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How Do We Talk About This?

I’ve been thinking for awhile that the #METOO movement is in need of clarifying language.

My hope is to start a conversation about language so that we can understand each other while we process a very difficult issue. So let’s start with some terms:

Sexual misconduct is a catch all term which includes everything from a comment that caused discomfort to drugging a person and forcing sex.

Just like fruit is too broad to distinguish between an apple or an orange (and let’s not get into tomatoes) the term sexual misconduct not specific enough to stand on its own all the time.

Sexual assault refers to a one time incident in which a person experienced sexual contact which they did not consent to. This term is another broad one that can encompass everything from groping to penetration.

Sexual abuse is a pattern of behavior in which a person uses power and control to manipulate, force or coerce sexual contact.

Assault and abuse are both forms of misconduct. Another term I thinks needs to be added is inappropriate behavior.

Here’s an example:

I used to work for a mostly male company with a mostly male sales force. One day, I wore my hair up in two messy buns that in hindsight looked like pigtails. I was in my mid-twenties and looked younger. A male co-worker who was twice my size and almost twice my age commented that my hair style reminded him of Shirley Temple which had him feeling like R-Kelly. I made some stammering statement about how that was not cool and went and told my (male) boss. My boss laughed. Surely my co-worker was joking and I was being too sensitive.

My co-worker’s behavior was inappropriate. It is not okay to imply to someone that their look for the day has them feeling like someone who (at the time) was on trial for statutory rape.

We run into a  bunch of problems when we confuse inappropriate with abuse or assault because they both need different things.

Abuse and assault need immediate safety for the victims, including making it so that they cannot be harmed further. Safety could include firing the one who perpetrated the behavior, removing them from the home, and legal consequences.

Inappropriate behavior needs coaching on why the behavior is wrong and clear boundaries about what will happen if the behavior continues. And for victims, they need to be believed and their concerns taken seriously (that goes for abuse and assault too).

When we treat abuse and assault as if it was on the same level as inappropriate we do not protect our people and we minimize the significance of the harm to those who are being hurt. We also continue to expose those who have been harmed to further danger.

When we treat inappropriate behavior as if it were the same as assault or abuse we alienate people and make the whole movement look out of touch and extreme. People who would be allies refuse to engage because treating an R-Kelly comment the same as forcing sex is ridiculous.

Sexual misconduct is happening in homes, businesses, churches, schools, all over the world. And it must stop. A step on the path to stopping this reprehensible and damaging behavior is to formulate the language we need to talk about the issue. I do not believe that what is included here is exhaustive. My hope is that it will provide a starting point for all of us to create the language we need to solve this issue.

Women, men, and children have suffered enough. We need to be able to say what “it” is, so that we can talk about it, so that we can end it.

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