By Jane Randel

This Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM) is like no other. That’s because sexual assault and sexual harassment are front and center in ways they have never been before. Now that we are more open about these issues, however, there is a new challenge on the horizon around the language we use to talk about sexual assault and sexual harassment.

Take sexual harassment for example. People often use the same words to “name” it, but the words means different things legally vs. in everyday parlance.

Legally, sexual harassment refers to a workplace and consists of:

“…unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature. Harassment does not have to be of a sexual nature, however, and can include offensive remarks about a person’s sex… harassment is illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment decision (such as the victim being fired or demoted).”*

It’s now also used colloquially to include unequal pay for equal work.

But many people use sexual harassment to describe experiences outside the workplace, too, from an unwanted advance at a bar to a “cat call” on the street to an inappropriate touch on the bus to enduring so called “locker room” talk nowhere near a locker room.

Should we be correcting or even worse disregarding them because technically it’s NOT sexual harassment if it’s not taking place in a work environment?

People who have experienced sexual assault or harassment don’t think in legal terms. They think about their reality. Even if there’s no means nor desire to punish, prosecute or legislate against all bad behavior, they still want and deserve to be heard and taken seriously.

Some companies and communities that have been trained to think about sexual harassment in the strict legal definition have struggled to navigate this new terrain where the term has taken on a more all-encompassing meaning. As a result, the experiences of those who come forward with stories that fall outside that well-defined “sexual harassment box” run the risk of not being validated.

#MeToo, TIME’S UP, NO MORE and others have been amplifying the voices of advocates around the country. Nuance is not our strong point as a society, but if we are to make real, lasting change, we have to step out from behind the legal definitions and adopt the language that real people use to describe their very real experiences with these inappropriate behaviors.

If not, we risk slowing, or even stopping, the momentum towards change.