Sexual assault and harassment have been in the news a lot lately, largely due to allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, as well as those that have been raised against House of Cards actor Kevin Spacey.
First, a recap: On Oct. 5, The New York Times published an investigative report detailing a number of sexual harassment allegations women have made about Weinstein over the past three decades. In the weeks that followed, even more women came forward to share their own experiences with sexual assault and harassment. These allegations often had nothing to do with Weinstein; instead, women were sharing their stories using the hashtag #MeToo to show just how many people have been impacted by sexual assault and harassment.
Then, on Oct. 30, BuzzFeed reported that actor Anthony Rapp alleged that Spacey had made an unwanted sexual advance toward him in 1986. Rapp was 14 at the time, and Spacey was 26. Spacey issued an apology on Oct. 31, writing, "I honestly do not remember the encounter; it would have been over 30 years ago. But if I did behave then as he describes, I owe him the sincerest apology for what would have been deeply inappropriate drunken behavior, and I am sorry for the feelings he describes having carried with him all these years." In the same apology, Spacey made a public statement about his sexual orientation for the first time. The actor said he's had relationships with both men and women and now lives as a gay man. Some criticized Spacey for including this in his apology, noting that it may conflate homosexuality with pedophilia in a way that is inappropriate, unfair, and harmful to the LGBTQ community.
This increasing public conversation surrounding sexual assault and harassment is an important step toward addressing a prevalent and dangerous societal issue. But the definition of sexual assault according to the law isn’t always clear. Here, we breakdown what legally constitutes sexual assault, harassment, and more.
What does “sexual assault” actually mean?
It’s actually harder to define than you’d think. According to the United States Department of Justice, sexual assault is “any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient.” Sexual assault is basically an umbrella term that includes sexual activities such as rape, fondling, and attempted rape.
However, the legal definition varies depending on which state you’re in, and can even be different depending on where you were when the assault happened, Emily Austin, director of advocacy services for California Coalition Against Sexual Assault, tells SELF. For example, she says, sexual assault on college campuses in California means a sex act that occurred without affirmative consent (which is described as active, voluntary participation), while California criminal law defines rape as nonconsensual sexual intercourse, and other laws govern different forms of sexual assault beyond intercourse. “It’s complex,” she admits.
The definitions can vary because of the way in which our laws are made, explains Rebecca O'Connor, vice president of public policy at the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), the largest anti-sexual assault organization in the U.S. “On the state level, because nothing is simple, the states have sovereignty over laws, and different legislatures and jurors have crafted different definitions of specific behaviors,” she tells SELF. Some states explicitly define rape or sexual assault and others may not, but fold that behavior under different terminology. “It runs the gamut,” she says, adding that states typically create these definitions with guidance from the Department of Justice. However, the details are crafted on a state level, often based on local cases that set a precedent for how sexual assault is phrased and determined.
Generally, sexual assault falls into one of three categories.
Jennifer Gentile Long, the chief executive officer of AEquitas: The Prosecutors' Resource on Violence Against Women, a global project she co-founded in April 2009, tells SELF those include:
Penetration crimes Of a body part by another body part (i.e., penal penetration of mouth, anus, vagina) Of a body part by an objectContact with genitalia, breast, buttocks, or other intimate body partsExposure of genitalia, breast, buttocks or other intimate body parts.
According to Austin, sexual harassment can include sexual assault (such as rape and/or grabbing), but it’s also broader. Sexual harassment “includes creating a hostile environment, pervasive jokes/comments, looks, and body language that makes an individual feel harassed,” she says. But, again, the exact definition can vary by state.
As for “locker room talk,” experts say it's not usually a crime, but it can feed into a culture of sexual harassment. “From a prosecution perspective, we are always thinking about how sexuality and sexual violence portrayed in media, music, film, video games, and culture, impacts the way jurors and criminal justice professionals evaluate evidence in a case and render just and fair decisions without bringing in misinformation and bias,” Long says. The more pervasive "locker room talk," the more likely people may be biased into thinking a crime like sexual harassment is normal and OK.
O’Connor agrees, noting that it’s not a crime but still carries a lot of weight. “Any language or phrase that condones sexual violence is dangerous because it attempts to brush away allegations of criminal behavior,” she says. O’Connor says sexual assault and harassment is “woefully underreported” and “locker room talk” marginalizes victims. (O’Connor also notes that RAINN’s hotline has had a 33 percent increase in sessions since Trump’s 2005 comments surfaced.)
However, in some situations, “locker room talk” could actually be seen as a form of sexual harassment, Austin says. She cites inappropriate jokes or pinup pictures in the workforce as potentially creating a hostile work environment, which could fall under the umbrella of sexual harassment.
What should you do if you know or suspect that you’ve been a victim of sexual harassment or assault?
Austin recommends finding a sexual violence advocate near you, like a rape crisis center. “Most sexual assault advocates have a certain level of privileged communication—they can keep the conversation confidential, even against a subpoena,” she says. “This allows a survivor to really explore their options.” They can also set up evidence collection (like a rape kit) and contact law enforcement, if needed and you want to pursue your legal options. And, if you’re not exactly sure what to call the sexual violence you were the victim of, a counselor can help. Austin says this is a good option if the idea of going directly to the authorities is intimidating to you.
However, Long says you shouldn’t be afraid to report a crime. “I would encourage people who have been the victim of rape and/or sexual assault to come forward and report the crime, and to expect to be treated with respect and dignity,” she says. “Regardless of whether one is willing or able to engage with the criminal justice system, I encourage each survivor to seek medical attention as well as support through a rape crisis center or a trauma-informed therapist.”
And, above all, O’Connor says it’s important to keep this in mind: “Know that it’s not OK, and it’s not the victim’s fault—ever.”