What Is Sexual Harassment? A Glossary of the #MeToo Movement
By Elizabeth Kiefer
May 30, 2018
Your most-searched questions, answered.
We partnered with GQ on an exclusive survey of more than 1,000 men about #MeToo, and the results were eye-opening—particularly this one: 47 percent of men said they hadn’t discussed the movement. At all. With anyone. Let's change that, because to keep this conversation going, we need everyone talking. See the full Glamour x GQ survey here, and read all of the thoughtful pieces it sparked—from personal essays to a glossary of key terms—here.
Whether at work, at school, or in some other setting, chances are at some point in your life you’ve sat through a seminar or training session on sexual harassment and assault. Maybe it was one of those in-depth, eye-opening lectures that reconfigured the way you think about those subjects, maybe it was a bare minimum presentation that only reaffirmed things you already know.
Either way, the #MeToo era has given these training sessions an added urgency, especially when it comes to a full understanding of the movement’s key terms (and how to use them correctly). While the fact that we’re having more transparent, nuanced conversations about assault and abuses of power than ever before in history is inarguably a good thing, it’s also a dialogue that will ultimately prove more productive if we—men and women alike—are all on the same page about what we’re actually talking about. If our shared goal is more open and consistent conversation about #MeToo and all it entails, it’s crucial to get on the same page with terminology.
With that goal in mind, we dug into questions and terms that seem to be coming up a lot, in both the larger cultural exchange and popular search queries online. We spoke with experts who helped contextualize and define commonly misunderstood lingo, delved deeper into topics that are cropping up a lot more lately, and demystified easily misunderstood legalese.
The goal: to help get you up to speed with the nuanced language of the #MeToo movement—no lecture, seminar, or law school degree necessary.
What is #MeToo?
It’s been less than nine months since The New York Times ran its first story about Harvey Weinstein’s history of sexual harassment and abuse—the first domino to fall of many that have since come after. Once the news broke and celebs like Lupita Nyong’o, Salma Hayek, Uma Thurman, and many others began opening up about their experiences, others began sharing their own stories, star-studded and otherwise, on social media, with the hashtag #MeToo, and a true movement began.
But "Me Too" dates back to long before 2017: Coined by community organizer and activist Tarana Burke more than a decade ago, the phrase originally had particular focus on the stories of young women mostly girls of color. The goal of the movement, more largely, is to create change in our culture regarding how we prevent, and respond to, sexual harassment and sexual violence.
What is sex-based discrimination?
Plainly put: It’s discriminating against someone based on their gender, but it can take a lot of different forms. “You have to really understand by what you mean by the word discrimination,” says Kristen Houser, a spokesperson for Raliance, a national partnership dedicated to ending sexual violence in one generation.
“Unfair treatment, being less responsive, denying opportunities, having double standards, utilizing the norm of one gender as something that should apply to all genders”: These are all examples of gender discrimination, and the list goes on.
But foundationally, explains Houser, sex-based discrimination is rooted in denying a person opportunity, access, or fair treatment, based on their sex; while New York City–based employment attorney Jack Tuckner added a broader context. “Discrimination is a synonym for differential treatment, disparate treatment,” he said, “and sexual harassment is no different than discrimination based on your race, color, religion, age disability.”
What constitutes “sexual misconduct”?
Sexual misconduct is a broad term that encompasses any type of unsolicited—as in, unwanted and not asked-for—behavior, committed through force, intimidation, coercion, or manipulation. Both men and women can be guilty of sexual misconduct.
What is sexual harassment?
Sexual harassment is any kind of unwelcome, uninvited verbal or physical behavior of a sexual nature; it also extends to making offensive comments about gender in general—for example, saying offensive things about women as a group.
Sexual harassment at work can be broken down into two categories: hostile work environment and quid pro quo. The latter is an exchange of one thing for another—for example, of tolerating sexual advances from your boss and keeping your job in exchange—while the former is pretty much what it sounds like; harassment that falls into the quid pro camp might also be considered hostile work environment.
What is sexual assault?
“Sexual assault is a criminal term, and the definition of what exactly constitutes sexual assault will vary somewhat from state to state, because states are the ones that in general are defining those criminal offenses,” says Emily Martin, vice president for education & workplace justice at the National Women’s Law Center. “But in general, sexual assault will involve some form of sexual contact that an individual has not consented to.”
But does sexual assault always mean rape? “Different states will use different terms in defining criminal acts, and so to some extent it’s a question of state law,” says Martin, adding that, in some states rape is referred to as “sexual assault in the first degree.” But while rape typically refers to forced penetration, sexual assault is a broader category that can include other forms of sexual contact without the victim’s consent, that are not necessarily penetrative.
What is predatory behavior?
Predatory behavior is “someone who is basically repeatedly exercising power through sexual coercion,” says Martin. “In general, at least once this gets to a certain level of severity or becomes pervasive enough…then [it] constitutes harassment and thus constitutes discrimination under law.”
What does “retaliation” mean?
Martin explains that, in the context of sexual harassment at work, retaliation means that an employer takes action against a person for filing a complaint or standing up for someone else.
“The employer has responded by punishing you in some way, whether it’s by demoting you or firing you or cutting your hours so you don’t make as much money, or otherwise taking some sort of action that would make a reasonable person in your situation think, I wouldn’t report this next time around.” Retaliation is illegal under Title VII, the law that prohibits sexual harassment in the workplace.
What’s a nondisclosure agreement?
These contracts are confidentiality agreements between two parties that are often meant to keep one party from publicly saying anything that would portray the other in a negative light. The NDA might exist between an employer and an employee or two individuals. One recent #MeToo example is Rose McGowan’s allegation that Harvey Weinstein offered her $1 million in hush money in exchange for signing an NDA.
How does Time’s Up fit into the picture?
Time’s Up is advocacy platform and legal defense fund that was founded in response to the Harvey Weinstein allegations and the #MeToo movement and formed in January 2018. It’s agenda is manifold: helping low-income women seek justice for sexual harassment and abuse in the workplace, advocating for legislation that holds companies accountable for tolerating persistent harassment, achieving gender parity in Hollywood industries, and encouraging women to speak out about harassment and assault. As Shonda Rhimes put it: “If this group of women can’t fight for a model for other women who don’t have as much power and privilege, then who can?”
Which word should you use: victim or survivor?
There’s no hard-and-fast rule. But the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) uses victim when referring to someone who has recently been affected by sexual violence and survivor when referring to someone who has gone through the recovery process; RAINN also recommends asking the person you are referring to which word they prefer.
There are other words too, and some of them are more inflammatory than others. Houser, of RALIANCE, says that the introduction of the word accuser dates back to the Kobe Bryant trial, when defense attorneys “made a huge stink of not referring to victims as victims.” She calls accuser an “irresponsible word choice.”
“There are so many other words we could use that do not carry the same loaded inflammatory inference against an alleged victim,” Houser says. “You could be stuck in your legalese and call them a complainant. If you have to say alleged victim, that’s better than accuser. You could just say ‘the woman recounted, told police, according to reports.’ There are so many ways to say it, but accuser…is a loaded word that flips our sympathies.”
What does consent actually mean?
Interestingly, this is one question that came up during jury deliberations in the most recent lawsuit against Bill Cosby—and the judge ultimately said that the “jury will decide what consent means to them.” But while it might be tough to provide a clear-cut definition, Martin thinks we’re doing a better job of talking about what it means than we used to, thanks in part to #MeToo.
“One of the things that has been really valuable about the past few months, and all the very many stories out there, is helping to make really clear that silence does not equal consent,” she says. Martin adds that the current cultural moment may also have some impact on the way that courts interpret the law, and what constitutes consent, going forward, and recognizing that “consent really should be affirmative, [and that] that silence is not equivalent to welcoming behavior or consenting to behavior.”
What is that “gray area” people talk about?
Martin sees people using “gray area” in two ways. “Legally, when people talk about a gray area, they are responding to the fact that while the Supreme Court has set out the standard you apply to determine whether something constitutes unlawful sexual harassment, [and] basically judges or juries have to decide ‘Is this harassment severe or pervasive?’ I think when people talk about gray areas as a legal matter, it’s that people disagree whether or not it meets the legal definition of harassment,” she says.
But there’s also the cultural definition, which, viewed through the lens of sexual assault and harassment, can seem even more nebulous—some might say it’s just not always writ large and completely obvious when someone has crossed a line. Houser doesn’t buy that kind of gray area. When it comes to sexual assault, she sees references to “gray area” as a “distraction tactic” that undermines a victim’s account.
What does it mean to be complicit?
Houser’s quick take: “That would be knowing about somebody who is harming others and doing nothing about it, sort of giving it a pass."
Martin offered a similar assessment. “Broadly, I think that the conversation about what it means to be complicit here is really sort of calling upon us all to think about the responsibilities of bystanders to intervene,” says Martin. “Not a legal responsibility, unless it’s someone in a position of power like a school administrator or the employer…more of a moral responsibility to do something if you see someone being victimized [or sexually harassed].” She thinks that one of the positives to the #MeToo moment has been “a much more purposeful discussion about the responsibility of bystanders to step in.”