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Since October 2017 when the movie producer, Harvey Weinstein, was accused of multiple acts of rape and sexual violence in the US and in the UK, the term “sexual misconduct” has been constantly in the news. At the last count, the number of women who have spoken up, and denounced Weinstein has risen to 82.

During this time, several legal terms assigned to sexual have been used by journalists, whose meanings seem to overlap; sexual abuse, sexual assault, sexual harassment and sexual misconduct.

According to Wikipedia, sexual misconduct comprises all of the above, and it is defined as any conduct of a sexual nature that is without consent, or has the effect of threatening or intimidating the person against whom such conduct is directed. Wikipedia does not mention when this broad term was first created nor if there are any exceptions. I was wondering if the following case could be an exception.

On January 2nd, 2018, the American senator of Minnesota, Al Franken, will resign from the Senate due to accusations of sexual misconduct by eight women. The first of the eight accusations–and the most damning– was a photo showing the then-comedian Franken pretending (there was no actual physical contact) to grope a woman's breasts while she was sleeping. The photo was taken in 2006.

I wonder if he had drawn a moustache on her face, or duct-taped her and a man to their seats, would the term sexual misconduct still have been used? I have a feeling it would have. Although I would classify these pranks as being childish; disrespectful and potentially humiliating for the victims involved, somehow the term “misconduct” seems to be used ubiquitously and has recently earned darker and more sinister overtones.

For elucidation I searched on Etymonline, while the entry for misconduct is brief and to the point, the dictionary completely fails to mention its related expression, sexual misconduct

1710, "bad management, neglect;" see mis- + conduct (n.). Meaning "wrong conduct" is attested from 1729.

  • What is the current meaning and history of the term sexual misconduct? Is its meaning changing in light of recent events?

  • Did this phrase originate in the UK or in the US?

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    I have to downvote this question for lack of clarity and, in my opinion, at least the appearance of making some kind of charged statement about the subject matter. You may not actually be making any kind of deliberate statement, but the way you've written extensively about the details of the accusations and events will attract attention to those details, rather than the question. There's nothing inherently wrong with that discussion (in fact I'm glad it's happened), but it's a thing for reddit, not stackexchange. – Aiken Drum Dec 30 '17 at 0:34
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    @Mari-LouA - I would respond that there is a lot in your request that is immaterial to the question. For instance, noting the year the photo of Franken was taken. As a reader, I feel overwhelmed by what you are calling "context and research" and actually find it somewhat difficult to see what you are actually asking. You haven't even indicated the nature of your question in the title, choosing instead to talk about the nature of the past year. – Aiken Drum Dec 30 '17 at 1:46
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    In fact, if I were to take the actual question, "What is the history of the term sexual misconduct? Did it originate in the UK or in the US?", I would have a hard time seeing where any of your research or context actually relates to it. The vast majority of your exposition speaks about current events and your personal impression of the term, but there is no indication that you've actually looked for historical occurrences yourself, which is supposedly the meat of your question. This feels more like you are questioning the use of the label than you are asking for its history. – Aiken Drum Dec 30 '17 at 1:59
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    As noted in this article: “* In the world of Hollywood, meanwhile, Matt Damon took a beating on social media last week for trying to place misbehavior on a “spectrum” of gravity. “There’s a difference between, you know, patting someone on the butt and rape or child molestation, right?” he said to ABC’s Peter Travers. “Both of those behaviors need to be confronted and eradicated without question, but they shouldn’t be conflated, right?” Actress Alyssa Milano and others quickly pushed back with a frustrated tweet that all forms of sexual misconduct “hurt*.” ./. – user067531 Dec 30 '17 at 13:40
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    Part of the challenge in getting a handle on these scandals is that a cultural shift has occurred.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/12/… – user067531 Dec 30 '17 at 13:41
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This answer may be downvoted for being overly speculative, but I will try to back it up with sources when possible.

It seems to me that sexual misconduct in its modern use is a term deliberately adopted by the legal and media communities because of its broad scope, which can encompass non-criminal but potentially "civil" legal acts such as adultery, which can be a legal factor in divorce proceedings, extending all the way to criminal violations as heinous as rape.

The earliest print use I found in newspaper archives was in The London Times, in a discussion on divorce and the various forms of misconduct that could be considered in a divorce proceeding. The article takes a very religious, conservative perspective, and describes sexual misconduct as part of this list of civil "misconducts."

This passage is not easy to follow; it essentially discusses case law regarding whether adultery can be considered under divorce proceedings as a form of misconduct if the partner also committed adultery afterward, and discusses factors of neglect, cohabitation, abuse, and rape, in a lengthy legalese piece.

I think that the reason why, in former times at any rate, the character of some kinds of sexual misconduct on the part of the respondent would have been held to justify the exercise of discretion, and the allowance of a divorce, in favour of a guilty petitioner, was that it rendered the assumption of cohabitation, which the law regarded as the necessary consequence of refusal of a degree, impossible.

The article uses the word "misconduct" 19 times and "sexual misconduct" twice, in both cases referring to adultery, and in all cases referring to civil law, though criminal acts are discussed.


This brings me to my main point...

...which is that sexual misconduct is both broad and euphemistic.

I call it "broad" because "sexual misconduct" can include anything from adultery to unwanted requests for dates from a boss to violent rape. All of these are aspects of a larger social problem that the public and media are beginning to focus on seriously.

Consider the comedian Louis C.K. who has been accused of exposing himself to women, or Minnesota Sen. Al Franken who has been accused of groping and unwanted kissing. Now consider Roy Moore who has been accused of making sexual advances with underage girls. Now consider Harvey Weinstein whose alleged offenses have reached the level of rape. Even U.S. President Donald Trump has a legal history of allegedly raping his own wife, but this is usually wrapped into that broad umbrella "sexual misconduct," alongside his other alleged offenses that also include unwanted kissing, groping and sexual advances.

Now, the media is trying to cover a social movement that encompasses accusations that span across this spectrum of offenses and civil misbehaviors. To describe the social movement that is arising around the accusations in a broad way, the term sexual misconduct serves well, in that it does not imply a criminal act as violation might, but it also does not have the potential for being misleadingly benign, like sexual harassment might.

I also call it euphemistic because "sexual misconduct" is often used in circumstances where the speaker or writer is uncomfortable making a more specific, more shocking and potentially defamatory statement about a person's actions. For instance, while there is substantial evidence that Harvey Weinstein and Donald Trump have committed rape, saying so is risky for journalists, legal experts, analysts, and anyone else in a position of authority because the accusation is perceived as one of the most heinous in all of society.

Hence, while many of the perpetrators in the news today could be said to have committed sexual assault or rape, "a discussion on sexual misconduct" could mean discussing systemic rape culture or it could mean talking about appropriate behavior in the workplace. It's a catch-all that's useful for discussion in the context of a social movement where there is a broad range of "misconduct."

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