Being a woman in American society makes you disproportionately likely to experience sexual misconduct or harassment due to your sex. It’s an unfortunate reality that the majority of women will, at some point in their lives experience some form of harassment or assault; in fact, 81 percent of women have already experienced one form of sexual harassment or another.

But while any level of offensive behavior should be considered distasteful, it may be difficult to discern the line between someone being a jerk and someone committing a crime against you. For example, if your waiter calls you “sweetie” when you go out to eat, could that be considered sexual harassment? What if they stare at you inappropriately while they do it? What if they also place a hand on your shoulder without your consent?

Because the line can be difficult to draw, it’s important to talk to a lawyer if you feel you’ve been mistreated or violated in any way related to your sex. However, it’s also important to recognize what truly qualifies as sexual misconduct, and how those behaviors are defined.

Types of Sexual Misconduct

Sexual misconduct is a blanket term that covers any unwanted behavior of a sexual nature. It can be committed by anyone, regardless of gender, and anyone can be a victim. These behaviors are committed without the consent of the affected party, with “consent” being the most important term.

There are four main types of sexual misconduct, though there may be some cases that can’t fit neatly into any of these categories, but may still qualify as misconduct:

  • Sexual assault. Sexual assault refers to any physical action of a sexual nature done forcefully or through intimidation. It includes standard definitions of “rape,” as well as any unwanted intercourse or attempted unwanted intercourse. It also includes intentional physical contact with sexual areas of the body, including but not limited to genitals, breasts, and buttocks, and coercion leading to this inappropriate touching.
  • Sexual harassment. Sexual harassment doesn’t necessarily involve physical contact. It generally includes any kind of discrimination or mistreatment of an individual based on that person’s sex or gender or how their sex or gender is manifested. Unwanted sexual attention, commentary, abuse, teasing, flirting, and joking all fall into this category. Pressure to engage in sexual behavior may also qualify, as can persistent pressure to pursue a romantic relationship against someone’s will.
  • Sexual exploitation. Sexual exploitation occurs when someone takes advantage of someone in a sexual way. For example, it could include non-consensually recording a sexual act, spying on someone in an intimate situation, spreading sexual information about a person, or even prostituting or trafficking someone.
  • Sexual intimidation. Sexual intimidation is similar to harassment, but typically manifests in a more direct way. This includes threatening to commit a sexual act against another person, or indecently and non-consensually exposing yourself in their presence.

Defining Consent

Consent is one of the most important terms related to sexual misconduct, because a lack of consent can make many undesirable behaviors a crime. As you might imagine, consent is somewhat tricky business; definitions of consent vary from state to state, and different individuals may have different definitions of what counts as consent.

In general, consent is an explicitly expressed affirmative desire to engage in a sexual activity. This expression must be given freely, through words or through actions, and must be unambiguous. It’s easy to see where consent can enter a nebulous interpretive area, at least from a legal perspective; for example, it’s generally agreed upon that a person can’t give consent when drunk, since it compromises the “free” expression of desire. But at what level of intoxication does this effect kick in? And how can you tell if they were intoxicated?

If you’re in any position that compromises your ability to freely give consent, no level of positive consent can disqualify an act from being sexual misconduct. For example, an underage child who agrees to engage in a sexual act is not considered consenting, because they can’t give consent as a legal adult. A person who agrees to sexual activity due to fear of losing their job is also not considered consenting, since the consent was derived from intimidation.

Taking Action

Sexual violence is tragically underreported due to social stigmas, intimidation, and fear of disbelief or dismissal. However, the tide is slowly beginning to turn. People everywhere are taking sexual misconduct more seriously, and women have access to more resources to help them in case they’re ever on the receiving end of this unwanted behavior. If you feel you’ve been assaulted, harassed, exploited, or intimidated in any way, file a police report and/or talk to a lawyer as soon as you feel safe to do so.