NBC fired former Today show host Matt Lauer on Wednesday for what its initial statement called “inappropriate sexual behavior in the workplace.” Recent reports about Louis C.K., Roy Moore, and Al Franken refer to “sexual misconduct.”
“Inappropriate sexual behavior” and “sexual misconduct” don’t even come close to precisely describing the accusations against these men. We need to realize that tiptoeing around precise language when describing criminal sexual acts doesn’t just shirk responsibility, it perpetuates the problem.
The allegations against Lauer, to start, go far beyond the umbrella term of sexual misconduct. He’s been accused of exposing himself, initiating unwanted sexual advances, engaging in unwanted sexually explicit conversations, gifting sex toys to colleagues, and installing a secret button under his desk that allowed him to lock his door from the inside. (Lauer has apologized for his actions, though has denied some of the accusations.)
These actions cannot be explained by mere sexual proclivities, or “boys being boys.” They aren’t simply instances of a man doing something wrong because he didn’t know better.
They are criminal acts perpetrated primarily, though not exclusively, against girls and women who have to spend years afterward keeping their secrets quiet, hoping that eventually someone will help them find the words to describe the injustices they’ve suffered.
“Sexual misconduct”—unlike direct phrases like “sexual harassment,” “sexual assault,” or “rape”—encompasses a lot of actions and specifies none. Misconduct is a safer phrase to use, particularly when the accused are presumed innocent until proven guilty. It’s more reminiscent of a child being noisy in a classroom than of a terrifying, dangerous, and life-altering experience for a woman.
When a victim has, against her will, seen the penis of her male colleague, boss, or another powerful male in the industry she works in, she’s the victim of indecent exposure and sexual harassment. When a victim has been forced to repeatedly endure unwanted conversation, unwanted compliments, and unwanted touch, she is the victim of sexual harassment. When a victim has been unwillingly touched, groped, or fondled—anything aside from being penetrated—she’s the victim of assault. And the moment she has been penetrated by any body part or object without her explicit consent, she’s been raped.
Saying that Matt Lauer is accused of rape, sexual assault, sexual harassment, and indecent exposure is a lot more chilling and powerful than saying he’s accused of sexual misconduct.
Language gives us strength. Women of late are speaking up more loudly than ever before about the experiences they’ve had with men who have abused their privilege and their power. Now it’s time for the media to make sure it’s using precise, descriptive language to help those women continue to raise their voices.
In the #MeToo moment, we need the language of the victims, not the accused, to ring out with deafening force. That’s the only way we can begin to turn the conversation from “Which famous man is it today?” to “What kind of man, famous or not, would ever do that?”