Sexual harassment has been a problem in workplaces for a long time, probably as long as the “workplace” has existed. In the popular imagination, the classic sexual harassment scenario involves a male manager or supervisor making unwanted sexual overtures toward a subordinate female employee. Of course, sexual harassment can take many other forms. In a very modern twist on a seemingly timeless problem, “virtual assistants” (VAs) are reportedly experiencing sexual harassment. VAs are artificial intelligence (AI) applications on smartphones and other devices that use voice recognition to answer questions and perform certain tasks. Several software companies are reporting that their VAs receive far more queries of a sexual nature than they were expecting. Some VAs, such as Microsoft’s Cortana, are learning how to push back against such conduct.
In the U.S. legal system, sexual harassment includes offensive conduct ranging from inappropriate sexual comments to overt demands for sexual activity to actions that also constitute criminal sexual assault. These are all considered sex discrimination in violation of federal, state, and city employment statutes. The U.S. Supreme Court first recognized sexual harassment as sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, 477 U.S. 57 (1986). Sexual harassment is not limited to scenarios in which men harass women. Women can sexually harass men, and workers can successfully claim sexual harassment by members of the same sex. See Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services, Inc., 523 U.S. 75 (1998).
The court identified two types of sexual harassment in Vinson. Quid pro quo sexual harassment involves demands for sexual activity in some form, either in exchange for some employment benefit or under threat of some penalty. Hostile work environment sexual harassment involves inappropriate sexual remarks, overtures, or other conduct that renders the workplace unbearable.