The Difference Between Sexual Harassment & Sexual Assault
It seems as if every time we turn on the news, there’s another accusation about sexual harassment or assault that comes up. We are living in a time where behavior that was once minimized and brushed aside is now coming to public attention. People now feel emboldened to speak up and are encouraged by movements such as ME TOO to take a stand. As more offenses come to the public sphere and terms such as sexual assault and sexual harassment gain traction, knowing the difference between each becomes increasingly difficult. Below we break down the difference.
What is Sexual Assault?
When people hear the term ‘sexual assault’ what usually comes to mind is rape. While rape is in fact an example of sexual assault, sexual assault includes behaviors less severe than a full-fledged rape. The United States Department of Justice defines sexual assault as ‘any non-consensual sexual act prescribed by Federal, tribal, or State law, including when the victim lacks capacity to consent.’ Minors, some people who are mentally or intellectually disabled, and individuals who are inebriated, are all examples of individuals who lack capacity to consent to sexual acts.
Sexual assault usually falls into three different categories:
(i) penetration (with a body part or an object);
(ii) contact with genitals, buttock, breast or any other intimate body part;
(iii) exposure of genitals, buttocks, breast or any other intimate body part;
What is Sexual Harassment?
Sexual harassment can include a sexual assault, but can also be actions without a “touching,” such as gestures and verbal comments. It can be broken down into three categories:
- Sexual coercion: this usually occurs when there is an imbalance in power, as with a supervisor with a subordinate, or a teacher and student. This would occur if the perpetrator asks for sexual favors ‘quid pro quo’- meaning telling someone if they do or do not sexual act this can preclude them from any advancement/promotion or opportunities.
- Unwanted sexual attention: examples of unwanted sexual attention include unwanted hugging, stroking, touching, kissing, persistent pressure for sexual behavior and dates. It is important to note that not all romantic and sexual overtures are seen as harassing. For it to be considered unlawful sexual harassment, it must be unpleasant and unwelcome to the recipient. According to the U.S. Supreme Court, the sexual advances must be ‘sufficiently severe or pervasive’ to ‘create an abusive working environment.’
- Gender harassment: behavior that belittles people based on gender, but have no indication of sexual interest. It can include offensive sexual language and images. Someone constantly making degrading comments about sexual activities or body parts for example, could fall under gender harassment.
As people being to reflect on past experiences and behaviors they’ve witnessed, the importance of education about sexual harassment and assault becomes increasingly clear.