Last year was a landmark one for coverage of sexual assault, harassment, and rape committed by people (mostly men) in power. Along with that coverage came many vague euphemisms used to describe these despicable acts, glossing over the reality of what happened.
When NBC News announced Matt Lauer’s departure from the Today Show in November, they said that the powerful anchor had engaged in “inappropriate sexual behavior.” That behavior turned out to include horrific allegations of sexual harassment and assault, including an instance in which he allegedly sexually assaulted a colleague in his office after locking the door. The Washington Post described now-terminated CBS and PBS news host Charlie Rose’s alleged offenses, which included groping his employees’ breasts and being naked around them, both as “unwanted sexual advances” and “sexual harassment.”
The most popular euphemistic phrase of 2017, however, was by far “sexual misconduct.” The term has become a popular catchall in describing everything from former New York City Ballet Master-in-Chief Peter Martins’s physical abuse of dancers to rape accusations against documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock and the pathological sexual abuse and harassment that Harvey Weinstein has been accused of, not least of which is rape.
In some instances, readers pushed back against such euphemistic language for not properly conveying the horror of what actually occurred. In October, The New York Times published a piece in response, explaining why they use terms like “nonconsexual sex” instead of simply “rape.” “‘Rape’ has a strong association with the criminal justice system,” editor Ian Tronz wrote. He said that the Times did not use the word “rape” in a story about sexual assault on college campuses because it dealt with instances that were “often not being handled in criminal court.” In November NPR, which saw many of its executives — including its top editor Michael Oreskes — axed because of sexual harassment allegations, published a critique of its own usage of “sexual misconduct.” “NPR has used it quite a bit. Perhaps too much; it’s a convenient catchall, but it means different things to different people,” wrote ombudsperson Elizabeth Jensen of the phrase.
The appeal of the term “sexual misconduct” lies in its numbing vagueness.
Perhaps the last time “sexual misconduct” was so ubiquitous in American media was 20 years ago, when news first broke of then-President Bill Clinton’s past affair with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky. The news brought to light previous accusations of rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment against Clinton that are still largely categorized as “sexual misconduct.” Similar to how interest in the phrase rose at the end of 2017, a look at the Times archives reveals the phrase — which appears in the publication as early as 1946 — became more frequently used in the ‘90s, particularly in 1998, the year Clinton was impeached by the House of Representatives and subsequently acquitted by the Senate.
The appeal of the term “sexual misconduct” lies in its numbing vagueness. Considering how often the phrase is used in relation to rich and powerful offenders, it’s no wonder outlets wary of libel lawsuits in a post-Thiel vs. Gawker world deploy “sexual misconduct” in lieu of terminology that more acutely gets to the heart of sexual violence. “I think it’s being used precisely because it has no legal term,” employment lawyer Michael Goettig told The Outline. “If we look at a phrase like ‘sexual harassment,’ that carries a specific definition as defined by case law, and that definition might change depending upon whether we’re talking about federal or state or local laws. Be that as it may, that phrase “sexual harassment” has a generally agreed upon definition in the context of conduct in the workplace. Some of what you’re seeing in the media with these news stories doesn’t necessarily take place in the workplace, so that term ‘sexual harassment’ may not be an accurate description of what’s occurring or what’s alleged to have occurred.”
In articles describing sexual assault and harassment, the disconnect between publications and their readers lies in the legal considerations outlets must always keep in mind versus language that doesn’t necessarily have legal implications for the average person. For example, many people, especially women, intimately know the experience of telling someone they have been raped or being told by a friend that someone has raped them. In face-to-face conversations, hearing a friend tell you “I was raped” almost never means “I pursued and won justice against someone who can now legally be referred to as a rapist because they were found guilty in a court of law.” But in news in print and online, the status of “rape” as a legal term eclipses its meaning as a violent sexual act in itself.
It’s not that this outclassing is wrong — news outlets have a duty to be careful and specific in their reporting and, indeed, have a right to protect themselves the types of impreciseness that would lead to their destruction. Rather, the proliferation of “sexual misconduct” reveals how a timidity to call a spade a spade — or a rape a rape — can so easily lead to habits that effectively serve to diminish acts of physical and psychological violence with the sterility of legal language. This is often recognized by editors far too late. In the Times article mentioned above, editor Rebecca Corbett, who was part of the editorial team that worked on a story about Weinstein’s “casting-couch abuses”, wrote: “in retrospect, it would have been better to use the term ‘rape’ at least once.”
The news can only go so far in conveying the seriousness and devastation of acts of sexual violence. “Sexual misconduct” is a convenient term to use in stories about crummy people who prey on others in various crummy ways. And while the phrase is not a guarantee against libel lawsuits, it’s thought to be safer and easier way of saying, “Harvey Weinstein, disgusting rapist piece of shit, finally got caught after all these years.” But it’s not necessarily better for anyone except those who deserve protection the least.