implemented. In our oversight capacity, we hope to work with you, to review and analyze the data to better understand the scope of the problem we confront as we consider appropriate policy changes to address it.

The November 28 letter contends that training is all too often “erratic” and “irregular,” and that policies often go unnoticed among staff. In our experiences serving on the oversight committee with responsibilities for the Department of State and USAID we concur with this contention. We would urge that you pay special attention to whether anti-harassment training is adequate, how it is implemented, and how it is enforced, in your respective reviews. We also urge you to examine your procedures for disciplinary actions to ensure that those who demonstrate improper behavior are held accountable for their actions.

The letter also calls for a number of reforms including a clear indication that national security leadership will not tolerate certain behavior, ensuring the full accessibility and functioning of “multiple, clear, private” channels to report abuse without fear of retribution, and ensuring sufficiently regular, mandatory, and instructive training for employees and contractors. We would be interested in your thoughts and comments on these potential areas for reform.

We also urge that you each take the opportunity to work with us to determine what additional resources are necessary to ensure that each report and allegation receives proper attention, that your offices are collecting all the relevant data, that cases are addressed in a timely and confidential fashion, and that training is fully implemented across the State and USAID workforce.

At a moment in our country when we are being reminded anew of the scope and challenge of sexual harassment in the workplace, we are rededicating ourselves here in the Senate to addressing this issue in our own ranks. The Legislative branch faces similar challenges and that while we work to address them, we expect the same from executive branch agencies. For our part, in addition to exploring appropriate oversight and legislative action to ensure that you have the resources and focus that you need to address these issues, we also intend to place additional emphasis on these issues in the confirmation process. We intend to ensure that nominees live up to the highest standards of behavior, and will seek commitments regarding how they intend to address sexual harassment and assault if they are confirmed.

Lastly, we note that the abuses, harassment and assaults noted in the November 28 letter are enabled by an environment in which the diversity of our nation – one of our “secret weapons” and competitive advantages as a nation – is not reflected in the national security workforce. This is especially true at the senior levels. At the State Department, for example, women and men enter the Foreign Service in roughly comparable numbers, but only about one-third of our senior Foreign Service Officers are women. Although women comprise a majority of the Civil Service, the Senior Executive Service remains 61% male and 89% white. Similarly disturbing trends come to light when analyzing the salaries, bonuses and expectations of workplace behavior amongst men and women working in national security roles. We still have a long way to go on gender equality in the national security workforce, and encourage you to share with us as well your vision for how you plan to address deficiencies in recruitment, retention and promotion to assure that your national security workforce is equitably balanced.

The members of our national security workforce should not be forced to spend their time and energy combatting harassment and a culture of tolerance for disrespectful behavior. Rather, they should be free to focus on what they do best – working to keep our nation safe. And we know from numerous studies that a more diverse workforce leads to better outcomes. A 2015 McKinsey study found that a more diverse workforce is more successful through improved decision-making, leadership, and financial progress. We know that to be true in the private sector and we know that to be true for government as well.

Mindful that there are myriad challenges and opportunities to better address sexual harassment in the workplace we do not seek nor do we expect you to develop a cookie-cutter approach to these issues. Rather, we call on you to respect the dignity of each member of our national security workforce by ensuring an environment in which each individual is capable of fully contributing his or her talents to our national security, without obstruction.

The original text of letter is posted here.


@StateDept to Hold “Harassment in the Workplace” Session But First, Read This FSI Sexual Harassment Case

Posted: 3:40 am ET


For those attending the event, here are a few items to read though this is not an exhaustive list. Help us ask these presenters questions that State/PA and State/DS have long ignored:

While we are on the subject, let us revisit a classic case of sexual harassment, where the State Department, specifically one of the presenting offices in the January 11 session had determined that “the alleged acts of sexual harassment did not occur” only to be reversed by the EEOC.

On January 4, 2012, Complainant filed Complaint 24 alleging that the Agency discriminated against her based on her national origin (Arabic/Iraqi), sex (female), religion (Christian), color, and in reprisal for prior protected EEO activity under Title VII when:

3. Her teaching contract was not renewed after August 5, 2011;

4. She was subjected to a hostile work environment characterized by, but not limited to, name calling and sharing an office.  She specifically asserted that since her conversion to Christianity, she was taunted by her Iraqi colleagues, who called her a “peasant,” a “prostitute,” a “bitch,’ and a “daughter of a dog.” She asserted further that she had been told that she had “sold her religion” and had a shoe thrown at her.  Complainant further asserted that she had been the victim of an unsolicited sexual overture by a colleague; and

5. On September 23, 2011, she was not selected for a full time teaching position.

The Agency completed its initial investigation on Complaint 1 in November 2012.  It did not complete an investigation on Complaint 2.  On Complaint 2, according to the Agency, Complainant did not submit an affidavit for the investigation.  Around that time – on March 14, 2013 – Complainant signed forms withdrawing Complaints 1 and 2.5  The Agency ceased processing Complaint 2, but went ahead and issued a FAD on Complaint 1 on May 13, 2013.

In its FAD, the Agency found no discrimination on Complaint 1.  Complainant filed an appeal.  On appeal, the Agency did not note that Complainant previously withdrew her complaint.

In EEOC Appeal No. 0120132236 (May 16, 2014), we recounted that Complainant was provided the right to request a hearing before an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Administrative Judge, but there was no evidence she did so.  We reversed the FAD on the ground that the investigation was inadequate.  Unaware that that Complainant withdrew Complaints 1 and 2, we ordered the Agency to do a supplemental investigation and to consolidate Complaint 2 with Complaint 1 if the Agency was still processing Complaint 2 and had not yet issued a final decision thereon.

In its request for reconsider EEOC Appeal No. 0120132236, the Agency argued that it issued its FAD on Complaint 1 in error, and that Complainant previously withdrew Complaints 1 and 2.  It submitted a copy of its letter to the EEOC compliance officer about the withdrawal of Complaint 1, and Complainant’s signed withdrawals.  We denied the request on the ground that it was untimely filed, and repeated our order in EEOC Appeal No. 0120132236.

Following a supplemental investigation on Complaint 1, the Agency issued a new FAD finding no discrimination therein.  The Agency found that Complainant was not denied the opportunity to attend training and to proctor tests, and the alleged acts of sexual harassment did not occur.  The Agency recounted that it ceased processing Complaint 2 after she withdrew it.6

The EEOC’s decision says that the “Complainant was not subjected to discrimination regarding issue 2” but it determined that “Complainant was subjected to discrimination based on her sex regarding issue 1 – sexual harassment.”

This case which was filed in 2010 was decided by the EEOC on July 7, 2016. Six years. The State Department was ordered to take the following remedial actions within 150 days after the decision became final, and was directed to submit a report of compliance, as provided in the statement entitled “Implementation of the Commission’s Decision.”  The report shall include supporting documentation of the agency’s calculation of back pay and other benefits due complainant, including evidence that the corrective action has been implemented.”

1. The Agency is directed to conduct training at FSI, School of Language Studies for all management and staff in the Arabic Section.  The training shall focus on how to identify and prevent sexual harassment connected with employment.14

2.  If S2 is still employed with the Agency, it shall consider taking disciplinary action against him.  The Agency shall report its decision.  If the Agency decides to take disciplinary action, it shall identify the action taken.  If the Agency decides not to take disciplinary action, it shall set forth the reason(s) for its decision not to impose discipline.

3.  The Agency shall gather evidence on compensatory damages, including providing Complainant an opportunity to submit evidence of her pecuniary and non-pecuniary damages regarding being sexually harassed.  For guidance on what evidence is necessary to prove pecuniary and non-pecuniary damages, the parties are directed to EEOC Enforcement Guidance: Compensatory and Punitive Damages Available Under § 102 of the Civil Rights Act of 1991 (July 14, 1992) (available at eeoc.gov.)  Thereafter, the Agency shall calculate damages, pay Complainant any damages awarded, and issue a new FAD on damages appealable to the Commission.

The State Department was also directed to post the EEOC order:

The Agency is ordered to post at its Foreign Service Institute, School of Language Studies copies of the attached notice.  Copies of the notice, after being signed by the Agency’s duly authorized representative, shall be posted both in hard copy and electronic format by the Agency within 30 calendar days of the date this decision becomes final, and shall remain posted for 60 consecutive days, in conspicuous places, including all places where notices to employees are customarily posted.  The Agency shall take reasonable steps to ensure that said notices are not altered, defaced, or covered by any other material.  The original signed notice is to be submitted to the Compliance Officer at the address cited in the paragraph entitled “Implementation of the Commission’s Decision,” within 10 calendar days of the expiration of the posting period.

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Who’s a Slacker in Policing Sexual Misconduct in Federal Agencies? Take a Guess

Posted: 1:26 am ET
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WaPo just did a piece on sexual misconduct in federal agencies, or the lack of consistent disciplinary practices across agencies based on the staff report by the House Oversight Government Report Committee (report embedded below).

Here’s a public request from WaPo’s Joe Davidson who writes the Federal Insider column:

Questions for Federal Insider readers: How pervasive is sexual harassment in the federal government? If you have been the target of sexual harassment, please tell us the circumstances, what form the harassment took, whether it was reported, what was done about it and whether the perpetrator was disciplined. We will use this information for a future column. In certain cases we can print your comments without identification. Please send your comments to joe.davidson@washpost.com with “sexual misconduct” in the subject line.

Here is an excerpt from the OGRC, a case study that is distinctly familiar:

The hearing examined patterns of sexual harassment and misconduct at the USDA, as well as the fear many employees had of retaliation for reporting these types of cases. It also addressed the agency’s response to harassment incidents and its efforts to improve.66

At the hearing, two women testified publicly about the harassment they personally experienced while on the job at the Forest Service and how the agency’s subsequent investigation and discipline failed to address those responsible. Witness Denice Rice testified about her experiences dealing with sexual harassment on the job when her division chief was allowed to retire before facing discipline, despite his history of misconduct.67 Further, the Forest Service re-hired this individual as a contractor and invited him to give a motivational speech to employees.68 In addition, witness Lesa Donnelly testified about her and others’ experiences with sexual misconduct at the Forest Service. Her testimony spoke about those who were too afraid to report harassment because they feared retaliation from the perpetrators.69

The report cites USAID and the State Department for having Tables of Penalties but although it cites USAID for having “differing Tables of Penalties for foreign service employees and other civilian employees primarily covered by Title 5, United States Code”, it says that the State Department’s Table is “used for foreign service employees only”.

The Foreign Affairs Manual actually spells out penalties for both Foreign Service and Civil Service employees.


24. Use of U.S. Government equipment for prohibited activities, including gambling, advertising for personal gain, or viewing, downloading, storing, transmitting, or copying materials that are sexually explicit, while on or off duty or on or off U.S. Government premises

50. Violation of laws, regulations, or policies relative to trafficking in persons and the procurement of commercial sex, any attempt to procure commercial sex, or the appearance of procuring commercial sex

51.  Sexual Assault (3 FAM 1700)


24. Use of U.S. Government equipment for prohibited activities, including gambling, advertising for personal gain, or viewing, downloading, storing, or transmitting, or copying materials that are sexually explicit, while on duty.

48. Violation of laws, regulations, or policies relative to trafficking in persons and the procurement of commercial sex, any attempt to procure commercial sex, or the appearance of procuring of commercial sex

49. Sexual Assault (3 FAM 1700)

You will note by now that sexual harassment is not on these Tables of Penalties.  Both regs cited above have a section that says its Table of Penalties is not an all-inclusive list. The State Department says “It is impossible to list every possible punishable offense, and no attempt has been made to do this:” But it includes this:

#a. Employees are on notice that any violation of Department regulations could be deemed misconduct regardless of whether listed in 3 FAM 4540.  This table of penalties lists the most common types of employee misconduct.  Some offenses have been included mainly as a reminder that particular behavior is to be avoided, and in the case of certain type of offenses, like sexual assault, workplace violence, and discriminatory and sexual harassment, to understand the Department’s no-tolerance policy.

#b. All employees are on notice that misconduct toward, or exploitation of, those who are particularly vulnerable to the employee’s authority and control, e.g., subordinates, are considered to be particularly egregious and will not be tolerated.

The State Department’s sexual harassment policy is here.  Also see  3 FAM 1520  NON-DISCRIMINATION ON THE BASIS OF RACE, COLOR, NATIONAL ORIGIN, SEX, OR RELIGION updated last in December 2010.

For blogposts on sexual harassment click here; for sexual assaults, click here.


A Woman Reported to Diplomatic Security That She Was Raped and Stalked by a DS Agent, So What Happened?

Posted: 2:26 am ET
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We recently received information from an individual who asserted that she was raped and stalked by a supervisory Diplomatic Security agent assigned to one of Diplomatic Security’s eight field locations in the United States.  She said that was interviewed by Diplomatic Security’s  Office of Special Investigations (DS/DO/OSI) in November 2014. She also said that she provided a Victim Impact Statement to DS/OSI in December 2015. The investigation reportedly concluded in February 2016 with no disciplinary action. She informed us that during one telephonic conversations with a Supervisory Special Agent, she felt pressured to say that “I was pleased with the DoS handling of this case.” She presumed that the call was recorded and refused to say it.  She cited another case that was reported around the same time her case was investigated in 2014.  She believed that there were multiple police reports for the employee involving different women for similar complaints.

We’ve asked the Bureau of Diplomatic Security for comments about this case, and whether this was reported to the Office of Inspector General. To-date, we have not received an acknowledgment to our inquiry nor a response to our questions despite ample time to do so.


On the subject of sexual assaults, on July 27, 2017, the State Department issued a new Foreign Affairs Manual subchapter 3 FAM 1750 on sexual assaults involving personnel and facilities in the United States. (For sexual assault involving chief-of-mission personnel and facilities outside of the United States see 3 FAM 1710).

3 FAM 1750:  “… The Department of State is determined to do all it can to prevent sexual assault from being committed by, or against, its personnel and it is committed to effectively and sensitively responding to personnel who have been sexually assaulted, ensuring that they are treated with care and respect.  The policies and procedures in this section define the Department’s goals of effectively preventing and addressing sexual assaults; the actions it will take in response to allegations of sexual assault; and the approach it will use in holding those Department personnel who commit sexual assault accountable for their actions.  The language used in this FAM, by necessity, must be technical, comport with and relate to relevant laws, and be administratively sound.  That said, the legal terminology, including the term “victim,” contained herein should not eclipse the compassion and urgency that underlie the Department’s commitment to this issue.”

The new regs notes that “sexual assaults that occur within the United States generally fall under the jurisdiction of the State or locality where the assault occurred.  Personnel who are victims of sexual assault are not under any obligation to report the assault to the Department.”

This new policy applies to:

(1)  All Department employees in the United States;

(2)  Persons under personal-services contracts (PSCs) or personal-services agreements (PSAs) in the United States;

(3)  Other individuals, such as third-party contractors, student volunteers (interns) and nonemployee fellows, and other personnel (e.g., subcontractors) in the United States who provide services to the State Department when the allegation involves conduct that occurs on duty, or is associated with the individual’s position within the Department; and

(4)  Any sexual assault that occurs at any Department facility within the United States.

The victims described above may also reach out to:

(a)  Diplomatic Security’s Office of Special Investigations (DS/DO/OSI) via telephone at 571-345-3146 or via email at DS-OSIDutyAgent@state.gov.  The DS/DO/OSI duty agents are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week;

(b)  Employee Consultation Services (ECS) by email:  MEDECS@state.gov or by telephone at 703-812-2257; and

(c)  A sexual-assault crisis center.

The regs says that “personnel who are victims of sexual assault are not/not under any obligation to report the assault to the Department.”  The Department, however, “strongly encourages” anyone who knows or suspects or is aware of a sexual assault covered by 3 FAM 1750 to immediately report allegations of sexual assault to:

(1)  DS/DO/OSI via email DS-OSIDutyAgent@state.gov or via phone through the DS Command Center at 571-345-3146; or

(2)  S/OCR or via phone at 202-647-9295 (WHY?)

(3)  MED personnel will not share protected health information except in accordance with the Notice of Privacy Practices or with the written consent of the patient.  Individuals may obtain a copy of the MED Notice of Privacy Practices from the health unit or MED intranet page.

(4) Except as required by law, non-MED personnel will only disclose information about sexual assaults to other Department officers and employees on a need-to-know basis, including to the Office of Inspector General (OIG) in accordance with 22 U.S.C. 3929, and to other Federal and local agencies, in accordance with the Privacy Act.

3 FAM 1750 says that Department personnel detailed to another agency may reach out to the Washington, DC-based Bureau of Medical Services (MED) duty officer at 202-262-9013 or through the Operations Center at 202-647-1512 for medical guidance, and to DS/DO/OSI for law enforcement guidance.

A few thoughts on this:

#1.  We understand the caveats on information sharing with medical, and non-medical personnel included in this subchapter  but we don’t think this is enough to assuage the privacy concerns of victims.

#2. DOD has restricted (confidential) and unrestricted reporting for victims. That means the adult sexual assault victim can access healthcare, advocacy services, and legal services without triggering notification to command or law enforcement (restricted). Under Unrestricted Reporting, both the command and law enforcement are notified. Even then, fewer than 1 in 5 victims openly reported their sexual assault. 3,678 service members reported the incident to law enforcement, out of a total 20,000 survivors.

#3. S/OCR handles equal employment opportunity issues including sexual harassment, why should sexual assault victims report sexual assault or sexual assault allegations there? 3 FAM 1711.2 defines sexual assault as any type of sexual contact that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient.It also says that sexual assault is a form of sexual harassment. Sexual assault is a crime, it cannot be resolved through mediation, grievance, or the EEO processes. Also does anyone know how many people at S/OCR are trained to actually handle sexual assault cases?

The U.S. Marines publication make the distinction between sexual harassment and sexual assault here (PDF). It defines sexual harassment as a form of sex discrimination that involves unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal and physical conduct of a sexual nature. It defines sexual assault as intentional sexual contact, characterized by use of force, threats, intimidation, abuse of authority or when a victim cannot or does not consent.  And this one is important, “A current or previous dating relationship by itself or the manner of dress of the person involved with the accused in the sexual conduct at issue shall not constitute consent.”  

The U.S. Coast Guard says that the real distinction between sexual harassment and sexual assault is sexual harassment’s connection to the victim’s employment and/or work performance, which is why sexual harassment is a civil rights issue. It points out that sexual assault is a crime against another person. However, unlike sexual harassment, it has nothing to do with their employment and/or work performance, it is a criminal assault, of a sexual nature, against another person.

The State Department guidance does not/not make such distinctions.

#4.  States all address the crime of sexual assault, with some adding specific categories of victims, defenses, and penalties. See more here: http://statelaws.findlaw.com/criminal-laws/sexual-assault.html.

RAINN also has a search tool for independent sexual assault service providers, including National Sexual Assault Hotline affiliate organizations and other local providers here.




Inbox: Female Contractor at DS Training Center Fired 3 Hours After Filing Harassment Complaint

Posted: 3:19 am ET
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In response to our June 20 post Diplomatic Security’s Basic Special Agent (BSAC) Training: Sexual Harassment Alert!, we received the following:

To add:

There are only two female DS Agents assigned to the DS Training Center.

There is currently an EEO suit being brought by a contract female instructor who was fired from the DS Training Center three hours after she submitted a harassment complaint. In the complaint, a male PSC co-worker frequently harassed the female instructor, and, given the timing of the termination, this is an egregious violation of whistleblower/EEO diversity/harassment free workplace regulations and policies. The male PSC employee is still employed and complaints about his dealings with female students and employees persist.


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Inbox: A belief that there’s no place for a female in Diplomatic Security agent ranks especially at HTPs?

Posted: 3:24 am ET
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We recently posted a report out of Diplomatic Security’s BSAC training (see Diplomatic Security’s Basic Special Agent (BSAC) Training: Sexual Harassment Alert!, We received the following comment in our mailbox that we think many will find just as troubling:

“In response to the DS BSAC Sexual Harassment allegations, the  ‘militarization’ of DS post-Benghazi, such as with high threat training requirements (duplicated from U.S. military training), has made many mid and senior-level male agents believe that there is no place for a female in DS agent ranks, especially at high threat posts. These same male agents are the future DS leadership unfortunately. The vast majority of DSS male agents are professional and respectful in the workplace however the chauvinistic attitude is prevalent, and is actually coming from the attitude from the mid and senior level guys (01s to OCs) who are managers and not DS leadership.  DS leadership is responsible to stop it, and that can only be done by setting the offenders publicly accountable and placing professional agents in senior leadership positions.”


A Global Force: Agent Profile brochure says that “For women who choose Diplomatic Security as a career, there are no limits to how far you can go.”  Also that “Diversity is one of the greatest strengths of Diplomatic Security.”  

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Diplomatic Security’s Basic Special Agent (BSAC) Training: Sexual Harassment Alert!

Posted: 2:21 pm PT
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In August 2016, the Bureau of Diplomatic Security’s Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Diplomatic Security and Director of the Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) Bill Miller sent a message on sexual harassment to bureau employees.  We published the entire message here, Below is an excerpt of that 2016 statement:

Diplomatic Security takes sexual harassment extremely seriously – not only as an issue in the State Department, but also especially within our Bureau. 

In our response to questions from Diplopundit on this issue July 27, we noted that we find unacceptable any behavior that threatens people’s well-being in the workplace, or in any way diminishes someone’s professional capacity. 

Sexual harassment is an attack on the values this organization seeks to protect every day.  It compromises our charge to protect the workplace rights and ensure a safe environment for all Department employees.
As a law enforcement organization, we must hold ourselves to the highest standards of ethical conduct. As the leader of this organization, I hold every employee accountable to that standard and will not accept any less of them.

Sexual harassment and sexual assault are serious issues that affect both men and women. We condemn any comment that seeks to trivialize these activities or their impact on victims. 

Diplomatic Security personnel are made aware of their responsibilities as law enforcement officers and federal employees from the beginning of their employment with the Department.  DS employees receive recurring training on equal employment opportunity guidelines, prohibiting discriminatory practices, harassment in all its forms, and promotion of diversity and inclusiveness throughout their career. 

During the Basic Special Agent Course, Basic Regional Security Officer (RSO) and RSO advanced courses, individuals from the DS Victim’s Resource Advocacy Program provide classes on responding to sexual assault.

I am disappointed and disturbed to hear that anyone in our organization would be concerned about being stigmatized for coming forward to report sexual harassment or sexual assault.  It is unacceptable that we have employees of any gender who may not feel comfortable reporting such activities.

This week, we received an email from a new Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) agent detailing sexual language that female student-agents had to endure during Diplomatic Security’s Basic Special Agent Course (BSAC) training. The writer expressed concern over the “worrisome behavior by senior agents conducting the training” and the apparent tolerance by others witnessing such behavior.  The writer also wrote: “One senior female agent advised me that upon receipt of this complaint, DSS Management’s first response will likely be to try to figure out who the “complainer” is . . rather than dealing with the senior agents responsible for damaging the department’s reputation.”  Our corespondent suggests that if investigators outside of Diplomatic Security want to look into this, all they need to do is talk to the female agents in BSAC’s 137, 136, and 135.

The report below is what we can share publicly.  This writer like our other correspondents in the past, is also wary of retaliation.  We’ve referred to Special Agent #1 as SA#1 although we can certainly imagine a more colorful name. Special Agent #2 is also referred below as SA#2.


Received via email from a DSS Special Agent


Here is what I witnessed:

1) During protective training, I was assigned to a follow car that was “coached” by [Special Agent #1]. During our time with [SA#1], myself and the other females in the group had to listen to [SA#1] describe in detail how during his time in Baghdad he shaved his “balls” and had problems with them “sticking.” [SA#1] then felt it appropriate to detail a trip to his doctor where he had a consultation about erectile medication. [SA#1] also made repeated derogatory comments about his wife. My memory is a little fuzzy on those comments, but they were along the line of, “the old ball and chain, etc.”

I should mention that one of the female agents present is only 22 years old. So this young agent, in her first real job out of college had to sit (literally right next to [SA#1] in the back seat / physically touching him) and listen to [SA#1] , her supervisor, go on and on about his sticky balls in Baghdad and his erectile disfunction . . .i.e. he was discussing his penis.

2) The protection portion of the training was run by unit chief [Special Agent #2]. I personally was “creeped” out by [SA#2] during the entire training as he would try to flirt with the female students in a very unprofessional manner. [SA#2] really crossed the line, however, when for some reason he decided to ask one of the female students (now an agent) for their phone and proceeded to look through it. [SA#2] found the phone number or a text message in the female student-agent’s phone for one of the male contractors working on our final exercise, and texted “I miss you” to the contractor (from the female student/agent’s phone). The female student/agent was of course mortified as it appeared she was texting “I miss you” to the contractor. Is this appropriate behavior from a Unit Supervisor in the training division?!

[SA#2’s] inappropriate behavior continued when, during a re-test he decided to switch out a male student-agent from the position sitting next to him in the exercise to the above mentioned female student-agent. [SA#2] advised the entire BSAC that he was making the switch so he could have someone to “talk to.” He was supposed to be grading the re-test, but instead decided to use the time to creepily attempt to flirt with the female student-agent.

I am sure the above behavior by [SAs #1 and #2] has been repeated in multiple BSAC’s and I hope the department conducts a thorough investigation. Honestly, however, I am not so optimistic that things will change. I know Diplopundit has documented several such sexual harassment claims in the not so distant past, and yet, the above Supervisory SAs seemed to have no compunction in openly behaving this way in front of the 20 plus student-agents!

Where are the Director and the other senior members of DSS management?!! If they cannot protect/prevent a 21 year female agent from having to listen to Supervisory SAs like [SA#1 and SA#2] while she sits in training, how can DSS Senior Management be trusted to protect that same agent from harassment while she is serving in a high threat post in a 98% male RSO shop?!

The Director came to speak to our BSAC, and within 3 minutes of our “pep” talk he told us that if we had joined DSS to use it as a stepping stone we should “get the hell out.” That is a direct quote. One day on the job, and the Director comes in and says “get the hell out” in a pep talk. I would like to turn that around on the Director. If the senior leadership in DSS cannot prevent Supervisory Agents from “creeping out” all females in a BSAC class. Or prevent female student-agents from having to listen to Supervisory SA’s conducting BSAC training discuss their “shaved balls,” maybe it is time for the Director and others to “get the hell out” and leave the bureau in more capable hands?


The Eleventh Circuit’s decision in Henson v. City of Dundee, 682 F.2d 897, 902, 29 EPD ¶ 32,993 (11th Cir. 1982) notes the following:

Sexual harassment which creates a hostile or offensive environment for members of one sex is every bit the arbitrary barrier to sexual equality at the workplace that racial harassment is to racial equality. Surely, a requirement that a man or woman run a gauntlet of sexual abuse in return for the privilege of being allowed to work and made a living can be as demeaning and disconcerting as the harshest of racial epithets.

Female agents should not have to bear and tolerate this kind of language and offensive behavior for the privilege of being allowed to work at Diplomatic Security.

Why would anyone think this is appropriate, acceptable behavior?

And when this is done by individuals in supervisory ranks during training, how do you expect new employees to step up and report this to these same supervisors? The same supervisors, by the way, who can pass/fail employees during basic training. The same supervisors, by the way, who ought to be modeling the highest standards of ethical and professional conduct for agents-in-training.

While the EEOC policy guidance on sexual harassment notes that “sexual flirtation or innuendo, even vulgar language that is trivial or merely annoying, would probably not establish a hostile environment,” it also talks about the pervasiveness and pattern of behavior.

Putting aside our previous reports on harassment at Diplomatic Security for a moment — if we’re talking about three classes to start with here, what is that if not a pattern? And if this behavior was witnessed and tolerated by people and contractors who should know better, then Diplomatic Security has a systemic problem that no broadcast message from bureau officials can fix.

The Supreme Court said in Vinson that for sexual harassment to violate Title VII, it must be “sufficiently severe or pervasive ‘to alter the conditions of [the victim’s] employment and create an abusive working environment.'” 106 S. Ct. at 2406 (quoting Henson v. City of Dundee, 682 F.2d at 904. Since “hostile environment’ harassment takes a variety of forms, many factors may affect this determination, including: (1) whether the conduct was verbal or physical, or both; (2) how frequently it was repeated; (3) whether the conduct was hostile and patently offensive; (4) whether the alleged harasser was a co-worker or a supervisor; (5) whether the others joined in perpetrating the harassment; and (6) whether the harassment was directed at more than one individual.

In determining whether unwelcome sexual conduct rises to the level of a “hostile environment” in violation of Title VII, the central inquiry is whether the conduct “unreasonably interfer[es] with an individual’s work performance” or creates “an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment.” 29 C.F.R. § 1604.11(a)(3). Thus, sexual flirtation or innuendo, even vulgar language that is trivial or merely annoying, would probably not establish a hostile environment.

Preventive actions per EEOC‘S Guidelines encourage employers to: “take all steps necessary to prevent sexual harassment from occurring, such as affirmatively raising the subject, expressing strong disapproval, developing appropriate sanctions, informing employees of their right to raise and how to raise the issue of harassment under Title VII, and developing methods to sensitize all concerned.”

Also 29 C.F.R. § 1604.11(f): An effective preventive program should include an explicit policy against sexual harassment that is clearly and regularly communicated to employees and effectively implemented. The employer should affirmatively raise the subject with all supervisory and non- supervisory employees, express strong disapproval, and explain the sanctions for harassment. The employer should also have a procedure for resolving sexual harassment complaints. The procedure should be designed to “encourage victims of harassment to come forward” and should not require a victim to complain first to the offending supervisor. See Vinson, 106 S. Ct. at 2408. It should ensure confidentiality as much as possible and provide effective remedies, including protection of victims and witnesses against retaliation.

All well and good, but in the real world we have these: Chien v. Kerry: DS Agent Files Suit For Race/Sex Discrimination, Hostile Work Environment, and RetaliationInbox: Female Diplomatic Security Agent Pens a Note on Sexual Harassment and Career SuicideAnother Concerned DS Agent Pens Response to Diplomatic Security’s Broadcast Message on Sexual Harassment.

The State Department’s sexual harassment policy is memorialized here.

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