Sexual assault and harassment have been in the news a lot lately, largely due to allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, as well as those that have been raised against House of Cards actor Kevin Spacey.
First, a recap: On Oct. 5, The New York Times published an investigative report detailing a number of sexual harassment allegations women have made about Weinstein over the past three decades. In the weeks that followed, even more women came forward to share their own experiences with sexual assault and harassment. These allegations often had nothing to do with Weinstein; instead, women were sharing their stories using the hashtag #MeToo to show just how many people have been impacted by sexual assault and harassment.
Then, on Oct. 30, BuzzFeed reported that actor Anthony Rapp alleged that Spacey had made an unwanted sexual advance toward him in 1986. Rapp was 14 at the time, and Spacey was 26. Spacey issued an apology on Oct. 31, writing, “I honestly do not remember the encounter; it would have been over 30 years ago. But if I did behave then as he describes, I owe him the sincerest apology for what would have been deeply inappropriate drunken behavior, and I am sorry for the feelings he describes having carried with him all these years.” In the same apology, Spacey made a public statement about his sexual orientation for the first time. The actor said he’s had relationships with both men and women and now lives as a gay man. Some criticized Spacey for including this in his apology, noting that it may conflate homosexuality with pedophilia in a way that is inappropriate, unfair, and harmful to the LGBTQ community.
This increasing public conversation surrounding sexual assault and harassment is an important step toward addressing a prevalent and dangerous societal issue. But the definition of sexual assault according to the law isn’t always clear. Here, we breakdown what legally constitutes sexual assault, harassment, and more.What does “sexual assault” actually mean?
It’s actually harder to define than you’d think. According to the United States Department of Justice, sexual assault is “any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient.” Sexual assault is basically an umbrella term that includes sexual activities such as rape, fondling, and attempted rape.
However, the legal definition varies depending on which state you’re in, and can even be different depending on where you were when the assault happened, Emily Austin, director of advocacy services for California Coalition Against Sexual Assault, tells SELF. For example, she says, sexual assault on college campuses in California means a sex act that occurred without affirmative consent (which is described as active, voluntary participation), while California criminal law defines rape as non consensual sexual intercourse, and other laws govern different forms of sexual assault beyond intercourse. “It’s complex,” she admits.
The definitions can vary because of the way in which our laws are made, explains Rebecca O’Connor, vice president of public policy at the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), the largest anti-sexual assault organization in the U.S. “On the state level, because nothing is simple, the states have sovereignty over laws, and different legislatures and jurors have crafted different definitions of specific behaviors,” she tells SELF. Some states explicitly define rape or sexual assault and others may not, but fold that behavior under different terminology. “It runs the gamut,” she says, adding that states typically create these definitions with guidance from the Department of Justice.