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.


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.


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.



Senators Seek Review/Analysis of @StateDept and @USAID Sexual Harassment and Assault Data

Posted: 2:29 am ET


U.S. Senators Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Ranking Member of the SFRC Subcommittee on State Department and USAID Management, led the Committee’s Democrats in a letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and USAID Administrator Mark Green on January 17, requesting a review and analysis of data to better understand the scope of sexual harassment and assault issues at the Department and Agency, in order to consider appropriate policy changes to address the problems.


Note that back in September 2016,  this blog wanted to know the statistics on sexual assault in the Foreign Service, specifically in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2003. We were also interested in overall statistics on sexual assault in the Foreign Service worldwide, during the last 10 years. We did not ask for names, only numbers. We simply asked for an accounting of sexual assault reports since the invasion of Iraq in 2003 to the present, and the worldwide number of reports spanning over 280 overseas posts in the last 10 years. We were sure the data must be available somewhere. How could it not?

This was the State Department’s official response at that time:

“The Office of Special Investigations receives and catalogues allegations and complaints. Allegations are neither categorized by location nor by alleged offense.”

That remains a shocking response.

Without looking at their data by location and offense, or for that matter by individuals accused, how is the State Department to know when there are serial offenders in its ranks? (See The State Dept’s Sexual Assault Reporting Procedure Appears to Be a Black Hole of Grief).

In its 4th Quarter 2017 report for period ending September 30, 2017, the Office of Civil Rights (S/OCR) does have some information on Equal Employment Opportunity Data required by the No Fear Act.  The public report indicates that reprisal is the number one complaint by basis in FY2017.  Non-sexual harassment went from 72 complaints in 2016 to 103 at the end of FY2017. The comparative report notes 3 complaints of sexual harassment in 2016 and 6 complaints at end of FY2017.

The average number of days in investigation? 207.17 days.

Total Findings of Discrimination after a hearing for sexual harassment? Zero. In 2012.

Also zero in 2013, in 2014, in 2015, in 2016, and through the end of FY2017. Zero.

Apparently, S/OCR does not also count cases reversed by the EEOC like that 2016 case where S/OCR did not find sexual harassment but where the EEOC decided that the complainant was indeed subjected to sexual harassment and ordered the State Department to take remedial actions (see @StateDept to Hold “Harassment in the Workplace” Session But First, Read This FSI Sexual Harassment Case).

S/OCR was recently a presenter in a State Department Q&A session “Should I Report That? How (and when) to Report Workplace Conflict, Harassment & Bias in the Department”.

To read more about our previous posts on sexual assault, click here; for sexual harassment, click here.

Below is the text of the letter to Secretary Tillerson and USAID Administrator Mark Green:

We write to draw to your attention the November 28, 2017 letter signed by over 200 national security professionals who have served, often with distinction, in the State Department, the intelligence community, USAID, and the Pentagon about their experiences of (or serving as witnesses to) incidents of sexual harassment or sexual assault inside our national security bureaucracies.

This letter speaks to what we believe remains a critical issue that too many of our national security institutions have been too slow to address: sexual assault and harassment and its effects on the professionalism and effective functioning of those institutions. These incidents and the pervasive culture that all too frequently excuses these behaviors and actions have had serious and detrimental consequences for the careers and lives of those affected – and by depriving the United States of the service of some of our best and brightest, a deep and negative effect on our national security.

To better address this issue, we would urge you to provide the Foreign Relations Committee a review of your current methods for data collection, oversight, reporting structure, victim protections, analysis and anti-sexual harassment training, including employee feedback on these mechanisms and how they are being implemented. In our oversight capacity, we hope to work with you, to review and analyze the data to better understand the scope of the problem we confront as we consider appropriate policy changes to address it.

The November 28 letter contends that training is all too often “erratic” and “irregular,” and that policies often go unnoticed among staff. In our experiences serving on the oversight committee with responsibilities for the Department of State and USAID we concur with this contention. We would urge that you pay special attention to whether anti-harassment training is adequate, how it is implemented, and how it is enforced, in your respective reviews. We also urge you to examine your procedures for disciplinary actions to ensure that those who demonstrate improper behavior are held accountable for their actions.

The letter also calls for a number of reforms including a clear indication that national security leadership will not tolerate certain behavior, ensuring the full accessibility and functioning of “multiple, clear, private” channels to report abuse without fear of retribution, and ensuring sufficiently regular, mandatory, and instructive training for employees and contractors. We would be interested in your thoughts and comments on these potential areas for reform.

We also urge that you each take the opportunity to work with us to determine what additional resources are necessary to ensure that each report and allegation receives proper attention, that your offices are collecting all the relevant data, that cases are addressed in a timely and confidential fashion, and that training is fully implemented across the State and USAID workforce.

At a moment in our country when we are being reminded anew of the scope and challenge of sexual harassment in the workplace, we are rededicating ourselves here in the Senate to addressing this issue in our own ranks. The Legislative branch faces similar challenges and that while we work to address them, we expect the same from executive branch agencies. For our part, in addition to exploring appropriate oversight and legislative action to ensure that you have the resources and focus that you need to address these issues, we also intend to place additional emphasis on these issues in the confirmation process. We intend to ensure that nominees live up to the highest standards of behavior, and will seek commitments regarding how they intend to address sexual harassment and assault if they are confirmed.

Lastly, we note that the abuses, harassment and assaults noted in the November 28 letter are enabled by an environment in which the diversity of our nation – one of our “secret weapons” and competitive advantages as a nation – is not reflected in the national security workforce. This is especially true at the senior levels. At the State Department, for example, women and men enter the Foreign Service in roughly comparable numbers, but only about one-third of our senior Foreign Service Officers are women. Although women comprise a majority of the Civil Service, the Senior Executive Service remains 61% male and 89% white. Similarly disturbing trends come to light when analyzing the salaries, bonuses and expectations of workplace behavior amongst men and women working in national security roles. We still have a long way to go on gender equality in the national security workforce, and encourage you to share with us as well your vision for how you plan to address deficiencies in recruitment, retention and promotion to assure that your national security workforce is equitably balanced.

The members of our national security workforce should not be forced to spend their time and energy combatting harassment and a culture of tolerance for disrespectful behavior. Rather, they should be free to focus on what they do best – working to keep our nation safe. And we know from numerous studies that a more diverse workforce leads to better outcomes. A 2015 McKinsey study found that a more diverse workforce is more successful through improved decision-making, leadership, and financial progress. We know that to be true in the private sector and we know that to be true for government as well.

Mindful that there are myriad challenges and opportunities to better address sexual harassment in the workplace we do not seek nor do we expect you to develop a cookie-cutter approach to these issues. Rather, we call on you to respect the dignity of each member of our national security workforce by ensuring an environment in which each individual is capable of fully contributing his or her talents to our national security, without obstruction.

The original text of letter is posted here.


@StateDept Releases New Sexual Assault Guidance For COM Personnel & Facilities Outside the United States

Posted: 1:09 am ET
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We’ve written several blogposts (see below) about the lack of sexual assault guidance in the Foreign Affairs Manual, most recently in May this year (see A #SexualAssault Reporting Process Foreign Service Members Deserve: How Much Longer Secretary #Tillerson?).

On June 6, the State Department finally issued a new Foreign Affairs Manual sub-chapter 1710 SEXUAL ASSAULTS INVOLVING CHIEF OF MISSION PERSONNEL AND FACILITIES but it was not made available online. On June 20, a FAM revision was made according to the Change Transmittal to correct the subchapter title, specifying that the subchapter pertains to matters outside the United States, as well as to update a few other references. The chapter is now available online for folks to read.


You may also read it below; use the lower-right hand arrow to maximize the Cloudup page.

We’re still reading though this. We hope to have a follow-up post later. For now we want to say thank you to the FS members who shared their difficult stories with us and our readers; to former U/S Patrick Kennedy for the creation of the inter-bureau taskforce to create this subchapter; to the members of the task force who did the work on this, and Secretary Kerry then, and Secretary Tillerson now who oversees the Department and the Foreign Service.



Sexual Assault Related posts:


A #SexualAssault Reporting Process Foreign Service Members Deserve: How Much Longer Secretary #Tillerson?

Posted: 8:55 pm PT
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We’ve written several blogposts on sexual assaults and/or the lack of clear sexual assault reporting guidance in the Foreign Service in 2016 (see The State Dept’s Sexual Assault Reporting Procedure Appears to Be a Black Hole of Grief and First Person: I am a ✂️ FSO who was ✂️ raped in ✂️… Continuing on has been ✂️ incredibly difficult… and other links below).

On November 22 last year, the State Department directed a task force to create a new section in the Foreign Affairs Manual for sexual assault (see U/S For Management Directs Task Force to Create New Sexual Assault FAM Guidance). In December, we posted an update when the State Department told us that “The Department is committed to the work the taskforce is doing to create a sexual assault section for the FAM, work that will continue past inauguration day.” (see @StateDept Task Force For New Sexual Assault FAM Guidance – An Update). Through the last few months we have regularly checked in with the State Department to follow-up on the new regulations.

Today is exactly six months to the day when an inter-bureau taskforce was directed to create a new section in the Foreign Affairs Manual for guidance on sexual assault.  The State Department’s Bureau of Public Affairs — that in the past had been responsive in assuring us that the agency is committed to the creation of the sexual assault regulations —  did not acknowledge nor respond to our inquiry as of this writing.

So let’s ask their boss — how much longer Secretary Tillerson before the Foreign Service gets its sexual assault reporting guidance?


Sexual Assault Related posts:


@StateDept Task Force For New Sexual Assault FAM Guidance – An Update

Posted: 12:57 am ET
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We’ve written about nine blogposts on sexual assaults and/or lack of clear sexual assault reporting guidance in the Foreign Service since August this year (see links below).   On November 22, the State Department finally directed a task force to create a new section in the Foreign Affairs Manual for sexual assault (see U/S For Management Directs Task Force to Create New Sexual Assault FAM Guidance).

Mindful that there are 35 days to go before a new administration takes office, we requested an update on the task force convened by “M” to craft the sexual assault guidance in the FAM.

A State Department spox sent us the following:

“The Department is committed to the work the taskforce is doing to create a sexual assault section for the FAM, work that will continue past inauguration day. Currently, the Department has policies and procedures relating to sexual harassment and workplace violence. Employees and their family members can receive assistance and advice from MED, DS and S/OCR on these issues.

 The taskforce is initially focused on establishing FAM definitions and will then build out the program, communications and training. The group has met with Peace Corps and will soon meet with DOD to understand what each has done on this issue. Both of those agencies dedicated several years to building their programs.

The taskforce includes members from MED, HR/ER and HR/DGHR, M staff and M/PRI, DS/DO/OSI and DS front office, S/OCR, and L. The group has also heard from a number of diplomatic community members at post who were eager to contribute ideas and offer feedback throughout the process. The group welcomes this contribution and feedback.”


So 35 days to go but we already know that the new guidance will not be ready until after January 20. We are pleased to hear that the taskforce is consulting with both DOD and Peace Corps who each has its separate reporting mechanism.  We are certain that the bureaucracy will continue to grind despite the transition but we do not want this to fall through the cracks.  If you are a member of the Foreign Service who provided feedback to this taskforce, and if you are a member of the FS community who considers an assault on one as an assault on all, you’ve got to keep asking until this gets done.

The Department’s Anti-Harassment Program is managed by the S/OCR, an office that reports directly to the Secretary of State. It conducts inquiries into allegations of sexual and discriminatory harassment in the Department.  It is not the appropriate office to handle sexual assault crimes. To initiate the EEO complaint process, regulations require that employees contact S/OCR or an EEO counselor within 45 calendar days of the alleged discriminatory act in order to preserve the right to file a formal complaint of discrimination with S/OCR. Email: socr_direct@state.gov.

The Department’s policy on workplace violence is governed by 3 FAM 4150, last updated in April 2012.


Under Employees’ Responsibilities, the FAM provides the following guidance:

In the event of an immediately threatening or violent situation, all Department of State employees should:

(1) If the incident takes place in the United States, call 911 when there is an injury or an immediate risk of injury in the workplace;

(2) Alert the appropriate law enforcement or security office at his or her location when there is risk to his or her safety or the safety of others, injury, or immediate risk of injury. In the Washington, DC area dial extension 7-9111 or the appropriate telephone number for the law enforcement or security office at his or her location;

(3) Immediately report threatening or violent behavior to supervisors after securing emergency medical assistance as needed;

(4) Move to a safe area away from the individual(s) making threats or exhibiting violent behavior. Do not confront the individual or individual(s); and

(5) Take all threats and acts of violence seriously.

A close reading of this section on workplace violence, makes one think that perhaps the drafters were thinking of an employee “going postal”. This certainly provides no guidance for victims of sexual assault.  “Take all threats and acts of violence seriously,” of course, doesn’t make sense when one contemplates about a colleague who is also a rapist. It’s important to note that approximately 3 out of 4 of sexual assaults are committed by someone known to the victim; that “friend” or “buddy” is not going to threaten you that he’s going to assault or rape you before he commits the crime.

The workplace violence section has more guidance on what to do with an employee exhibiting violent behavior than what to do with the victims. Immediate actions recommended include review of “whether an independent medical exam should be offered” to the violent employee. Short-term and long-term responses include administrative leave; counseling from supervisor or higher management official; appropriate disciplinary action, up to and including separation; curtailment; and/or medical evacuation. All focused on the perpetrator of workplace violence.

Yes, the Department has policies and procedures relating to sexual harassment and workplace violence; and you can see that they are sorely lacking when it comes to addressing sexual assaults.


Sexual Assault Related posts:




From Someone Who Has Unfortunately Been There: Sexual Assault Trauma Triage in the Foreign Service

Posted: 1:51 am ET
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In response to our post — First Person: I am a ✂️ FSO who was ✂️ raped in ✂️… Continuing on has been ✂️ incredibly difficult…, we received the following from a Foreign Service member who does not want to be identified but sent a note that says “here are some suggestions for sexual assault trauma triage in the FS, from someone who has unfortunately been there.”  

1. Reach out to someone outside of DOS for support, like friends and family back home whose discretion you trust. There is so much shame involved in sexual assault, but you do not have to go through this alone.

2. Find a therapist (PhD preferable). Sexual assault survivors report the most improvement with Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT) and EMDR (you’ll likely have to do this domestically). If you can’t find a CPT sexual assault specialist, try going to your closest VA hospital’s website and look for one there. Reach out to her and ask for a private practice referral for sexual assault in a military-like service. Since you’re overseas, you may be able to find a private CPT specialist who does Skype/telephone. Be prepared to pay out-of-pocket, and it won’t be cheap. And speaking of costs: CPT for sexual assault may be the most psychologically taxing thing you’ve ever done, but it is worth it. I promise.

3. Consider a medical curtailment to get yourself out of the situation immediately. The only department that I trust at DOS is MED. Fill out a MED update form, and note the questions on what should be the second page (related to PTSD). Check whichever boxes are relevant to you. You can also write down there what happened to you—something as simple as “Sexual assault at Post” will suffice. They will have a psychiatrist reach out to you—and you can request a female psychiatrist. If they don’t immediately contact you, start calling twice a day until you get what you need. Depending on your symptoms, you may qualify for a Limited Class 2, but if you need to be back in the U.S. for intensive counseling (and there is no shame in doing so, your well-being is the priority), they can work with you on getting you a Class 4 so that therapy can happen domestically.

4. FSO Friend who wrote in: I know that curtailment can seem like he wins. But this is emergency triage, and you may need to retreat to a place of safety (far away from him) until you have healed enough to decide your next steps. This is a “put on your oxygen mask before attempting to help others” level-situation. Please don’t be ashamed of curtailment if that is what you need to do for you. You are the priority right now. Please don’t tough it out and expose yourself to further harm–including the psychological trauma of being around him regularly. And please don’t suffer in silence. Out of all of the organizations at DOS that claim that they can help, I believe that MED actually can help you. Please use MED if it’s appropriate for you.


This is one person’s suggestions based on her experience and perspective and we’re passing this along for consideration. Since the sender did not provide a return email, we have not been able to ask follow-up questions. We have to respect that this is all that she is able to share at this time. She reached out to this blog out of concern for the FSO who was raped.  We will leave this up to you to consider which of her suggestions may be worth exploring depending on what feels appropriate in your case.

Read more about Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT) (PDF).

Read here on the Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR).

Curtailment is the shortening an employee’s tour of duty from his or her assignment.  It may include the employee’s immediate departure from a bureau or post, or from assignments in the U.S.  3 FAM 2440 says that curtailment is an assignment action, not a disciplinary one. Folks, of course, know that in real life that’s not always true.

Please note that 3 FAM 2444 allows an employee assigned within the United States to request voluntary curtailment of his or her tour of duty for any reason “by submitting the request and an explanatory memorandum to the assignments panel via his or her counseling and assignments officer. The bureau of assignment must state its support for or opposition to the employee’s request.”  What happens if one is a sexual assault victim in a domestic assignment or while on extended TDY or on training and have to go through this to get curtailed from an assignment where the perpetrator is also located? Imagine this happening to an untenured employee. What  does one write in the explanatory memo — I was raped, and I need to curtail my assignment because my attacker is right next door? How many folks will get to see that memo? Something for the new State Department task force to think about.

We should add that another FS member’s medical clearance was downgraded to a Domestic only (Class 5)  after reporting to MED.  12 FAM 210 notes that Class 5 is issued to all who have a medical condition which is incapacitating or for which specialized medical care is best obtained in the United States.  Employees or eligible family members with a Class 5 medical clearance may not be assigned outside the United States.  So right there, that’s really scary stuff for Foreign Service folks.

On November 22, the State Department directed a task force to create a new Foreign Service Manual section for sexual assault (see U/S For Management Directs Task Force to Create New Sexual Assault FAM Guidance).


Sexual Assault Related posts:



U/S For Management Directs Task Force to Create New Sexual Assault FAM Guidance

Posted: 5:08 pm PT
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The message below addressing sexual assault was sent to all State Department employees on November 22, 2016.  Several copies landed in our inbox.  The State Department sent us a note that says they want to make absolutely sure that we have seen this, and gave us an “officially provided” copy.


A Message from Under Secretary Pat Kennedy
November 22, 2016

Sexual assault is a serious crime.  It can traumatize victims and have a corrosive effect on the workplace.  The Department is determined to do all it can to prevent sexual assault, and, if it does occur, to support victims and bring the perpetrators to justice.  We are committed to effectively and sensitively responding to reports of sexual assault and to ensuring victims are treated with the care and respect they deserve.

The Department has policies and procedures relating to sexual harassment and workplace violence.  We recognize these policies may not address all issues specific to sexual assault and that sexual assault is more appropriately dealt with in its own FAM section.  At my direction, an inter-bureau taskforce is in the process of creating this new FAM section.  Among the issues the taskforce will take up are reporting processes, confidentiality, sexual assault response training, and potential conflict of interest issues.

As we work to complete a stand-alone sexual assault FAM section, it’s important to note that there are and have been policies and procedures in place to help employees and their family members who are sexually assaulted get the medical care they need and to bring perpetrators to justice.

Medical services are available at post, and personnel from the Bureau of Medical Services (MED) can also provide advice from Washington, DC.  Post’s Health Unit healthcare providers are the first responders for medical evaluation and treatment overseas and will abide by strict patient/provider confidentiality.  An employee or member of the Department community who has been sexually assaulted may also report the incident to MED’s Clinical Director (currently Dr. Behzad Shahbazian) at 202-663-2976 during business hours.  After hours and on weekends/holidays, victims may contact the MED Duty Officer at 202-262-9013 or via the Operations Center at 202-647-1512.

For reported sexual assaults that are committed by or against members of the Department community or occur within a COM facility or residence, RSOs serve as the law enforcement first responders.  Every reported sexual assault is handled as a criminal matter that may be prosecuted in the United States under federal extraterritorial laws.  For more guidance on the handling of such cases, see 16 STATE 56478.

If a victim overseas wants to report a sexual assault to law enforcement authorities, but prefers not to report it at post, he or she can contact the Office of Special Investigations (DS/DO/OSI), via telephone at 571-345-3146 or via email at DS-OSIDutyAgent@state.gov<mailto:DS-OSIDutyAgent@state.gov>.  The DS/DO/OSI duty agents are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week and can investigate an allegation independent of post management.  OSI agents have been trained to handle such cases and will work with the victim and can also provide information about the Victims’ Resource Advocacy Program available at vrap@state.gov<mailto:vrap@state.gov>.

Victims may also report sexual harassment directly to the Office of Civil Rights<http://socr.state.sbu/OCR/Default.aspx?ContentId=6666> (S/OCR) at http://snip.state.gov/f5h or via phone at 202-647-9295 and ask to speak with an Attorney-Adviser.  Pursuant to 3 FAM 1525, S/OCR oversees the Department’s compliance with anti-harassment laws and policies and conducts harassment inquiries.

The working group developing the new FAM section is consulting with other agencies about best practices in such areas as communication, training, and post-attack medical and mental health support and will integrate appropriate elements of these programs to ensure that the Department’s policies on sexual assault are victim centered and effective.

The Department’s position is clear: there is zero tolerance for any form of violence, including sexual assault, within our Department community. We understand these are sensitive and difficult situations, but we strongly encourage victims to come forward so the Department can take the appropriate steps to ensure the victim’s safety and bring the perpetrator to justice.



Sexual Assault Related posts:

A Sexual Assault Reporting Process Foreign Service Members Deserve: If Not Now, When? Attn: @JohnKerry #16days

Posted: 2:13 am ET
Updated: 11:47 am PT
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For victims/survivors of sexual assault, please see Sexual Assault in the Foreign Service — What To Do?  Consider below as a follow-up post to The State Dept’s Sexual Assault Reporting Procedure Appears to Be a Black Hole of Grief.

The following is provided for general information that is intended, but not guaranteed, to be correct and up-to-date. Please do not consider the following legal advice as we are not lawyers; read the full necessary disclaimer below.

The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) has the following sexual violence statistics:

  • On average, there are 288,820 victims (age 12 or older) of rape and sexual assault each year in the United States
  • Ages 12-34 are the highest risk years for rape and sexual assault
  • 90% of adult rape victims are female
  • 94% of women who are raped experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms during the two weeks following the rape.
  • 30% of women report PTSD symptoms 9 months after the rape.
  • 33% of women who are raped contemplate suicide.
  • The majority of perpetrators are someone known to the victim. Approximately 3 out of 4 of sexual assaults are committed by someone known to the victim

Rape notification rates differ depending on whether the victim know the perpetrator — those who knew a perpetrator were often less likely to report the crime, according to RAINN. A report (PDF) published by the National Sexual Violence Resource Center says that many survivors experience great difficulty in disclosing a sexual assault, especially when the perpetrator is known to the victim. The study is focused on rural America where “the propensity to not report may be reinforced by informal social codes that dictate privacy and maintaining family reputation. Sexual assaults in rural areas are mostly hidden crimes, hidden both intentionally and unintentionally by characteristics of a close-knit culture or an isolated lifestyle.”  Rural communities like small towns as places where “everybody knows everybody.” Sounds familiar?

A victim will have little anonymity. It means she, or a friend or family member is likely to be acquainted with or related to the perpetrator and that she may reencounter the perpetrator, even on a regular basis. Furthermore, “the closer the relationship between victim and assailant, the less likely the woman is to report the crime” (Hunter, Burns-Smith, Walsh, 1996). Studies have quite consistently pointed to the importance of the victim-offender relationship in affecting the propensity to report (Pollard, 1995; Ruback, 1993, Ruback & Ménard, 2001). In rural areas, law enforcement is likely to be part of the social network (Sims, 1988; Weisheit, Wells & Falcone, 1994; Weisheit, Wells & Falcome, 1995). This compounds the problem of reporting non-stranger sexual assaults.

We need to point out that in the Foreign Service, particularly overseas, Diplomatic Security law enforcement –as in rural communities and small towns — is part of the social network.

We should also note that a 2002 study by Lisak-Miller indicates (PDF) that a majority of the undetected rapists were repeat rapists. The repeat rapists averaged 5.8 rapes each.

According to the Callisto Project, which provides survivors with a confidential and secure way to create a time-stamped record of an assault in American campuses less than 10% of survivors will ever report their assault. Survivors wait an average of 11 months to report their assault to authorities and up to 90% of assaults are committed by repeat perpetrators.  Callisto’s CEO Jess Ladd told us that someday she would like to make available their product within other institutions (including companies and agencies) and to have a free version that anyone can use to store what happened.  But Callisto is not there yet.

Foreign Service Victims’ Concerns

Among the concerns we’ve heard so far are: 1) lack of clear reporting process, 2) confidentiality, 3) sexual assault response training, 4) potential conflict/undue pressure on investigators/managers who may be friends, colleague, or subordinates of perpetrators, and 5) lack of sexual assault data.

As we’re written here previously DOD and Peace Corps provide restricted and unrestricted reporting for victims, but that does not appear to be the case in the Foreign Service.  The State Department has over 275 posts in about 180 countries. The agency’s Diplomatic Security has Regional Security Offices in most locations but not all.  The State Department has previously told this blog that Diplomatic Security’s Office of Special Investigations  “receives and catalogues allegations and complaints. Allegations are neither categorized by location nor by alleged offense.” Which begs the question, how will the State Department know if it has sexual predators living among its various communities particularly overseas if it does not track these types of offenses?

Due to the lack of clear reporting process — except “report to RSO” or “contact OSI,” victims (as well as this blog) have no way to independently assess what reporting entails. We don’t know what kind of confidentiality is afforded the victims. Among other concerns and questions:

  • When we asked an FS assault victim if there is any good option for reporting sexual assault, we were told bluntly, “There is no good option. That’s what the predator knows.” 
  • When a victim reports to RSO overseas, we know that the RSO is supposed to contact State/OSI, but who else has access to that information?   Embassy/post leadership? Which officials in the embassy hierarchy?  Will the local Health Unit be informed? The CLO? State/MED? DS Command Center?  And will reporting victims be informed in advanced who their information will be shared with and the specific reason for sharing their information?
  • Do DS/OSI investigators travel to the location of the assault to investigate? Time and evidence collection are of the essence in sexual assault reporting.  If yes, how quickly?  Is there a have rapid response team? What should the victim do while waiting for the arrival of DS/OSI investigators? Not shower? Not go to work?
  • In countries where sexual assault victims are jailed for “promiscuity”, what is the State Department’s policy and recommendation to someone assaulted in a place where requesting a rape kit means going to jail? Would the Department work with local authorities to actually protect the victim from prosecution while DS investigates or would they just allow an already traumatized victim to get PNG’d and force them to pack up and leave?
  • How will the victim’s report be transmitted to DS/OSI? Via unclassified email? Via fax? Via phone? In the case of emails, what restricts that information from being forwarded with a click of a mouse, or the record being compromised intentionally or unintentionally?
  • How are victims’ reporting records protected?  What are the consequences for an employee/s with access to the victim’s report who shares it with an unauthorized entity or individual? What if it is shared with a colleague, or a friends, or a family member?
  • What kind of training do RSOs get to enable them to assist sexual assault victims overseas? “Does every single RSO in the world know a designated medical facility to process a rape kit?” Or for that matter, do Health Units at overseas posts even have this information available?
  • Victims who report to RSO or DS/OSI would like to know if the officers receiving their sexual assault reports represent the victims’ interests or State Department interests?
  • What support is available to victims? What can victims expect after they report their assaults?  What consequences will their reporting have on their medical clearance and assignments? What kind of work accommodation will be extended to them, if needed? Who will be their effective has the responsibility to advocate for them if they need to file workers’ comp from the Department of Labor?
  • How are perpetrators — who are not strangers — handled by the State Department?  This is not a hypothetical question.  An OIG investigation indicates that one security officer’s alleged sexual misconduct spanned 10 years and 7 posts.  In that case, the Department never attempted to remove the RSO from Department work environments where the RSO could potentially harm other employees.  DS agents investigating the 2011 allegations reported to DS management, in October 2011, that they had gathered “overwhelming evidence” of the RSO’s culpability.  These agents encountered resistance from senior Department and DS managers as they continued to investigate the RSO’s suspected misconduct in 2011. The OIG found that the managers in question had personal relationships with the RSO.  Folks who work at the State Department should ask questions like who are these senior Department and DS managers who allowed this to happen for 10 years and 7 posts?  Do they have other friends that they have similarly protected? What happened to the victims at 7 posts? What support were available to them?  What responsibility does the State Department have for not removing that employee despite overwhelming evidence of culpability?

FOIA Diplomatic Security’s sexual assault cables?

As readers here know, there is no official guidance in the FAM on reporting sexual assault in the Foreign Service (see The State Dept’s Sexual Assault Reporting Procedure Appears to Be a Black Hole of Grief). We’ve requested the unclassified cables that were released by DS/OSI in 2015 and earlier this year on sexual assault reporting (15 State 71370;  15 State 79760;  and 16 STATE 5647all reportedly available at DS/OSI intranet). Since the information is unclassified and it could be useful information, we thought we could save time and money by requesting these through regular channels without having to FOIA them. We appreciate the efforts of those who were trying to obtain these for us through regular channels; we understand some folks worked through the weekend to attend to this requests. Thanks, folks!  Late Monday, we got word from a State Department spokesperson:

“Our thanks for your patience while the Department reviewed the practice of releasing State Department internal cables to members of the public or media. At this stage, a decision has been made that we are unable to release cables in this manner.”

Unbelievable! But it is what it is.  We need, therefore, to FOIA these unclassified cables. Given State’s FOIA processing record, we don’t expect to see these cables until 1-2-3-4 years down the road. We might be dead of heartbreak by then.

State/OIG Hotline and Office of Special Counsel

State/OIG has reiterated to us that that their office takes allegations of rape and sexual harassment very seriously and repeated the response they provided us back in August here.  Note that we have already been told that cases like this should not be reported to the OIG Hotline.  Read more here: Another Note About the Burn Bag–There’s No Easy Way of Doing This, Is There?.  State/OIG told us that Department employees who believe they have been subjected to whistleblower retaliation may contact OIG or the Office of Special Counsel (OSC). OIG can help the individual in understanding their rights and may investigate the retaliation, as well as alert the Department to any illegal reprisal.  State/OIG also said: “By no means do we want to discourage anyone from contacting our Hotline, but such a serious crime as a rape needs to be dealt with immediately and that’s why we recommend a call to local law enforcement.”

Continue reading

First Person: I did everything right. I filed a report the next business day … #FSassault

Posted: 12:55 am  ET
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I did everything right. I filed a report the next business day with RSO. The accused was removed from post shortly thereafter. 

My victimization didn’t really begin until I sought assistance 6 months later from MED when I arrived at my next post. MED sent me on a MEDEVAC to DC from my post to a facility that didn’t treat trauma and required I take a $60 taxi each way daily from Oakwood Falls Church where most of my colleagues from my unaccompanied post were staying due to long term training. 

MED refused to discharge me for weeks despite requests for relocation and a new treatment plan. I finally found my own providers online when the State Department didn’t provide a list of referrals prior to my discharge. 

Then, the MEDEVAC team advised me of their recommendation for a Class 5 medical clearance (domestic only) without ever speaking to my psychiatrist and without providing a reason. 

I filed appeals of my medical clearance without success all the way to the Director General. 

MED refused to assist with my PTSD claim for worker’s compensation despite the reported incident occurring at the U.S. Embassy in a warzone where we can’t leave the compound. 

My out of pocket medical expenses (therapist/ psychiatrist/medicine) would not be covered once my MEDEVAC ended. My housing was paid for at my post and my children were enrolled in the international school. We didn’t receive our HHE for 6 months after having someone else pack out our goods. 

Without access to the State Department system, it was nearly impossible to secure an onward assignment. I didn’t have contact information for my 360s and no access to my employee profile. I went house shopping in DC with a realtor and was advised there was no suitable housing for a family of my size at an amount I could afford. Washington, DC has bedroom occupancy regulations which made it difficult to accommodate. 

The State Department sent me to the brink of financial ruin. I took a huge pay cut, lost my paid housing, my kids lost their prestigious school, and my spouse lost job opportunities available at post all because I was a victim and sought assistance from MED.


The account above is an unsolicited email from a Foreign Service employee who did not want us to use her name but wanted to share her story. She said she previously served in Israel, Iraq, Colombia, Venezuela, Georgia, and Afghanistan, all with a Class 1 medical clearance, meaning “worldwide available” for Foreign Service assignments. She told us she was also last promoted in 2015. 

According to her, Diplomatic Security asked if she wanted to go to the medical unit but she declined. Regarding the perpetrator, she said, “I have no verification that he is overseas with his family, but he is listed on the GAL [global address list] and so is his wife.”  She added, “He had also destroyed government property ✂️ and was highly intoxicated in the middle of the night when he was subdued by security. It apparently had no effect on his security clearance or medical clearance as he had the ability to serve overseas at his next post with his family.” 

She said that she chose to stay at her post in the warzone until the end of her tour so she would not lose her onward assignment. She arrived at her onward post in Europe and was  subsequently medically evacuated (MEDEVAC) after she contacted MED.

She told this blog, “I was never hospitalized. I was never a threat to myself or others. It is hard to believe that this is my life. The biggest issue I have is that I was never provided a reason as to why my clearance was denied other than a generic “best care is available in the U.S.” 

The post she was evacuated from is a European post with high level of medical care including English speaking therapists and psychiatrists. Post has a resident regional medical officer (RMO) and a resident regional medical officer/psychiatrist (RMO/P).

The FS employee told us she is on leave without pay and believed that her OWCP claim (Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs) for PTSD was one of the factors in the downgrading of her medical clearance.

She shared with us an OCWP letter in which “Under Accepted Event(s) That Are Factors of Employment” is this:

“– That while assigned to the US embassy in ✂️ from 2014-2015. you were sexually harassed and assaulted by a colleague who was under the influence of alcohol after checking on him at his room.” 

We hope to have a follow-up post on the MED – OCA – OCWP mess.





OPM: Guidance For Agency-Specific Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault, and Stalking Policies

Posted: 12:30 am ET
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Via OPM:

One in 5 women and 1 in 71 men have been raped at some point in their lifetimes, and nearly 1.3 million women in the U.S. are raped every year. The statistics are sobering – even more so with our understanding that these types of crimes are often the most underreported. It is important to note that victims may experience one of these forms of violence or all three at the same time. Although women are the majority of victims, as the above statistics show, men can also become victims. In addition, these crimes affect people of all backgrounds, including race, income, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, disability, etc.

Sexual Assault

Sexual assault refers to a range of behaviors, including but not limited to, a completed nonconsensual sex act (e.g., rape, sodomy, child molestation), an attempted nonconsensual sex act, and/or abusive sexual contact. Sexual assault includes any sexual act or behavior that is perpetrated when someone does not or cannot consent. A victim of sexual assault may know the perpetrator, such as a co-worker or a supervisor, and/or may be involved in a dating or marital relationship with the perpetrator, or the perpetrator may be unknown to the victim. Lack of consent should be inferred when a perpetrator uses force, harassment, threat of force, threat of adverse personnel or disciplinary action, or other coercion, or when the victim is asleep, incapacitated, unconscious, or physically or legally incapable of consent.

Below is an excerpt from OPM’s guidance for agency-specific domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking policies:

Domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking have the potential to affect every Federal workplace across the United States. It is the policy of the Federal Government to promote the health and safety of its employees by acting to prevent domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking within the workplace and by providing support and assistance to Federal employees whose working lives are affected by such violence.

This Guidance for Agency-Specific Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault, and Stalking Policies provides agencies with direction to enable them to fulfill the goals identified in the Presidential Memorandum on “Establishing Policies for Addressing Domestic Violence in the Federal Workforce,” which was issued on April 18, 2012. As the nation’s largest employer, the Federal Government should act as a model in responding to the effects of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking in the workplace. Some agencies have already taken steps to address these issues. By building on these efforts, the Federal Government can further address the effects of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking on its workforce, promoting the health and safety of its employees and improving the quality of its service to the public.

Read more below:

The State Department does not/does not have a published sexual assault or stalking policies.  Browsing state.gov shows that the State Department does asks: What is the United States’ Role in Addressing Sexual Violence in Libya and Syria? Also this: Evaluation of Implementation of the United States Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Gender-Based Violence Globally, August 2012 to August 2015. And many more reports related to sexual assault and gender violence elsewhere.


It does not have a published sexual assault and stalking policies for its employees/family members that are publicly available.

An FSO who is sexually assaulted has no easy way to determine the reporting process.  And if a family member not employed at post is assaulted, he/she does not have access to the State Department intranet. Whatever Diplomatic Security cable guidance reside behind the firewall (we’re looking for three cables), their contents could also be useless to sexual assault victims who have no state.gov accounts. So some questions:

  • Was an analysis of the agency’s current ability to handle incidents related to domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking in its workforce ever conducted as called for by the OPM guidance (see below)? What does this ability look like within an agency with over 275 locations worldwide?
  • OPM called for reporting procedures that provide an effective, confidential, and accessible way for employees to report incidents and concerns. Because the credibility of any reporting procedure will depend on the extent to which reports are handled quickly and efficiently, agency staff responsible for responding to reported incidents should be trained and prepared to handle any such reports. OPM says that agencies should recognize and respect a victim’s right to privacy and the need for confidentiality and autonomy.  According to OPM, the agency should make every effort to provide advance notice to the employee who disclosed information about the fact that the information will be disclosed, with whom it will be disclosed, and why. The agency should also provide the employee with the names and titles of the people with whom the agency intends to share the employee’s statements and should explain the necessity and purpose of that disclosure. What kind of procedure exists at the State Department? What level of confidentiality is extended to sexual assault victims?
  • OPM said that agencies should develop plans that specify which offices will generally respond to different types of incidents and who will be responsible for different aspects of incident responses.  Which offices at State are tasked to do this?
  • What types of workplace flexibilities are available to an employee when the employee and/or the employee’s family member(s) are victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, or stalking?
  • What does the State Department do with employees who are perpetrators and employees who are victims? Since the Office of Special Investigations receives and catalogues allegations and complaints but neither categorized them by location nor by alleged offense, who actually knows how many sexual assaults and domestic violence have occurred in the Foreign Service?

Click here to see the State Department’s Sexual Harassment Policy via the Office of Civil Rights.

For domestic violence, see 3 FAM 1810 | FAMILY ADVOCACY PROGRAM (Child Abuse, Child Neglect, Domestic Violence).

Nada for sexual assault.