In recent months, the #MeToo movement has brought the topic of sexual misconduct to the top of national awareness — particularly misconduct by men in powerful positions. In some cases, investigators have found that the accused had been reported multiple times for sexual harassment and other misconduct in the past.
But with the number of men facing accusations, as well as the broad range of allegations, questions arise. What’s the difference between sexual misconduct, sexual harassment, and sexual assault? Below, sexual harassment attorney Steven Rubin helps to clear up the confusion.
What Exactly Is Sexual Misconduct?
Sexual misconduct isn’t a legal term. But the media often uses it to describe any unwanted sexualized behavior. Sexual harassment, crude jokes, groping or touching of your intimate parts without your permission, someone refusing to take no for an answer when you reject their advances, or pressure for any type of physical contact — all these and more can be sexual misconduct. The misconduct may not always be illegal, but some types are.
What Kind of Behavior Counts as Illegal?
Sometimes, it depends on what you can make a jury take notice of. Crude jokes and someone repeatedly asking you out even after you’ve said no usually doesn’t count as illegal. However, it may contribute to sexual harassment, which is illegal and which you can sue for in civil court. In California, someone groping or otherwise touching your “intimate parts” against your will counts as sexual battery. This can be either a misdemeanor or felony crime depending on its severity.
Where Does Sexual Harassment Come In?
Sexual harassment is just one form of sexual misconduct. Illegal in every state, including California, sexual harassment is mainly a form of gender-based discrimination. However, it only counts as such if it occurs in a professional setting. In California, you usually can’t press charges against this kind of sexual misbehaviour if it occurs on the street or elsewhere.
What Is Sexual Harassment?
There are two kinds of sexual harassment California courts recognize:
- Quid pro quo harassment, when a person higher up the company ladder demands that you accept sexual harassment or have sex with them in order to keep your job or advance in the company. It only has to happen once.
- “Severe or pervasive” behaviour resulting in a hostile work environment. This is subjective, hard to prove, and has to happen repeatedly over a long period. Usually, more than one person has to be involved, and the behaviour has to be deemed unreasonable by the average person.
What About Sexual Assault?
Sexual assault includes:
- unwanted groping and fondling of your intimate parts (especially if someone immobilizes you), and
- any other crimes that involve sexual contact for sexual gratification.
California law defines intimate parts as “sexual organ, anus, groin, or buttocks of any person, and the breast of a female.”
All sexual assaults are illegal under both federal and California law and are typically handled by the county or the U.S. Justice Department.