As the list of allegations against powerful men seems to grow each day, the tales of sexual abuse and misconduct can blend together. But the accusations against Sen. Al Franken versus Harvey Weinstein, for example, exist on a spectrum, from groping and unwanted massages to forced kisses and oral sex. And then there’s sexual harassment that can occur without even touching someone.
Matt Damon may think that we shouldn’t conflate harassment and assault, but there’s no denying that all behaviors take advantage of power differentials in workplaces and relationships. Milder harassment might later lead to sexual assault: An inappropriate sexual remark that doesn’t get addressed outright, or unwelcome advances that get brushed off, can pave the way toward an aggressive forced encounter.
These offenses are often misunderstood. Experts say that defining these behaviors — as well as highlighting what, for so long, has been viewed as acceptable — can be a step toward prevention.
Let’s take a moment to decode the terms in the news today.
First, what constitutes sexual penetration or consent in one state does not necessarily carry over to another state, lending difficulty to the conversation on a national level. “Sexual assault is a criminal act, and sex crimes are defined very differently under state laws,” explains Sheerine Alemzadeh, attorney and legal expert on workplace sexual violence as well as co-founder of the nonprofit Healing to Action.
Sexual misconduct: This is generally an imprecise term in the legal world, but Alemzadeh notes that companies can form their own sexual misconduct policies, which can be more expansive or more limited than state laws. The term can apply to consensual and non-consensual acts, because if the two people involved work together, a sexual relationship of any kind might be forbidden by their employer; or if one person is of higher stature in the organization, that power can be used as coercion or might lead to professional retribution. “Sexual misconduct” has been used to describe the allegations against comedian Louis C.K., who has confirmed that he’s masturbated in front of women. The term has also been used in describing TV and radio personality Tavis Smiley, who has reportedly had sexual relationships with several subordinates.
Harassment: As defined by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, harassment is illegal and can include “offensive remarks about a person’s sex, unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors.” This could include the accusations against Matthew Weiner. “Mad Men” writer Kater Gordon says the show’s creator told her she owed it to him to let him see her naked. Harassment can also include physical intimidation. Alemzadeh notes that sexual harassment can result in quid pro quo behavior or cause a hostile work environment. While sexual assault is a criminal behavior, harassment is considered a civil rights issue, as it violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. While it may not be actionable, an advance that could be dismissed as a compliment can be experienced as harassment, Alemzadeh says, if the person receiving it can’t “honestly reply to your compliment” if they have less power in the relationship.
Quid pro quo: A Latin phrase meaning something is given or received in exchange for something else. In a sexual context, this term was a common thread in allegations against both Harvey Weinstein and Russell Simmons. As one of Simmons’s accusers told the New York Times: “It was a quid pro quo: ‘I have power, you want access, sleep with me — or I’m going to be really mean to you the next day. And there will be consequences.’ ”
Hostile work environment: When behavior is severe enough that it changes the conditions of the workplace; this can occur even without an explicit offer of sex or nudity. The EEOC notes a hostile work environment may include, but is not limited to: offensive jokes, slurs, epithets or name calling, physical assaults or threats, intimidation, ridicule or mockery, insults or put-downs, offensive objects or pictures, and interference with work performance. The trauma Salma Hayek experienced on the set of “Frida” fits into this category.
Sexual assault: This is defined by the Department of Justice as “any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient.” Examples include forced sexual intercourse, attempted rape, child molestation, incest, fondling and forcible sodomy.
Rape: A form of sexual assault that used to be narrowly defined as forced penetration of a woman by a man. Now any penetration of the anus or vagina, no matter how slight, experienced by any person with any body part or object, can be classified as rape. It also encompasses oral penetration by a sex organ without consent.
Groping: This is another tricky term that dominates headlines, encompassing allegations against President Trump, actor Dustin Hoffman, Sen. Al Franken and talent agent Adam Venit. The definition of groping can vary depending on state law but is mainly categorized as unlawful touching. Alemzadeh notes that there’s no single official legal definition, just that it falls under the context of assault. For example, in Illinois, where she practices, groping would fall under criminal sex abuse rather than assault because Illinois law requires penetration to file assault charges. Groping rarely gets prosecuted despite its rampant occurrence because most people categorize it and dismiss it as bad behavior instead of reporting it. David Cobbins, who’s part of a team at USC that trains U.S. Army leaders on how to prevent sexual assault and harassment, says that the body part being groped shouldn’t have bearing in terms of being reported as long as it’s unwanted.
Sex addiction: This is not a recognized clinical diagnosis by the American Psychiatric Association but tends to be described as hypersexuality or a dysfunctional preoccupation with sex. In a study by the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA, “hypersexuality did not appear to explain brain differences in sexual response any more than simply having a high libido.” However, perpetrators accused of sex abuse (such as Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey) have blamed their actions on sex addiction. Alemzadeh, however, says it’s not an adequate defense. Under sexual harassment law, “it doesn’t matter what the intent of the harasser was,” she says. “The person who was experiencing it did not consent to that behavior.”
Grooming: Typically, a predator will use their position within their community or industry to gain trust and ensure that the control they wield as the adult in the relationship means the ensuing abuse will remain secret. Most of the allegations against Roy Moore, for example, depict a man who first established himself as a reliable, trustworthy individual to the parent of a girl he then sexually pursued.