What is sexual assault?

There’s a recent survey by USA Today that finds that 94% of women in the entertainment industry have experienced sexual harassment or sexual assault.

Of course, this opens up an obvious question: what is the difference between sexual harassment and sexual assault? You’d think the answer would be well known and explained in most articles about the topic but, from what I can gather, lots of people have different interpretations of these terms.

You can probably see where I’m going with this. I’m wondering whether an awful act—sexual harassment—is being grouped together with a really awful act—sexual assault—to make things seem worse than they really are. For instance, if 90% of women experienced sexual harassment and 4% experience sexual assault, the USA Today findings would be true. But they would also be true is if 4% of women experienced sexual harassment and 90% experience sexual assault. I think most of us would agree those are two quite different scenarios.

To really gauge how awful things are we need to understand what these terms mean. Fortunately USA Today has an article that dives into this question. They investigate how each of these terms is defined by by various sources. The terms as defined by government are reasonably clear: sexual harassment is verbal while sexual assault is physical. I’ll quote the Justice Department’s definition of sexual assault here:

Sexual assault is any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient. Falling under the definition of sexual assault are sexual activities as forced sexual intercourse, forcible sodomy, child molestation, incest, fondling, and attempted rape.

Even that seems a bit unclear. Is grabbing a breast and patting a butt sexual assault? I would presume yes, but the above definition seems to focus on pretty heavy crimes—sodomy, forced sexual intercourse etc.

What stands out in the article is how different the legal definition is from the “people’s definition.” As the article notes:

In a March 2017 survey of U.S. adults conducted by the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC), 60% of women and 48% of men considered “unwanted verbal remarks that are provocative or unsolicited” to be sexual violence or assault (setting — i.e., workplace or not — was not specified).

So merely talking is considered, by a lot of people, to be sexual assault.

I should be clear about some things here. I’m all for the #MeToo moment and I’m overjoyed to see people like Weinstein etc. taken down. But I think until we have some kind of consensus on what these terms mean, we’re going to be doing a lot of talking past each other.

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