What’s the difference between sexual abuse, sexual assault, sexual harassment and rape?

Sarah L. Cook, Georgia State University; Lilia M. Cortina, University of Michigan, and Mary P. Koss, University of Arizona

 

The terms “sexual abuse,” “sexual assault,” “sexual harassment” – and even “rape” – crop up daily in the news. We are likely to see these terms more as the #MeToo movement continues.

Many people want to understand these behaviors and work to prevent them. It helps if we are consistent and as precise as possible when we use these terms.

But what does each term mean?

We are three scholars who have specialized in the scientific study of sexual abuse, rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment over several decades. Let’s start by defining each of these terms. Then, we can look at how these behaviors sometimes overlap.

Sexual abuse

The term that has been in the news most recently with reference to sports doctor Larry Nassar’s trial is sexual abuse, a form of mistreating children. Sexual abuse is mainly used to describe behavior toward children, not adults.

All 50 states have laws that recognize that children are not capable of giving informed consent to any sex act. In the United States, the age at which consent can be given ranges from 16 to 18 years.

Sexual abuse can include many different things, from touching a victim in a sexual manner to forcing a victim to touch the perpetrator in a sexual way to making a victim look at sexual body parts or watch sexual activity. Sexual abuse of a child is a criminal act.

Rape

In 2012, the FBI issued a revised definition of rape as “penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.” The revised law is gender neutral, meaning that anyone can be a victim.

When carefully examined, the FBI definition does not look like most people’s idea of rape – typically perpetrated by a stranger through force. The FBI definition says nothing about the relationship between the victim and the perpetrator and it says nothing about force. It does, however, say something about consent, or rather, the lack of it. Think about consent as your ability to make a decision about what happens to your body.

A perpetrator can compel a victim into a penetrative sex act in multiple ways. A perpetrator can ignore verbal resistance – like saying “no,” “stop” or “I don’t want to” – or overpower physical resistance by holding a person down so they cannot move. A person can penetrate a victim who is incapable of giving consent because he or she is drunk, unconscious, asleep, or mentally or physically incapacitated; or can threaten or use physical force or a weapon against a person. Essentially, these methods either ignore or remove the person’s ability to make an autonomous decision about what happens to their body. State laws vary in how they define removing or ignoring consent.

Perpetrators can’t defend against charges of rape by claiming they were drunk themselves or by saying they are married to the victim.

Sexual assault

Rape and sexual assault have been used interchangeably in coverage of events leading to the #MeToo movement, and this practice, though unintentional, is confusing. In contrast to the specific criminal act of rape, the term sexual assault can describe a range of criminal acts that are sexual in nature, from unwanted touching and kissing, to rubbing, groping or forcing the victim to touch the perpetrator in sexual ways. But sexual assault overlaps with rape because the term includes rape.

Social and behavioral scientists often use the term “sexual violence.” This term is far more broad than sexual assault. It include acts that are not codified in law as criminal but are harmful and traumatic. Sexual violence includes using false promises, insistent pressure, abusive comments or reputational threats to coerce sex acts. It can encompass noncontact acts like catcalls and whistles, which can make women feel objectified and victimized. It includes nonconsensual electronic sharing of explicit images, exposure of genitals and surreptitious viewing of others naked or during sex.

Sexual harassment

Sexual harassment is a much broader term than sexual assault, encompassing three categories of impermissible behavior.

One is sexual coercion – legally termed “quid pro quo harassment” – referring to implicit or explicit attempts to make work conditions contingent upon sexual cooperation. The classic “sleep with me or you’re fired” scenario is a perfect example of sexual coercion. It is the most stereotypical form of sexual harassment, but also the rarest.

A second, and more common, form of sexual harassment is unwanted sexual attention: unwanted touching, hugging, stroking, kissing, relentless pressure for dates or sexual behavior. Note that romantic and sexual overtures come in many varieties at work, not all of them harassing. To constitute unlawful sexual harassment, the sexual advances must be unwelcome and unpleasant to the recipient. They must be “sufficiently severe or pervasive” to “create an abusive working environment,” according to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Unwanted sexual attention can include sexual assault and even rape. If an employer were to forcibly kiss and grope a receptionist without her consent, this would be an example of both unwanted sexual attention and sexual assault – both a civil offense and a crime.

Most sexual harassment, however, entails no sexual advance. This third and most common manifestation is gender harassment: conduct that disparages people based on gender, but implies no sexual interest. Gender harassment can include crude sexual terms and images, for example, degrading comments about bodies or sexual activities, graffiti calling women “cunts” or men “pussies.” More often than not, though, it is purely sexist, such as contemptuous remarks about women being ill-suited for leadership or men having no place in childcare. Such actions constitute “sexual” harassment because they are sex-based, not because they involve sexuality.

Come-ons, put-downs: They’re both bad

In lay terms, sexual coercion and unwanted sexual attention are come-ons, whereas gender harassment is a put-down. Still, they are all forms of sexual harassment and can all violate law, including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Historically, social attitudes towards all these hostile actions have assumed a continuum of severity. Sexist graffiti and insults are offensive, but no big deal, right? Verbal sexual overtures cannot be as bad as physical ones. And, if there was no penetration, it can’t have been all that bad.

These assumptions do not hold up to scientific scrutiny, however. For example, researchers at the University of Melbourne analyzed data from 73,877 working women. They found that experiences of gender harassment, sexist discrimination and the like are more corrosive to work and well-being, compared to encounters with unwanted sexual attention and sexual coercion.

We have tried to clarify terms that are now becoming household words. Of course, life is complicated. Abusive, assaulting or harassing behavior cannot always be neatly divided into one category or another – sometimes it belongs in more than one. Nevertheless, it is important to use terms in accurate ways to promote the public’s understanding. The Conversation

Finally, we take heed that society is in a period like no other and one we thought we would never see. People are reflecting on, and talking about, and considering and reconsidering their experiences and their behavior. Definitions, criminal and otherwise, change with social standards. This time next year, we may be writing a new column.

Sarah L. Cook, Professor & Associate Dean, Georgia State University; Lilia M. Cortina, Professor of Psychology, Women’s Studies, and Management & Organizations, University of Michigan, and Mary P. Koss, Regents’ Professor of Public Health, University of Arizona

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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In related news — harassment at the State Department affects not just FSOs, not just Foreign Service employees, but also Civil Service employees, and contractors (remember the Female Contractor at DS Training Center who was reportedly fired 3 hours after filing a harassment complaint?) Click here for our prior posts on sexual harassment, and here for our posts on sexual assaults and rape.

And, the long rumored FP piece is finally out.

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Ex-FSO William Syring Charged With Hate Crime and Threats to Arab American Institute Employees

Posted: 4:09 am ET

 

On February 21, USDOJ indicted former FSO William Patrick Syring for hate crime and threatening employees of the Arab American Institute. Below is the DOJ statement:

The Justice Department today charged William Patrick Syring, 60, from Arlington, Virginia, to four counts of threatening employees of the Arab American Institute (AAI) because of their race and national origin, three counts of threatening AAI employees because of their efforts to encourage Arab Americans to participate in political and civic life in the United States, and seven counts of transmitting threats to AAI employees in interstate commerce. A summons was issued for Syring to appear in federal court in Washington, D.C. AAI is a Washington D.C. based private non-profit organization whose purpose is to encourage the direct participation of Arab Americans in political and civic life in the United States.

Each charge of threatening AAI employees because of their race and national origin and because of their advocacy on behalf of AAI provides for a sentence of no greater than one year in prison, one year of supervised release, and a fine of up to $100,000. Each charge of transmitting a threat in interstate commerce provides for a sentence of no greater than five years in prison, three years of supervised release, and a fine of up to $250,000.

According to court documents, Syring previously pleaded guilty to threatening AAI employees through e-mails and voicemails sent in 2006. Syring was sentenced on July 11, 2008 to 12 months of imprisonment followed by three years of post-release supervision, 100 hours of community service, and was ordered to pay a $10,000 fine.

Following termination of his supervised release, Syring resumed communications with AAI employees, sending AAI employees over 350 e-mails from March 2012 to January 2018. Several of the e-mails Syring sent to AAI employees during this time period contained true threats using language similar to that which formed the basis of his prior conviction.

This case was investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and is being prosecuted by Civil Rights Division Senior Legal Counsel Mark Blumberg and Trial Attorney Nick Reddick.

An indictment is a formal accusation of criminal conduct, not evidence of guilt. The defendant is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty.

As noted in the current indictment, Syring was previously charged in 2006 for similar threats in four emails and three voicemails. The current indictment alleged he sent 350 e-mails from March 2012 to January 2018.

He retired from the State Department in July 2007 and he pleaded guilty in that previous case in June 2008. See an excerpt from the 2008 DOJ statement:

W. Patrick Syring, a former foreign service officer with the U.S. Department of State, pleaded guilty today in federal court in Washington, D.C., to federal civil rights charges for threatening employees of the Arab American Institute (AAI) because of their race and national origin. Syring is scheduled to be sentenced on June 30, 2008.

During his guilty plea hearing, Syring admitted that he sent a series of threatening email and voicemail communications to six employees of AAI in July 2006, that he intended to interfere with his victims’ employment, and that he sought to intimidate the victims because of their race as Arab- Americans and their national origin as Lebanese-Americans. AAI is a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C., that promotes Arab-American participation in the U.S. electoral system. In addition to pleading guilty to violating a federal civil rights statute that prohibits race- or national origin-based interference with employment, Syring pleaded guilty to a felony count of sending threatening communications in interstate commerce. Syring faces a maximum sentence of six years imprisonment.

According to the indictment, Syring sent four emails and three voicemails to AAI employees from approximately July 17 to 29, 2006. An additional email condemned AAI for a fatal shooting at the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle in July 2006 that was committed by a lone gunman who had no affiliation with AAI.

A career foreign service officer and a resident of Arlington, Va., Syring retired from the US Department of State in July 2007.

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Snapshot: Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs Org Structure (As of Nov 2017)

Posted: 3:38 am ET

 

Via State/OIG:

[click on image for a larger view]

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