Definition of Terms

When discussing sexual misconduct and abuse, there are many terms and definitions that schools use. Some people may be hearing or reading them for the first time. And often they include legal jargon. This can make policies ambiguous or confusing. Thus, having a clear set of definitions and terms can help reduce ambiguity. With definitions that are accessible to all, students and community members, everyone has a clear idea of their rights and obligations as a member of the community. In some cases, the definitions in this document include observations based on our work.

A link to the age of consent by state: Statutory Rape: A Guide to State Laws and Reporting Requirements. Sexual Intercourse with Minors

Boundary: Healthy relationships are critical to providing a safe learning environment for students. Defining appropriate lines of behavior for adults and students is essential for establishing and maintaining healthy relationships. Boundaries are physical as well as emotional. Clear boundaries allow for safe relationships. Boundary violations occur when a person trespasses a boundary. (source)

Bullying: “An ongoing and deliberate misuse of power in relationships through repeated verbal, physical and/or social behavior that intends to cause physical, social and/or psychological harm. It can involve an individual or a group misusing their power, or perceived power, over one or more persons who feel unable to stop it from happening.” (source) Bullying can occur in-person as well as online. 

Some examples of bullying include, but are not limited to:

  • Circulating inappropriate or embarrassing photos or videos via email or social media
  • Regularly inappropriately teasing or making someone the brunt of pranks or practical jokes
  • Unwarranted physical contact or threatening gestures

Child sexual abuse: A form of child abuse that includes sexual activity between an adult and a child. This does not need to include physical contact between a perpetrator and a child. This includes but is not limited to:(source)

  • Exhibitionism, or exposing oneself to a child
  • Masturbation in the presence of a child or forcing the child to masturbate
  • Producing, owning, or sharing pornographic images or movies of children
  • Obscene phone calls, text messages, or digital interaction
  • Intercourse
  • Fondling
  • Oral sex

Complainant: According to Title IX, a person who makes a formal complaint in a court of law that they have been harmed by someone else. We recommend that “reporting party” be used instead of “complainant” in order to avoid any negative connotations of the individual seeking help.

Consent (as it relates to sexual activity): An agreement given between participants to engage in sexual activity. Consent facilitates respect and communication between individuals as they make decisions together. The legal age of consent varies from state to state. We at Learning Courage recognize that sexual activity may occur among students under the age of consent however, it is still important for consent to be given and maintained during sexual activity. Consent can be withdrawn at any point during the activity. Consent to perform one sexual activity does not mean that consent has been given for another sexual activity. Consent cannot be given if a person is incapacitated and it cannot be gained through force. Silence does not indicate consent has been given. Consent is a complex topic; In fact, we believe that a lack of understanding of the practical application of consent is where the majority of abuse and misconduct occurs. Therefore, we believe that there should ongoing training, workshopping, and visual reminders in shared spaces throughout the year on consent with students.

Consent can be:(source)

  • Communicating when you change the type or degree of sexual activity with phrases like “Is this OK?”
  • Explicitly agreeing to certain activities, either by saying “yes” or another affirmative statement, like “I’m open to trying.”
  • Using physical cues to let the other person know you’re comfortable taking things to the next level

RAINN’s law generator highlights the Consent Laws for each state and what constitutes as consent (Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network)

Dating violence: “Dating violence is a pattern of assaultive and controlling behaviors that one person uses against another in order to gain or maintain power and control in the relationship.” (source) Any person, regardless of their gender, sexual orientation, religion, race, or ethnicity can experience dating violence. Dating violence can occur in both serious and casual relationships. This can include physical abuse, emotional abuse, and electronic abuse (such as posting private pictures sent by a partner).

Domestic violence: Domestic violence is abuse that occurs within the home. Domestic violence can occur to anyone, regardless of their age, gender, or sexual orientation. It includes physical, verbal, and emotional abuse. 

Faculty and Staff: Any and all people employed by the school. 

Force: Doesn’t always refer to physical pressure. Perpetrators may use emotional coercion, psychological force, or manipulation to coerce a victim into non-consensual sex. Some perpetrators will use threats to force a victim to comply, such as threatening to hurt the victim or their family or other intimidation tactics. (source)

Gender: Noun that can be usefully divided into two separate concepts. First, gender identity describes a person’s own internal—and often deeply held—a sense of their gender. Many people have a gender identity of “man” or “woman” (or “boy” or “girl”), but for many others, their gender identity does not fit neatly into one of those two categories. Second, gender expression describes external manifestations of gender, including behavior, name, preferred pronouns, clothing, hairstyle, voice, and/or body characteristics. Society identifies these cues as masculine and feminine, although what is considered masculine and feminine changes over time and varies by culture. Gender expression should not be viewed as an indication of sexual orientation.

Gender-based harassment: Gender-based harassment is harassment based on one’s gender. It does not involve explicit sexual behavior, but includes epithets, slurs, and negative stereotyping of a person based on their gender identity/expression or because they do not conform to stereotypical norms of femininity or masculinity. Transgender and gender non-conforming individuals are protected from gender-based harassment under Title IX.

Grooming: “Grooming is when someone builds a relationship, trust, and emotional connection with a child or young person so they can manipulate, exploit and abuse them.” (source) Grooming can be done by any individual, regardless of age, class, or gender. Grooming can occur over the internet as well as in person. It involves an adult attempting to gain the trust of a child with the goal of sexual abuse. See “Signs and Symptoms of Abuse” for additional information.

Harassment: Unwelcome conduct or behavior that is personally offensive or threatening and that has the effect of impairing morale, interfering with a person’s work performance, or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive educational environment. There are many forms of harassment including but not limited to sexual, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, race, color, religion, national origin to name a few. Harassment can occur between two individuals or groups of individuals and can occur via any medium of communication – for example and without limitation, verbal, written, email, text messages, and postings on the Internet or social media (whether anonymous or authored). Forms of harassment include, but are not limited to, written and oral remarks. The target of the harassment determines whether they feel harassed.  Harassment is not determined by the responding party’s intent. 

Hazing: “Any action taken or any situation created intentionally that causes embarrassment, harassment or ridicule and risks emotional and/or physical harm to members of a group or team, whether new or not, regardless of the person’s willingness to participate,”(source) It may commonly occur when joining a new team (such as a sports team, honor society, or Greek life)

Some examples of hazing include, but are not limited to:

  • Forced or required consumption of alcohol
  • Requirement to eat spicy foods, other substances
  • Requirement to endure hardships such as staying awake, menial tasks, physical labor, running while blindfolded, etc.
  • Beatings, paddling, or other physical acts against new or potential members

Hazing legislation varies by state. State Laws 

Hook-up culture: A culture that accepts or encourages individuals to engage in uncommitted sexual activity. Hook-up culture can contribute to social pressure for sex and impact understanding of consensual behavior.

Hostile work environment: Creating a work environment that a reasonable person would find hostile, abusive, or intimidating. Offensive conduct includes offensive jokes, sexually-suggestive pictures, and slurs. (source)

Immunity: Students who may have violated other school policies during an incident of sexual misconduct or abuse may be hesitant to report the incident. With immunity policies, students are given immunity for school policy violations when reporting sexual misconduct or abuse incidents. This practice encourages individuals to report sexual misconduct or abuse without fear of formal discipline for school policy violations. At Learning Courage, we believe that policies that support reporting are best practices.

Incapacitation: The inability, temporarily or permanently, to give consent because the individual is mentally and/or physically helpless, asleep, unconscious, or unaware that sexual activity is occurring. Incapacitation may result from the use of alcohol and/or drugs. (source) Consent cannot be given if a person is incapacitated.

Incest: Sexual relations between unmarried family members (cousins, parent-child, siblings, step-siblings, aunts/uncles, etc.)

Intimidation: Unlawfully placing another person in reasonable fear of bodily/emotional harm through the use of threatening words and/or other conduct, but without displaying a weapon or subjecting the victim to actual physical attack

Mandatory Reporting: “A mandated reporter is an adult who is required by law to report to law enforcement or child protective services when they think that a minor or other vulnerable person may be experiencing abuse.” (source) At Learning Courage, we believe that all members of your school community must understand what is meant by mandatory reporters and the implications of sexual abuse and misconduct disclosure to mandated reporters. Refer to the decision tree in “Sexual Misconduct Policies and Procedures.

Mandated reporters differ by state. RAINN has a law report generator to find out who is a mandatory reporter and for what: Mandated Reporter

Mediation: An attempt to resolve a dispute or conflict through the participation of a third party; the reporting party has the opportunity to share their experience and the responding party can attempt to repair harm. See also “Restorative Justice.

Neglect: Failure to protect a child from exposure to any kind of danger or extreme failure to carry out important aspects of care, resulting in the significant impairment of the child’s health and development.  Neglect can take many forms.  It can be both physical and emotional and includes failure to provide access to things known to be essential for healthy human development.

Non-consensual sexual contact: Any intentional sexual touching, however slight, with any object, by a person or people upon another person or people, that is without consent and/or is by force.  One easy way to help people of all ages understand consent is to show the short video, “Tea and Consent,” which uses tea as a replacement for sex.

Online sexual abuse or misconduct: “When one person manipulates another person to get them to do something sexual — it’s an ongoing cycle of emotional and psychological abuse. This can include things such as forcing or blackmailing someone into to sending sexual photos/videos of themselves online or to perform sexual acts over webcam.”(source) Not only does this have the potential to create emotional and psychological harm for the victim, but the online transfer of sexually explicit photos of minors is considered child pornography and can lead to serious legal consequences. See also “Sexting

Perpetrator: An individual who is accused of or has been convicted of committing an illegal act. Learning Courage uses the term “Responding Party” instead of perpetrator, particularly before there is a finding in the case.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): A psychological disorder that emerges after a traumatic event like a car accident, natural disaster, combat, or sexual assault. This can come with symptoms such as nightmares, flashbacks, inability to concentrate, memory loss, and feelings of hopelessness. (source) PTSD creates impairment that makes those who suffer from it 3-5 times more likely to suffer from depressive episodes.  Also, 46.4% of those suffering from PTSD meet the criteria for substance use disorder. (source

Power dynamics: The level of power that members of a community/organization possess relative to each other and how those levels influence their interactions. Power dynamics are often thought of in terms of age or hierarchy.  These dynamics can also include financial power and physical prowess in sports. 

Quid pro quo harassment: “This occurs when a job benefit is directly tied to an employee submitting to unwelcome sexual advances. For example, a supervisor promises an employee a raise if she will go out on a date with him, or tells an employee she will be fired if she doesn't sleep with him.”(source) An example of this type of harassment in a school can include a teacher asking for a sexual favor from a student in exchange for a date with the student.

Rape: “The penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.”(source) Rape can happen to people of all ages, genders, races, ethnicities, abilities, and sexual orientations. This legal definition is often not understood without training.  Teens, for example, are most likely to think of rape exclusively as vaginal or anal intercourse.  This broader definition is essential for everyone in the community to know given the implications for both the reporting and responding parties.

Reparations: When addressing historical sexual misconduct or abuse, the school may decide to provide support to survivors in the form of funded therapy, mental health services, and compensation.  We believe that all schools need a plan for reparations. This enables those responding to reports to inform individuals of the options.  This proactive approach also demonstrates to the individual that there are ways available to support their healing.  We also see a direct relationship between the willingness to provide reparations and the cost and time required to respond to incidents.  When survivors feel they are being supported and cared for, they are able to focus more on their healing than on holding the institution accountable. 

Reporting party: Any person who chooses to file a complaint about alleged sexual misconduct or abuse and/or a violation of school policy. Some organizations use the word “complainant.” We believe that “reporting party” is more neutral terminology and more appropriate where appropriate.

Respondent: A term used in Title IX regulations, the party against whom a petition is filed, especially one on appeal. (source) See “Responding party”

Responding party: Any person accused of sexual misconduct or abuse and/or a violation of school policy. Some organizations use the word “the accused” or “perpetrator”. We believe that “responding party” is more neutral terminology and more appropriate where appropriate.

Restorative justice: A process by which the community, offender, and victim come together in an attempt to repair the damage done by a crime; it is intended to empower victims as well as heal harm done to communities by an offense(source) Restorative Justice does not replace investigations and findings or eliminate consequences for those who committed harm.  See also “Mediation

Retaliation: An act meant to punish, intimidate, harass or bully a person for making a report of sexual misconduct or discrimination or providing information during a sexual misconduct and abuse investigation. Retaliation is unlawful and will be subject to discipline by the school.

Retraumatization: Retraumatization can occur to anyone who has experienced a traumatic event. It occurs when a person is reminded of or re-experiences a traumatic event. Retraumatization can be mitigated by trauma-informed care.

Retraumatization can be caused by:(source)

  • Having to continually retell their story
  • Procedures that require disrobing 
  • Not being seen/heard
  • Failure to ensure emotional safety

Sexting: Sending and/or receiving sexual messages through technology such as a phone, app, email, or webcam. Sexting can involve words, pictures (sometimes called “nudes”), and videos. (source) See also “Online sexual abuse or misconduct.

Sex trafficking: Modern-day form of slavery in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such an act is under the age of 18 years. Trafficking does not have to involve the transport of an individual, it can occur within a community or even within a school. (source)

Sexual abuse: Unwanted sexual activity, with perpetrators using force, making threats, or taking advantage of victims not able to give consent(source)

Sexual assault: “The term sexual assault refers to sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the victim. Some forms of sexual assault include but are not limited to:”(source)

  • Attempted rape
  • Fondling or unwanted sexual touching, even through clothing
  • Forcing a victim to perform sexual acts, such as oral sex or penetrating the perpetrator’s body
  • Penetration of the victim’s body, also known as rape

Sexual assault can affect people of all genders, sexual orientations, races, ethnicities, abilities, and ages.

Sexual coercion: Unwanted sexual activity that happens after being pressured in nonphysical ways. Anyone, including family members, strangers, friends, and dates can use coercion. Consent cannot be given under coercion. Some examples of sexual coercion include, but are not limited to:(source)

  • Wearing you down by asking for sex again and again or making you feel bad, guilty, or obligated
  • Telling you that not having sex will hurt your relationship
  • Lying or threatening to spread rumors about you

Sexual exploitation: “An act or acts committed through non-consensual abuse or exploitation of another person’s sexuality for the purpose of sexual gratification, financial gain, personal benefit or advantage, or any other non-legitimate purpose.”(source) Some examples of sexual exploitation include but are not limited to:

  • “Observing another individual’s nudity or sexual activity or allowing another to observe consensual sexual activity without the knowledge and consent of all parties involved
  • Non-consensual streaming of images, photography, video, or audio recording of sexual activity or nudity, or distribution of such without the knowledge and consent of all parties involved
  • Prostituting another individual
  • Inducing incapacitation for the purpose of making another person vulnerable to non-consensual sexual activity.”

Sexual harassment: A form of sex discrimination that involves any unwelcome conduct, physical or verbal, of a sexual nature, including acts of misconduct based on gender identity or sexual orientation. This can include but is not limited to:(source)

  • Making conditions of employment or advancement dependent on sexual favors, either explicitly or implicitly.
  • Physical acts of sexual assault.
  • Verbal harassment of a sexual nature, including jokes referring to sexual acts or sexual orientation.

Sexual misconduct: “A broad term encompassing any unwelcome behavior of a sexual nature that is committed without consent or by force, intimidation, coercion, or manipulation. Sexual misconduct can be committed by a person of any gender, and it can occur between people of the same or different gender.”(source) Similar to the term “sexual violence.” At Learning Courage, we use “sexual misconduct and/or abuse” to recognize the range in severity of harm. 

Sexual violence: An all-encompassing umbrella term referring to crimes such as sexual assault, rape, or harassment. (source) 

Stalking: Involves repeated victimization of the targeted individual, this can be criminal as well as non-criminal behavior targeted towards an individual. Some examples of stalking include but are not limited to:(source)

  • Following the victim
  • Sending the victim cards or gifts
  • Annoying phone calls or other forms of harassment
  • Leaving telephone, text, e-mail, or hand-written messages for the victim
  • Sending the victim photographs of him or her taken without consent and/or knowledge

Statutory rape: Sexual intercourse with an individual under the legal age of consent; this age varies by state(source). See “Age of consent.”

Survivor: Someone who has, or is, going through the process of recovery after being affected by sexual violence. (source) At Learning Courage, we often use “victim” and “survivor” together to acknowledge that some people prefer one over the other. We believe that “survivor” is more empowering for the individual who has been harmed.

Title IX: Title IX is a federal civil rights law that states: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”(source) 

Title IX guidance requires every educational institution receiving federal funding to have a Title IX Coordinator, who ensures that the school is meeting Title IX regulations. For more information, see “Title IX Information.”

Trauma: A psychological, emotional response to an event or an experience that is deeply distressing or disturbing. Trauma can occur after a person has experienced an event that threatened their security or life. A person who has experienced trauma may experience anxiety, confusing emotions, and/or feel disconnected from others. (source)

Trauma-informed care: Recognizing that the person may have experienced trauma (including physical, sexual, and/or emotional abuse) and responding with empathy and compassion towards that person while providing care or support. This can help to avoid unintentional retraumatization and better help the person in their healing process. (source) See “Retraumatization.”

Trusted adult: An adult who young people and children may go to for help and support.  These individuals serve a critical role in supporting students through challenging circumstances.  However, there may be a difference between an adult who is trusted and an adult who is trained in how to respond appropriately.  This is one of the main reasons why Learning Courage advocates for those most likely to receive reports be appropriately trained and all others to receive at least a baseline of training in trauma response and mandated reporting.  

Victim: Someone who has recently been affected by sexual violence. According to the “RAINN” website, the terms “victim” and “survivor” are often both applicable to a person. “Victim” is used more “when discussing a particular crime or when referring to aspects of the criminal justice system.” If it’s unclear whether someone should be referred to as a victim or a survivor, often the best thing to do is to ask for their preference.  At Learning Courage, we use “survivor” more than “victim” because we believe it’s more empowering for the individual.  We also use “victim/survivor” when referring to the criminal justice system.  

Voice: Often used in the context of loss, as in having lost one’s voice for self-advocacy and an overall loss of individual power. This translates beyond intimate and sexual relationships and can have a lifelong impact on those who have been victimized.  The loss of voice in the context of sexual abuse typically refers to the figurative loss of voice rather than actually being unable to speak.  However, the freeze response that some who are assaulted experience may also feel incapacitated and unable to speak at the time.

Voyeurism: Observing an unsuspecting person while they undress, are naked, or engage in sexual activities while that person has a reasonable expectation of privacy. 

Twelve states specifically outline penalties for voyeurism. See here for more information.


RAINN: RAINN | The nation's largest anti-sexual violence organization

Information about Trauma-informed care: What is Trauma-Informed Care? - University at Buffalo School of Social Work

Information about Trauma: What is Trauma

Stalking information: Definition of Stalking — Judicial Education Center

Sexual exploitation information: What is Sexual Exploitation? :: SHARE

Workplace harassment: Harassment | US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

National Center Against Bullying: Definition Of Bullying


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