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Consenting to Sexual Harassment

Consenting to Sexual Harassment
Case 11.4 Consenting to Sexual Harassment
In the case of Vinson v. Taylor, heard before the federal district court for the District of Columbia,
Mechelle Vinson alleged that Sidney Taylor, her supervisor at Capital City Federal Savings and Loan, had
sexually harassed her. 71 But the facts of the case were contested. In court Vinson testified that about a
year after she began working at the bank, Taylor asked her to have sexual rela-tions with him. She
claimed that Taylor said she “ owed” him because he had obtained the job for her. Although she turned
down Taylor at first, she eventually became involved with him. She and Taylor engaged in sexual
relations, she said, both during and after business hours, in the remaining three years she worked at the
bank. The encounters included intercourse in a bank vault and in a storage area in the bank basement.
Vinson also testified that Taylor often actually “ assaulted or raped” her. She contended that she was
forced to submit to Taylor or jeopardize her employment. Taylor, for his part, denied the allegations. He
testified that he had never had sex with Vinson. On the contrary, he alleged that Vinson had made
advances toward him and that he had declined them. He contended that Vinson had brought the charges
against him to “ get even” because of a work- related dispute. In its ruling on the case, the court held
that if Vinson and Taylor had engaged in a sexual relationship, that relationship was voluntary on the
part of Vinson and was not employment related. The court also held that Capital City Federal Savings
and Loan did not have “ notice” of the alleged harassment and was therefore not liable. Although Taylor
was Vinson’s super-visor, the court reasoned that notice to him was not notice to the bank. Vinson
appealed the case, and the Court of Appeals held that the district court had erred in three ways. First,
the dis-trict court had overlooked the fact that there are two possi-ble kinds of sexual harassment.
Writing for the majority, Chief Judge Spottswood Robinson distinguished cases in which the victim’s
continued employment or promotion is conditioned on giving in to sexual demands and those cases in
which the victim must tolerate a “ substantially discrimi-natory work environment.” The lower court had
failed to consider whether Vinson’s case involved harassment of the second kind. Second, the higher
court also overruled the district court’s finding that because Vinson voluntarily engaged in a sexual
relationship with Taylor, she was not a victim of sexual harassment. Voluntariness on Vinson’s part had “
no bearing,” the judge wrote, on “ whether Taylor made Vinson’s toleration of sexual harassment a
condition of her employment.” Third, the Court of Appeals held that any discriminatory activity by a
supervisor is attributable to the employer, regardless of whether the employer had specific notice. In
his dissent to the decision by the Court of Appeals, Judge Robert Bork rejected the majority’s claim that
­“ voluntariness” did not automatically rule out harassment. He argued that this position would have the
result of depriving the accused per-son of any defense, because he could no longer establish that the
supposed victim was really “ a willing participant.” Judge Bork contended further that an employer
should not be held vicariously liable for a supervisor’s acts that it didn’t know about. Eventually the
case arrived at the U. S. Supreme Court, which upheld the majority verdict of the Court of Appeals, stat-
ing that: [ T] he fact that sex- related conduct was “ voluntary,” in the sense that the complainant was
not forced to participate against her will, is not a defense to a sexual harassment suit brought under
Title VII. The gravamen of any sexual harassment claim is that the alleged sexual advances were “
unwelcome.”. . . The correct inquiry is whether respondent by her conduct indicated that the alleged
sexual advances were unwelcome, not whether her actual participa-tion in sexual intercourse was
voluntary. The Court, however, rejected the Court of Appeals’s ­position that employers are strictly
liable for the acts of their supervisors, regardless of the particular circumstances.
Discussion Questions
1. According to her own testimony, Vinson acquiesced to Taylor’s sexual demands. In this sense her
behavior was “ voluntary.” Does the voluntariness of her behavior mean that she had “ consented” to
Taylor’s advances? Does it mean that they were “ welcome”? Do you agree that Vinson’s acquiescence
shows there was no sexual harassment? Which court was right about this? Defend your position.
2. In your opinion, under what circumstances would acquiescence be a defense to charges of sexual
harassment? When would it not be a defense? Can you formulate a general rule for deciding such cases?
3. Assuming the truth of Vinson’s version of the case, do you think her employer, Capital City Federal
Savings and Loan, should be held liable for sexual harassment it was not aware of? Should the employer
have been aware of it? Does the fact that Taylor was a supervisor make a difference? In general, when
should an employer be liable for harassment? 4. What steps do you think Vinson should have taken when
Taylor first pressed her for se
x? Should she be blamed for having given in to him? Assuming that there was sexual harassment despite
her acquiescence, does her going along with Taylor make her partly responsible or mitigate Taylor’s
5. In court, Vinson’s allegations were countered by Taylor’s version of the facts. Will there always be a “
your word against mine” problem in sexual harass-ment cases? What could Vinson have done to
strengthen her case?

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