It's common to hear about how we as a society fail victims of sexual assault and harassment, but what's less common is to talk about what "assault" or "harassment" actually mean. People will often condemn sexual misconduct but then defend acts that don't seem like sexual misconduct, according to what our culture tells us — even when those things definitely are sexual misconduct. This can leave victims feeling alone and invalidated: If even people who are passionately against sexual assault aren't sympathetic toward you, you start to wonder if what happened to you was even wrong.
I'm using the term "misconduct" here because sometimes the line between assault and harassment is difficult to draw, and getting caught up in whether or not something "counts" as assault can contribute to the invalidation of victims. If somebody does something of a sexual nature to you without your consent, the fact that they did it is just as significant as what they did. Either way, it was unwanted, and either way, the person who performed the action is at fault.
Too often, due to all the myths rape culture spreads, people have trouble sympathizing with forms of sexual misconduct that don't fit the most commonly believed definition of rape. Unfortunately, we're taught to think that unless there was physical force used and the perpetrator was a stranger, it was the victim's fault. Because of this, we may not view the following acts as sexual misconduct, but we should — because they absolutely are.
1. Street Harassment
Just as it's not OK to touch someone in a sexual manner without their consent, it's not OK to talk to them in a sexual manner without their consent, either. People may say street harassers are just giving compliments or showing their interest, but if they wanted to do that, they would approach people in a way that respected their privacy. The truth is, the goal of sexual harassment is to make people — especially women — feel ashamed. And that's not something to defend.
2. Online Harassment
When someone sexually harasses you, they are conveying that they will communicate with you the way they want to, regardless of what you want — and that they put their own desires above your comfort level. This attitude is transmitted regardless of the means by which they transmit it. Whether it's in person or online, whether it's verbal or in the form of images, the same message gets across: "Your boundaries don't matter." That message will never be harmless, no matter how it's sent.
3. Verbal Coercion
When I was in high school, I remember hearing about boys "pressuring" girls into sex. I thought "pressuring" was something entirely separate from sexual assault — that it was something boys did by nature, and girls just had to deal with it. I'm not alone in having had that belief: A recent survey by Our Watch found that a quarter of young people agree with the statement "It is normal for guys to put some pressure on girls to do sexual things." But when you put pressure on someone, you are making them feel like they cannot say "no." And agreeing to something because you feel like you have to is not consent. Consent is given freely and enthusiastically.
4. Unwanted Touching — Anywhere
When we think of sexual assault, we usually think of a conventionally defined "sexual" act — usually one that involves touching below the belt. But it doesn't have to. Touching a person without their consent is misconduct no matter where they're being touched. Again, the trauma is not just in the act itself, but also in the message conveyed: that you don't get a say in what happens to your body.
5. Misconduct Toward Someone Who Can't Consent
Sexual activity with someone who is either below the age of consent or too incapacitated to consent is sexual misconduct, no matter how enthusiastic the other person acts. If someone isn't using their full cognitive abilities to enter into an interaction, they're not really deciding to enter into it.
6. Misconduct Toward Men
Sexual assault toward men is more common than we might assume, with 8.6 percent of men experiencing unwanted sexual contact in college and one in six experiencing sexual abuse during childhood. Once, when I posted an article about this on Facebook, a peer of mine commented, "Jealous." This reveals the problem underlying the way we view sexual assault toward men: We don't take sexual assault against men seriously because we believe men always want sex. But they don't, and that's not even relevant — because sexual misconduct is not sex.