The phrases “sexual misconduct” and “inappropriate behavior” condense the spectrum of sexual violence.

Matt Damon got heat for using the term “spectrum” of sexual “misconduct.” Here’s the deal. He’s right. And he’s wrong. Is there a spectrum? Yes. Why is he wrong? Because he tried to use the behavior to minimize and invalidate survivors.

Sexual violence is wrong. No debate. Morally wrong, ethically wrong, criminally wrong, sinfully wrong. It is wrong on any point of the spectrum. Matt Damon’s misuse of the spectrum is exactly why the spectrum exists. Low levels of violence permit higher levels of aggression. Social acceptance and dismissal allows increased violence.

The spectrum of sexual violence shows why language matters, and it shows our cultures set the foundation allowing sexual predators to construct abusive schemes.

The spectrum stands on a foundation of community cultural norms.

Cultural acceptance of lower level sexual violence makes escalating levels of violence possible. There’s a danger in using blanket terms like “sexual misconduct.” The assumption, the connotation, is some inappropriate joke or misjudged flirtation. Intrinsically, we dismiss. The crux of the problem is that excusing small violations of others’ personal autonomy creates wiggle room for mid-level autonomy violations.

Survivors of sexual violence have recently spoken out on the entire range of sexually violent behaviors, making it clear no act of sexual violence is acceptable. This is a ‘reckoning’ of voices setting a nation-wide boundary. Women and men are saying they’re tired of society tolerating sex-based violence.

On the other side, there’s a lot of backlash. Some have even called for prosecuting sexual violence victims for, of all things, their silence! (Insert hand-slapping-forehead emoji.) These people are is stuck on stupid, failing to understand it is our institutions and communities who keep victims in silence, forcing them into unequal social contracts, giving them no power to negotiate the burdensome terms. Victims have been long betrayed by systems set against them. When victims speak, institutions destroy victims and enshroud abusers in protection. Our culture still tells women to shut up and take it. It’s an attitude that says, “I can set boundaries, and I can say what I want, but you can’t.” It’s a culture that “hears no evil, sees no evil, speaks no evil.”

Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Report No Evil: The Case of Kitty Genovese

Remember Kitty Genovese? In 1964, Genovese was stabbed to death outside of her Queens, NY apartment building. There were thirty-seven . . . thirty-eight witnesses . . . who either saw or heard the attack. They did . . . nothing. They said . . . nothing.

The attacker had targeted Genovese, followed her home. He stabbed her twice in the back. Neighbors heard the attack, heard Genovese’s cries. Genovese cried out, “Oh my God, he stabbed me! Help me!” Nothing.

Finally, one man finally screamed for the attacker to leave the girl alone. The attacker had followed Genovese home. He fled the scene when this lone neighbor called out, leaving Genovese lying in the street, bleeding, and wounded. She picked herself up, dragged her wounded body to her building, and tried to get to safety.

No one helped her to safety. No good Samaritans responded to her cries. While she was trying to get inside, the attacker came back. He wasn’t done. He stabbed her again, raped her, stole $49, and left her to fatally wounded, bleeding. Eventually, a neighbor found Genovese in the hallway, and Genovese died in that neighbor’s arms.

A few neighbors had called police, but police, too, were slow to respond. Police found Genovese around an hour later. When asked later why they didn’t intervene sooner, neighbors said they didn’t know it was a real emergency.

This was the case that coined the psychological phenomenon called “bystander effect.” Under this theory, individuals are more hesitant to help victims when multiple people are present. The higher the number of people on scene, the less likely an individual is to intervene. Where bystanders don’t interpret a scene as an emergency, they aren’t likely to do anything. Interesting, but what’s the cause for our withholding support when in larger numbers?

Social influence.

Bystanders mimic the reactions and responses of others. If others think intervention is necessary, bystanders are more likely to do something. If others don’t think intervention is necessary, bystanders won’t either. This “pluralistic ignorance” explains how hidden cultures and the language we use to define sexual violence affects responses to sexual violence disclosures. (Read more about our willful blindness here.)

The bystander explains why it’s dangerous to homogenize all acts of sexual violence under an umbrella of “sexual misconduct.” It also demonstrates why we need to create safe communities for full disclosures. It’s impossible to prescribe the right medication in response when we don’t know the nature of an injury. Well-intended media report incidents to us, the public, as matters of public interest even where gritty details of alleged incidents are publicly unavailable. These are issues of public interest, public safety.

Where we anesthetize language and real experience, bystanders see no emergency. Tragically, this allows bystanders to become apathetic, even angry at those who disclose truth. This allows for tolerance at the lower end on the spectrum of sexual violence, and this allows  bystanders to lash out at victims.

Victims make easy targets, and well-intentioned advocates must be careful not to provide more ammo to the town villagers who’ve already got the guns loaded and locked, ready to take fire.

Underlying the issue is the uneven power dynamic that exists due to community social ladders. Victims, especially those who fear disclosure, are usually those on the lower rungs of the ladder. The higher end of the ladder drives the message–the pluralistic ignorance, the social proof. Apathetic community bystanders, in turn, judge victims harshly.

It doesn’t end there. Tolerance for victim violence begets more tolerance for victim violence.

The social code is embedded in the hidden culture.

Children pick up on adults’ hidden messages. People in these communities who become conditioned to behaviors at the low rend of the spectrum of sexual violence will likely not see an emergency in verbal sexual harassment and personal space violations (e.g., visual ogling of sexual body parts, exhibitionism, and voyeurism, or “peeping tom” behaviors).

The Bystander Effect & Community Responses to Sexual Violence

Watch the following video and reflect on how the bystanders respond to the different distressed individuals. Think about how this relates to the social ladders, uneven power dynamics, and the spectrum of sexual violence. Which end of the social ladder drives the message? This video provides a logical explanation for victim silence. Uncertainty. Will anyone help? Or will I only get hurt more? Now answer these: Is this right and who is to blame?


Change is superficial until communities become more aware of their own ‘pluralistic ignorance.’

Pluralistic ignorance helps explain the bystander effect. According to the theory, it is caused by the underlying structure of the social network. Pluralistic ignorance is thought to be blamed for social ills like racial segregation in the South. Under the theory, while many privately disagree with some abnormal “norm,” no one says or does anything because each person (wrongly) believes everyone else accepts it. The accepters, in reality, are few. The dissenters submit to the false norm.

This is what happens when a few community members loudly attack victims. The majority, disagreeing with such behaviors, stay silent. Bystander apathy sets in. Victims are isolated, alone, and made to feel it’s just not that big of a deal.

Where young people see their community members attack, discredit, and/or silence other victims for coming forward, their community’s attitudes will compel their silence, too, whether the young onlooker is a bystander to abuse or another victim. 

The damage is deep.

Victims are in a lose-lose situation.

They don’t want to be shred apart, called unreasonable, hysterical, or overly sensitive. (What reasonable person would?) Yet, where they see communities label disclosing victims as such, they will take mental note. They will avoid saying too much to overload and offend the populous. As a result, most lower level violations of sexual violence go completely unreported. Only the more pervasive, ongoing patterns compel victims to speak.

Even then, a victim who has been conditioned by unhealthy ‘norms’ will likely downplay what he or she experienced, feeling too ashamed and humiliated to utter the details that will surely “disgust” the public. Because communities with unhealthy ‘norms’ have an initial instinct to attack the messenger, it is often the “messenger” and not the abuser who is treated as “disgusting.”

Where we have entire communities grooming victims to be silent, why would reasonable people ever question a victim’s disclosure timing? It makes perfect sense that, where whole communities helped abusers groom their victims to be silent through their hidden cultures, it would take a social revolution, a cultural shift, and a reset to “right” to break victims’ years-constructed walls of silence.

Euphemisms make sexual violence more palatable, minimizing reality and marginalizing victims.

The Spectrum of Sexual Violence: A Cost v. Benefit Scale

What is the cost-benefit analysis of victim disclosure? It is no judicially-created test, but it is a culturally-created test employed by reasonable victims along all levels of the spectrum of sexual violence. Because of a cultural tendency to blame victims, a victim of sexual violence must, immediately after the act, weigh the cost of disclosing what occurred against the benefit of disclosing.

What drives up the price?

  1. Cultural tolerance to lower levels of sexual violence, thereby increasing likelihood victim will be disbelieved, disparaged, discredited, defamed, blamed. $$$$$
  2. A community structure that places the victim below the offender (thereby disempowering the victim, making the victim easier to dehumanize). Power disadvantages for victims include age (older male v. younger female; societies more readily lash out at teenage-girl victims than any other victim category), position in society (“royalty” v. “commoner”), length of time in community (generational member v. peripheral member), position in company (boss v. subordinate employee). $$$$
  3. High threat of community exposure and low likelihood for anonymity. Level of privacy and personal information sacrificed. $$$$
  4. Risk of losing personal (often primary) relationships. Where children and teens are victims, this may mean risking the only support structures they know. $$$$$

Where there is higher likelihood of disclosure affecting positive change, a victim is more likely to speak out.

What a victim gets for the price?

  1. It is possible (not guaranteed) disclosure may stop continued and escalating sexual violence. The ending of ongoing abuse depends on levels of third-party intervention and costs to the offender. +
  2. Lower personal connections between victim and offender (e.g., a stranger-perpetrated assault versus assault by a known friend, family, community member). ++
  3. Protecting others from harm (siblings, friends, children). ++++
  4. Providing corroboration for other victim accounts (i.e., coming forward to prove an offender’s level of danger by exposing a pattern including multiple victims). +

Whether a victim discloses depends on the degree of the above cost and gain factors. For the average victim, that’s an 18 point cost compared to an 8 point gain–a whopping 225% loss. Not many reasonable people would gamble on those odds.

What about money, justice, or attention (i.e., “five minutes of fame”)?

First, just as the original sexual contact forced upon a victim was unwanted, the rebranding of a person’s identity as “victim” is also unwanted. Given the current social, cultural, and political climate in America, it is highly offensive, injurious, and defamatory to suggest a victim’s disclosure is motivated by some dubious gain. As an accused offender is afforded due process, a victim’s reputation should be afforded due process. Those who would impugn a disclosing victim’s motive should put forth more evidence than empty, uninformed assertions.

To have one’s name permanently attached to sexual violence is a notoriety, a social stigma, a stain, that no victim wants. Are there sociopaths who concoct schemes for malicious means? Yes. Are there some people who fabricate sexual violence accounts? Absolutely. Are most victims liars? No. To suggest they are is illogical, showing a gross misunderstanding of civil and criminal processes. For every 1,000 sexual assaults, only six will be prosecuted.

The justice system does not favor sexual violence victims. Given state laws (e.g., common law rape excluded sodomy; and some state sex-crime statutes still consider twelve-year-old victims “adults”), statutes of limitations, judicial bias, rape kit backlogs, “his word v. her word” attitudes, evidentiary challenges, and the lengths of investigations and trials, the vast majority of reported sexual violence goes unprosecuted and untried.

Cost for Victims High, Cost for Offenders Low

A sexual offender also applies a cost-benefit test when he offends. He weighs the benefit he gains from committing an offense against potential consequences he faces. The same power-dynamic factors creating costs for victims lower costs for offenders. Communities contribute by creating greater risk to victims who speak out than to offenders who abuse. In many cases, the power dynamics (and underlying community attitudes regarding sex, gender, and race) are enough to discredit a less powerful victim. In such situations, operant conditioning (remember Pavlov’s dog?) teaches the offender he will be rewarded for his bad behavior. He learns he can ‘get away with it,’ and so he escalates his sexual violence upon the same and other victims.

Likewise, minimum cost measures are not enough to outweigh many repeat offenders’ power-fueled gains from committing sexual violence. Such measures do little to deter future violence or protect victims. For example, if an offender’s “consequence” is a private prayer, a simple counseling session, or even a more public “altar confession,” followed by quick community reconciliation (and forced reconciliation of the abuser and victim), the offender has little to lose by offending.

The high price for truth forces victims to purchase it on layaway.

The victim and abuser cost-benefit tests explain why victims wait to disclose abuse. Victims lose the moment they become victims. An offender’s choice to target any specific person with sexual violence is an unfortunate hand of fate. What’s more unfortunate, though, is that society is like a 33% interest-rate credit card. When victims do disclose violence they endured, society disregards the receipt paid (trauma suffered) and charges victims’ additional interest. Communities are like Capital One commercials. They’re harassing debt collectors who target victims for offenders’ debts.

The victim cannot afford the steep price of full disclosure, so she often discloses only what she can scrounge up enough pocket change to pay for. Victims have to put the whole truth on lay away. They can redeem it only when they’ve collected enough capital. This is why communities assume a victim to have been “completely silent” until another victim comes out of the woodwork. That’s not usually the case.

The victim most likely did disclose to others during the period proximate abuse, but because of the above cultural and power influences, her voice fell on deaf ears. A cultural shift, a movement up the social ladder, or a complete break from community allows the victim the collateral she needs to redeem and speak truth.

To Combat Evil, We Must Be Willing to Hear & See It

We must speak authentically about real abuse, and report the hard-to-hear, hard-to-see truth. And we must allow victims to freely speak truth so that they may help define the lines of sexual violence (this prevents community justification for violence). When we fail to define the lines, we hoodwink our communities and we hoodwink ourselves.

When we inflate the price of truth, it becomes too tempting to buy a cheaper imitation. We become more likely to buy into an offender’s cleverly-crafted pitch that another person’s passive exhibitionism (“flashing”) was “worse” than the abuser’s own pervasive, non-consensual forced or coerced sexual contact. We allow ourselves to falsely believe an abuser’s conduct was “just” a level three, a one-time “brush,” “grope,” “fondle,” when it was more. We minimize offenders’ conduct as a little “inappropriate” touching. And we miss real danger.

We miss real level FIVE offenses (with some levels two, three, and four conduct thrown in for good measure) that were right under our noses because we were too immersed in our level one cultures to notice.

“We are only as blind as we want to be.”

–Maya Angelou