Opinion: No grey area when it comes to sexual assault



Sexual misconduct.

There, I said it. This is a term we are hearing a lot lately, in the media, around the coffee table, even in the House of Commons.

But, what does it actually mean?

Here are a few examples of some of the headlines sweeping our news stream today on this topic: “Zero tolerance on sexual misconduct for UCP MLAs, Jason Kenney says,” “Complaints against two former RCMP doctors accused of sexual misconduct hit 80,” and “Trudeau says zero tolerance on misconduct toward women applies to him as well.”

How about a definition?

Elaine Craig, of the Schulich School of Law at Dalhousie University, words it as this: “Sexual misconduct is a lay term, sometimes used in institutional policies or by professional bodies. It covers an array of problematic sexual behaviours including sexual harassment, sexual assault and sexual abuse. Two of these terms have specific (and different) legal meanings: Sexual assault has a specific meaning in the criminal law context, unlike sexual misconduct, which may cover both criminal and non-criminal conduct.”

The term sexual misconduct is broad. It does not have legal implications attached to it. The meaning of it is far from clear and is deeply generalized. Yet, here again we have a federal MP and provincial MPP both being accused of sexual misconduct.

Patrick Brown, an Ontario MPP received allegations of sexual misconduct last week. He is accused of sexual misconduct with two teenage girls (one being a high school student and the other a university student). Brown states the accusations are false and formal charges have yet to be laid.

Then there is Kent Hehr, a MP who has been accused of sexual misconduct for allegedly making sexually inappropriate comments to women during his time as a Calgary MLA. Last week he resigned from the Liberal cabinet pending an investigation.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in a statement said the government takes allegations of sexual misconduct very seriously: “we believe that it is important to support women who come forward with allegations and that is exactly what our government will do.”

This does not clear up the confusion surrounding this term.

It appears over the past few months and with the groundswell of survivors coming forward to share their stories, the media has been using sexual misconduct as a broad-sweeping term to label anyone who is accused of a nonconsensual or unwelcome sexual act or statement.

As a sexual assault service provider and advocate, I would prefer we eliminate this grey area and often confusing terminology and call it what it is – sexual assault or sexual harassment. Plain and simple.

The media should not continue to minimize or downplay these very serious allegations by using a broad, nonsensical term.

We should be progressing, with our language and thoughts, and like the #Metoo and #IBelieveYou movements, we support survivors and believe what they are saying. There is no grey area in sexual assault.