What’s in a Name?

As the #MeToo #balancetonporc and #yotambién campaigns take off, and a tidal wave of sexual violence reports from individuals across the country come forward, I am plagued. I wonder if our society actually understands the terminology relating to this issue, and how it applies to the workplace. I’ve noticed the wrong terms used in incorrect contexts by media, press, news anchors and individuals publicizing an opinion about this issue and movement.

As someone who has spent their career understanding this issue and its nuances, incorrect terminology, and a lack of descriptive terms for survivors to utilize (especially in the workplace), makes me cringe. Let me be clear: when there is a lack of understanding regarding any topic or issue, misusing words can be a common occurrence. However, I fear that by not having a basic understanding of terminology, using terms incorrectly, or simply by not having accurate terms to describe behavior in the first place, we are only perpetuating the problem. It is abundantly clear that our society does not have a clear or fundamental understanding of the terminology that describes this behavior, how to best use it, and when.

The most common terms I have seen used lately when referring to violence in the workplace are: sexual violence; sexual assault; sexual harassment; and sexual misconduct.

What’s interesting is that sexual violence and sexual misconduct are the umbrella terms. They encompass the range of sexual violations one could experience. This umbrella is a continuum that includes sexual harassment on one side and moves through sexual assault, rape, stalking, intimate partner violence, domestic violence, child sexual abuse, and drug facilitated sexual assault. My point is that each of these terms implies something differentSome have more stigma than others, some have more positive or negative connotations, but they are each meant to be used to describe a particular action. While reading this you might have a preconceived notion or judgement attached to a certain term. Does this judgement impact how you would choose to address the issue? Would it affect you addressing the issue at all?

In the workplace, two terms are commonly used: sexual harassment and sexual misconduct. Although the definition of sexual harassment provided by The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), does include an element of touch, it hard to see if the definition actually encompass sexual assault or rape. The words harassment and misconduct make this issue sound like it’s a “light” or “diet” version. Unfortunately, sexual violence can occur in the workplace, as well as all other communities in our lives. What really worries me is the media’s substitution of sexual violence for sexual misconduct.

The Harvey Weinstein scandal again and again was referred to as sexual misconduct. But when you look at the list of accusers, many of the scenarios describe sexual violence, rape, sexual assault, and many non-consensual sexual acts. These acts were not the “diet” version. When I think of sexual misconduct, I think about consensual sexual acts that should not be happening in the workplace. Like two people that are dating and make-out in the breakroom or have sex in a closet. Misconduct yes, but violent, forcible, unwanted, or non-consensual… No.

Unfortunately, the workplace is behind with its terminology. The two terms we get to use are sexual harassment or sexual misconduct. This is because the way we protect employees at work is based on the Civil Rights Act, Title VII. In layman’s terms, as employees we have the right to work in an environment free from sexual harassment. Imagine if an employee is raped by a co-worker off hours (note* Sadly, this is a scenario I have heard play out more times than I can count.) When the workplace is notified, the first step is to contact law enforcement because rape is a violation of law. Literally the buck gets passed. Some workplaces stop there and do not know what to do to help or support their employee. Some workplaces begin a Human Resource investigation, but they are constrained to investigating a sexual harassment claim, since the definition does have a component of touch in it. But imagine how frustrating and possibly re-traumatizing it could be for a survivor of rape to have their employer’s investigation described as sexual harassment.

What can we do…?

Ask our workplaces to have more inclusive language that defines the terms above! I recently ran across Ohio State University’s new Sexual Misconduct policy, and Oregon State University’s Sexual Misconduct and Discrimination Policy. These squishy new policies are developed help faculty, students, and staff. I was stunned and pleased at the terminology described and utilized in these policies. I believe both OSU’s can be a role model for colleges and universities, and can guide workplaces to adjust their policies to accurately describe this issue and its expanse. I have yet to find an awesome standard workplace policy that includes the spectrum of sexual violence. Let me know if you find one, I’d love to see it!!

Let’s keep the conversation going. Please comment or ask questions. I look forward to hearing from you!

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