Why we need a better term to use than ‘sexual misconduct’

The term ‘sexual misconduct’ has become ubiquitous when we speak about sexual harassment and assault on university campuses. As an umbrella term that encompasses a wide range of behaviours along the sexual violence continuum, it appears to have been embraced due to its ability to accommodate everything from sexual harassment to rape.

And herein lies the problem, for in grouping together a disparate range of manifestations of gendered violence, the term fails to specify and convey what we are actually talking about: sexual violence, the abuse of power and the sense of male entitlement to female bodies.

Misconduct implies someone who has simply behaved inappropriately, obscuring the often systematic targeting of the most vulnerable members of the university community – students and junior staff for sexual harassment, sexual assault, rape and an overall hostile learning and working environment.

Sexual misconduct, linguistically, is the administrative equivalent of the staff member who makes inappropriate use of office supplies. Using a term such as sexual violence, on the other hand, clearly conveys and describes what is actually happening: acts, behaviours and cultures that demean, humiliate and degrade someone based on their sex.

Ambiguous language

The very ambiguousness of the term sexual misconduct is more misleading than helpful and does not come close to matching the psychological impact that these incidents of sexual violence inflict on victims or survivors. It can also lead to the erroneous assumption that sexual ‘misconduct’ involves no violence.

I once sat on a gender equality committee that was trying to improve safety on campus for female students, researchers and staff. When outlining the reality that many female students did not feel safe or comfortable due to multiple incidents of sexual violence, a senior leader of the university responded, in surprise and disbelief: “Do we have violent rape on campus?”

His use of the qualifier violent revealed that he did not view rape in itself as an act of violence. When, in fact, rape is a crime that implies a tremendous violation of a person’s body, spirit and psyche. Yet with terms such as sexual misconduct so common in media reporting on a wide range of sexual assault, it is perhaps not surprising that this man could not grasp the violence inherent in rape.

Language is important because it has the power to mould how we perceive our social environment. Nottinghamshire became the first county in the United Kingdom to list misogyny as a hate crime in 2016.

Women surveyed after the policy was implemented described feeling more confident about reporting sexual harassment to the police, and above all, started to view sexual harassment differently – no longer simply as part of daily life or ‘how things are’, but as acts of hatred directed towards them simply because they are women.

Similarly, replacing the term sexual misconduct with sexual violence has the potential to reframe the debate and improve our understanding of the multiple disadvantages that female students and staff face in higher education.

It is not merely ‘misconduct’, but violence that victims and survivors have experienced, often aggravated by institutional silence and complicity after the initial violence has occurred.

In order to transform university cultures and provide truly inclusive learning and working environments for all, we first need to pay attention to the language we use and call a spade a spade.

Dr Kathryn Lum is visiting professor in the faculty of education at the Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil.