Understanding Sexual Misconduct

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Researchers have confirmed a long-standing finding that 1 in 5 college women experience sexual assault during their time in college. A majority of sexual assaults in college involve alcohol or other substances.

- Source: NCADD National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, INC. -


Recent news headlines have made sexual misconduct a national conversation. By definition, sexual misconduct is any unwanted behavior of a sexual nature. It can be a physical action, a verbal comment or even an action involving no contact such as a text message or photograph that creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive environment.

The prevalence of sexual misconduct in the U.S. is staggering. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 made sexual misconduct unlawful in the workplace and many colleges and universities have rules to protect students as well, unfortunately sexual misconduct incidents are on the rise.

According to a 2018 study, 81 % of women and 43% of men said they have experienced sexual misconduct or assault over their lifetime. Why such a high number? The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC) assembled a task force to uncover that answer and see what can be done about it. The report's findings detail how power can make those feel uninhibited and therefore more likely to engage in inappropriate behaviors. And because most victims of sexual misconduct are unlikely to report it, the offending behaviors continue. In fact, the report states that "roughly three out of four individuals who experienced misconduct never even talked to a supervisor, manager, or union representative."

Sexual misconduct can involve a range of actions from mild offenses like lewd jokes to serious criminal actions such as assault. Since understanding what constitutes sexual misconduct can be tricky, the EEOC states that simple teasing, off-hand comments, or isolated incidents are not unlawful until it becomes chronic to a point that it produces a hostile or offensive work environment, or results in an adverse work event. (If someone is denied a promotion because they said no to a date with their boss or a student receives a failing grade after rejecting a professor's advances, that's misconduct.)

Some of the more serious and criminal forms of sexual misconduct include:
  • Sexual Violence: Sexual violence is defined as a sexual act committed against someone without that person's freely given consent. (Source: Centers for Disease Control)
  • Sexual Assault: Sexual assault is any type of forced or coerced sexual contact or behavior that happens without consent. Learn more about sexual assault here.
  • Sexual Abuse: Sexual abuse is unwanted sexual activity, with perpetrators using force, making threats or taking advantage of victims not able to give consent. (Source: American Psychological Association) Learn more information on sexual abuse here.
  • Rape: The penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim. (Source: FBI) Understand more about rape prevention and support here.

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Who is at Risk?

Often times, when people think of sexual misconduct they think of a man in power harassing a woman. The truth is sexual misconduct can happen to anyone...by anyone. Power remains a prominent factor but it is no longer just a male vs. female scenario or a boss vs. secretary situation. Both victim and the harasser can be of the same or different gender.

Although 83% of sexual misconduct claims to the EEOC come from women, the reality is that sexual misconduct is pervasive and there is a growing number of people across the gender and sexuality spectrum that are being victimized. The LGBTQ community in particular is especially at risk according to a study conducted by the School of Public Health at Harvard University, where 51% of LGBTQ respondents reported to being sexually harassed.

Concerns in the Workplace
The EEOC has pinpointed several risk factors that contribute to creating a work environment conducive to sexual misconduct. Some of these factors include:
  • Companies that have an imbalance in power where supervisors are mostly of one gender, or there is a small group of people with extreme authority.
  • Workplaces with isolated work environments such as field workers or hotel employees.
  • A homogeneous employee population where minority populations can feel marginalized.
  • A young workforce because they may be unaware of laws or workplace norms.
According to the ACLU, low wage earners and non-English speaking workers are especially vulnerable since they may not know their rights, be more afraid of retaliation or not be able to speak up against misconduct. It is everyone's right to work, learn or socialize in a misconduct free environment.

Concerns for College Students
According to a study on sexual misconduct on college campuses conducted by the American Association of University Women (AAUW), students of all genders are equally harassed. While women are often subjected to sexual jokes, comments, gestures, or looks, male students also report being harassed. The study continues to point out that "lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students are more likely than heterosexual students to experience sexual misconduct."

No student should feel powerless against sexual misconduct and every person - regardless of gender or sexual orientation is protected under Title IX. In addition, many colleges and universities have awareness training and counseling services available to help put an end to harassing behaviors on campus.

If you or a friend has been violated and want support without having the incident reported through Title IX, seek out the confidential resources person on your campus. These staff members are a special resource that can explain the reporting options and processes (both on campus and with police) yet do not need to report the incident. They are on campus for the survivor, to give them a safe place to talk and understand their options.

For students adventuring abroad or even international students coming to study in the U.S., being aware of differing cultural norms is important in combating sexual misconduct. Sexual misconduct is never ok, no matter what country you are from or what country you are visiting. Many colleges provide these tips to students when crossing cultural borders:
  • Consider cultural sensitivity and your personal boundaries.
  • Learn social norms about personal space, touching, and gender dynamics.
  • Balance independence with your own safety.
  • Trust your gut and tell someone if you feel you have been violated.

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What Does Sexual Misconduct Look Like?

Sexual misconduct is defined broadly as any unwanted sexual behavior that creates a threatening learning or working environment. But what does it actually look like? Identifying the behaviors considered sexual misconduct will empower those to speak up against it, and possibly even prevent someone from unknowingly participating.

Types of Sexual Misconduct
Extensive research has determined that there are two common types of sexual misconduct:
  • Quid pro quo (Latin for "something for something") misconduct occurs when a person in a position of power offers something of benefit in return for a sexual favor. Misconduct of this type can be obvious or implied. When it comes to quid pro quo misconduct the laws are strict and only one instance is illegal.
  • Hostile environment misconduct occurs when unsolicited behaviors such as sexual comments, advances and similar conduct are so frequent and pervasive it creates an intimidating or abusive environment. The harasser can be an authority figure and, often, a peer. Unlike quid pro quo misconduct, hostile environment misconduct can be created even when actions are not directed at a person specifically, but at a gender in general. It is not hostile environment misconduct if the behavior only occurs once and is never repeated.
Examples of Sexual Misconduct
The most common behaviors associated with quid pro quo and hostile environment misconduct can be classified into three categories:
  • Unwanted sexual statements
  • Unwanted personal attention
  • Unwanted physical or sexual advances
Specific examples include:
  • Sexual comments on physical attributes
  • Spreading rumors or rating others regarding to sexual activity or performance
  • "Dirty" jokes
  • Displays of inappropriate or offensive materials
  • Talking about one's sexual activity in front of others
  • Persistent, unwanted interactions, such as asking for dates continually
  • Offensive remarks about certain genders
  • Sexual assault
It's important to note that these behaviors can happen in person, in writing or electronically.

Speaking Up
Only about 10% of sexual misconduct victims file a claim, according to the EEOC. Often victims of misconduct choose to ignore it, endure it or avoid their harasser instead. Some reasons are:
  • Shame - "I feel responsible."
  • Denial - "That really didn't happen, did it?"
  • Fear of retaliation - "If I say something I will be passed over for that new project."
  • Low self-esteem - "Why bother."
  • History of abuse - "Just another person disrespecting me."
  • Helpless - "That wasn't right but no one will do anything about it."
Violating behavior does not have to be criminal to create a toxic work environment. Even mild transgressions are damaging. Speak up if you witness or experience it. Tell the harasser directly to stop and that the behavior is unwelcome. The EEOC offers these tips:
  • Be Prepared! Know your rights and responsibilities as an employee or manager.
  • Tell the harasser to stop. If you don't feel comfortable confronting the harasser or the conduct does not stop, tell your employer.
  • Report the misconduct to your employer immediately. Refer to the company's policy on misconduct.
  • Keep records: witness names, phone numbers and addresses. Document how you were treated as an employee
  • Talk to a parent, teacher, guidance counselor, or another trusted adult about the misconduct.
  • Act promptly. Once your employer knows about the misconduct, it has a responsibility to stop the misconduct. Also, you may not be the only person being harassed by this individual.
  • Contact EEOC. Services are free and you do not need a lawyer to file a charge.
Victims of sexual misconduct are not to blame; the harasser is responsible for their actions. The culture of victim shaming (blaming the victim for being violated) needs to stop in order for victims to feel comfortable coming forward and to push abusers/perpetrators to bear the full responsibility of their actions.

Sexual Misconduct is Not Harmless
Sexual misconduct impacts a person's well being in physical, mental and emotional ways. According to RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) effects include:
  • Emotional effects: anger, fear, humiliation, shame, guilt, betrayal, violation, loss of control.
  • Mental health effects: anxiety, depression, panic attacks, PTSD, difficulty concentrating, loss of motivation, substance abuse.
  • Physical effects: increased stress levels, headaches, fatigue, sleep and eating disturbances.
If you or a loved one is a victim of sexual misconduct seek help immediately. Your health is worth it.

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Where does it happen?

Sexual misconduct is not an industry thing or an office thing...it happens anywhere... at home, at school, at work, on the street and in social situations. Being aware of what sexual misconduct looks like in different scenarios will help someone from becoming victimized. Like bullies, sexual harassers target those they can assert power over.

In the Workplace
The workplace is the most obvious place that people think of when it comes to sexual misconduct. But it can happen in subtle ways that may catch a victim off guard. Being prepared will help empower targeted individuals, and bystanders, to speak up and stop the behavior before it gets out of hand.

There is hope for a decline in sexually harassing behavior as the age of the workforce changes. According to the Economist, about 30% of men ages 18-30 year old think commenting on a woman's attractiveness at work is sexual misconduct versus only about 10% of men 64 years of age and older. Let's hope the trend continues, but until then, these tips can help discern between office antics and sexual misconduct:
  • You get an uncomfortable feeling after a joke, a hand on your shoulder or a comment of what you look like in your outfit
  • You've tried to make it stop and it continues
  • You feel pressured to "go along" with it
  • You don't feel comfortable making a complaint
  • You have a fear of repercussion
  • You feel you are being punished for your gender
Sexual Misconduct at School
From middle school all the way through university, sexual misconduct is being examined and no longer tolerated. Research shows that nearly two-thirds of students have been sexually harassed with only 10% reporting it to the administrations or a Title IX officer.

The teenage and young adult years can be an exciting and challenging time for young people as they explore their sexual identity. Unfortunately, it also comes with insecurity, confusion and behavior that can sometimes be categorized as sexual misconduct. It may be ignorance on behalf of the offender, but it must be made known in the school environment that any unwanted attention of a sexual nature projected at an individual student, or a gender group in general, is unacceptable.

The Department of Education takes sexual misconduct seriously and has a pamphlet illustrating what misconduct can look like on college campuses and what to do about it. So does the Equal Rights Advocates (a national civil rights organization). Being familiar with all different scenarios will help prevent "surprise" incidents so whether you are a victim or a witness you can speak out.

It's the Law
Sexual misconduct is illegal and colleges and universities across the United States adhere to these laws:
  • Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 prohibits sex discrimination, including misconduct, of students in educational institutions that receive federal financial assistance.
  • Campus Save Act is an amendment to The Clery Act, which is a companion to Title IX to protect students from sexual violence and misconduct. Students, faculty, and staff must be educated on the prevention of an array of domestic violence and sexual assault topics, including rape and misconduct.
  • The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) aims to improve criminal justice and community response to crimes of domestic violence, sexual assault, dating violence and stalking.
These laws require colleges and universities to provide training on all discriminatory and sexually abusive behaviors. A mandatory component focuses on prevention using bystander intervention. Bystander intervention teaches students how to intervene to prevent sexual misconduct, dating violence and sexual assault. A popular technique used by many universities is called the Three D's:
  • Direct: If the situation seems safe then take a direct approach. If you see an overly intoxicated person that looks in trouble walk up to them and ask if they are ok.
  • Delegate: Sometimes the person in trouble isn't someone you know, or you don't feel comfortable intervening. Call that person's friends or find someone more comfortable with approaching the situation. If someone is in serious danger - call the police.
  • Distract: Divert attention. Start a conversation... "Everyone having a good time?" (Obviously not so it gives the person an out.), "Hey your friend is looking for you." "Your car is being towed."

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Prevention of sexual misconduct is everyone's responsibility. Awareness, education, good policy and empowering bystanders to stand up against inappropriate actions, and sexist and homophobic stereotypes are important elements of an effective prevention effort.

On campus and in the workplace, administrators and managers are responsible for setting a positive example and creating an environment intolerant of inappropriate behavior. Many sexual misconduct prevention programs are mandatory under Title IX, state law or company policy.

Key ways to prevent sexual misconduct in any environment include:
  • Educate, train and retrain often
  • Have a zero tolerance policy towards harassing behavior
  • Ensure after-hour work or school events are professional/respectful in nature
  • Be clear on consequences
  • Have a clear and well publicized complaint reporting process
  • Train bystanders to be active bystanders
While working with young people, it's important to set a good foundation for future interactions. KidPower, a global leader in "people safety" training, advises that when young people become interested in each other sexually, have them acknowledge the types of attention they like and don't like. As an individual, we have the right to set up boundaries to keep ourselves safe. We also have a responsibility to behave in a way that is respectful to others.

Unconscious Bias
Unconscious gender bias is something to be aware of since it can lead to an environment that unintentionally supports sexual misconduct. Think about it: have you ever witnessed the task of note taking delegated to a woman because she has neater hand writing? Unconscious bias is social stereotypes about certain groups that people form outside of their own conscious awareness and it can lead to a type of ignorance that fosters sexual misconduct.

Role of the Bystander
Have you ever heard of the bystander effect? It's the theory that we are less likely to help a victim when others are also present. The bystander effect occurs for two reasons:
  1. Deflecting responsibility - When others are present, a person may feel someone else should intervene. The result is no one does.
  2. Social influence - Bystanders decide what acceptable behavior is by watching how everyone else reacts? so if no one intervenes it must be acceptable. Silence equals acceptance.
Ignoring offending behavior will only make the situation worse, not just for that moment, but in creating an environment that silently accepts that conduct. As a witness, do your part and be an active bystander. Speak up. Your efforts will help create a community where people are respected.

To be an active bystander there are a few different approaches you can take. The 3 D's approach of Direct, Delegate and Distract is taught at many colleges and was discussed in section 4. RAINN offers these C.A.R.E. tips on how to be an active bystander (don't forget to always keep your safety in mind):
  • Create a distraction. Interrupt the misconduct or distract those taking part.
  • Ask directly. Talk directly with the person who is being harassed.
  • Refer to an authority. Ask an authority figure (HR manager, campus RA, even a bouncer at a bar) to help.
  • Enlist others. Recruit a friend or other bystander to help.

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Below is a compilation of resources and websites about sexual misconduct. Check out the "Understanding Sexual Misconduct" video for a comprehensive overview of sexual misconduct, inspiring stories from survivors as well as prevention tips.

First and foremost, if you have experienced sexual misconduct or witnessed it happening:
  • At work, tell someone - a boss or a co-worker - and also contact the human resources department to find out about complaint procedures.
  • At school, report it to a trusted friend or advisor and use the Title IX counselor on campus. Also seek help from health services and research confidential advisors and other counseling services provided through your school. Many universities have a confidential resources person available to help a victim understand the resources available to them without reporting it to a Title IX officer.
Helpful Websites and Organizations
  • Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) provides explanation and guidance on sexual misconduct laws and your rights in the workplace.
  • Youth at Work, EEOC's website for youth in the workforce.
  • KidPower (global leader in "people safety" training) provides tips and learning resources on a range of personal safety topics including sexual misconduct.
  • RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) is a nationally recognized leader in supporting victims. Chat online at online.rainn.org for confidential support.
  • Additional information is available via FutureHealth's social media channels:
If you have been a victim of sexual assault, reach out to:
  • National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE (4673) to speak with someone who is trained to help.

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