The language found on this page is written by OSAPR staff with the intention of contextualizing terms used in our work.  Many of the terms have complicated, nuanced language in an attempt to provide greater clarity around these issues. Our lives are messy and complex, and there are a multitude of ways to conceptualize an experience of violence, harm or oppression. At OSAPR, it is our philosophy to use current, accurate language, even if it is not what is most familiar.  We do this with an insistence on teaching toward the world we desire to live in.

Definitions from the Harvard policy are explored in depth here.

“There is no thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.”
― Audre Lorde 


Accountability is claiming responsibility, willingly or consequentially, for an act or course of action.  It is frequently misunderstood to mean punishment or that it must be achieved through adjudication.  In cases of sexual violence, accountability is complicated by the severity of consequences (criminal justice, higher education, and social) one may experience with admission of harm to another person. The significance of increasing accountability in cases of sexual violence is the connection to prevention: by individually acknowledging the harm we’ve caused, we are less likely to engage in this behavior again, thereby decreasing the likelihood of future incidents. Common misunderstanding of the spectrum of violence and rape culture leads to a lack of awareness around the many ways harm is actively caused either by attitude or action. Through social change communication, we can transform the culture by addressing the conditions that contribute to rape culture, thereby creating less opportunity for such harm to be normalized and go unchecked. Becoming accountable to oneself, to another person, and to the community is essential to developing a healthy and violence free culture.


Advocacy is the act of providing private or public support for someone. It is a tool employed within systems to effect social, cultural, and/or systemic change.  A professional advocate is trained to identify someone’s unmet needs and support them through the navigation of complex systems to correct an imbalance in access, mobility, and accommodation. Advocates foster collaborative relationships with influential decision makers to ensure that the rights of the person who needs support are upheld. Advocacy happens at all levels of the socio-ecological model; taking action to assist in changing the circumstances contributing to a problem or inequity. 

Bystander Intervention

Bystander Intervention is a social science strategy to prevent violence and oppression through the engagement of individuals (or groups) willing to actively address a situation they deem problematic. We all observe multiple incidents daily, but usually do not acknowledge the situation as needing our response. An active bystander is someone who acknowledges a problematic situation and chooses how to respond. They must decide if they will speak up, step in, or offer assistance. Research has found that people struggle with whether helping out is their responsibility - a concept referred to as diffusion of responsibility. Meaning, if several people are present, an individual is much less likely to help believing someone else will.  In other situations, bystanders may fail to intervene if the situation feels ambiguous and they are worried about misjudging the situation.  Fearing consequences, social stigma, embarrassment, or even a threat to safety, it can be difficult to determine how and when to intervene. In addition, most of us have not grown up in communities where people are constantly confronted on sexist, homophobic, transphobic, racist, and/or misogynistic language and behavior in public or private spaces. Successful bystander intervention programs teach people to overcome their resistance to checking in and helping out. They raise an individual's self efficacy - or, confidence in one's ability to perform the necessary action. 


Coercion is a tool of control that uses pressure or manipulation to ignore or reject the needs of another person. Coercive behavior can include subtle or overt threats, intimidation, blackmail, dishonesty, persistence, emotional withholding, etc. A person’s ability to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’, is necessarily influenced by the interplay of power, identity, and privilege between those involved. In using coercion, a person in a position of power--perceived or actual--leverages that power to achieve their desired outcome.  Someone with power and privilege should never put someone else in a position where they are expected to say yes to sexual activity. Rape culture normalizes the belief that a “yes” achieved through coercion is sufficient consent, allowing for a societal, collective disregard of someone’s autonomy and value in the process. It is not always as obvious as “quid pro quo” - a teacher asks for a sexual favor in exchange for a good grade. Perhaps it’s a flirtation that is flattering at first, but becomes an awkward and uncomfortable advance where saying no could result in social consequence. Regardless of whether consequence is perceived or actual, creating a situation where the party with less power has to say 'yes' is unethical.


Consent is an ongoing physical and emotional process between people who are willing, equally free of coercion, communicating unambiguously, and sincere in their desires. Many people are taught that it is okay to be unsure in a sexual encounter, that it's okay to interpret body language (which is often misinterpreted and then used to victim blame) instead of asking or talking when uncertain. In actuality, consent is a mutual agreement, to listen to and stay engaged with one another throughout all interactions, to respect both yourself and your partners’ needs, and to understand that someone may choose to disengage from the experience at any time. You want to know, without a doubt, they are excited to engage with you in whatever activities you agree upon, regardless of whether the experience is amazing or mediocre and that may include both verbal and nonverbal cues. Many factors influence how consent is given and received including power dynamics or alcohol consumption. It is the responsibility of all parties to receive consent from their partner(s).  

To review the University's definition of Unwelcome Conduct, please see below.


Gender-based Violence

Gender-based Violence is used to encompass incidents of sexual and relationship violence, specifically drawing attention to the gendered nature of these crimes.  Though no specific gender commits all acts of violence and no specific gender is exclusively subject to acts of violence, women, trans*, and gender nonconforming individuals are disproportionately impacted. Regardless of the gender of persons involved in an incident, most of these actions rely on hegemonic masculinity to perpetuate power and control over the other individual. Misogyny is the undercurrent of violence in a society with gender inequity.

Gender Inequity

Gender Inequity refers to the disparity of power, status, and opportunity among genders in a society.  This dynamic is reinforced through interpersonal interaction at home, in school, and in the workplace, and institutionalized through policies, laws, and systems. Throughout the lifespan, the barrage of messaging results in an internalization of gendered norms and expectations, influencing everything including career choices and the pay-gap, access to and experience of healthcare, and domestic roles and relationships.  We stipulate that gender equity cannot be achieved until it is recognized that there are more than two genders and all genders are afforded equal access, mobility, and value in public and private spaces.

Interpersonal Violence

Interpersonal violence is a pattern of harmful language and/or behaviors that fall on the spectrum of violence used with the intent to maintain control and exert power over others. Commonly understood to occur only between intimate and/or sexual partners, this may also include a household member, family member, friend, roommate, etc. Regardless of the nature of the relationship, abuse may occur in a verbal, emotional, financial, physical, sexual (or any combination) or other contexts.  Other terms may include domestic violence, dating violence, intimate partner violence, and relationship abuse.


Intersectionality is a framework for understanding interrelated cultural patterns of oppression. This approach demands inclusion of the multi-faceted, multi-layered lives and identities into all socio-political narratives - from dominant narratives to those that challenge them. Historically the Western feminist movement has lacked an intersectional lens, amplifying the voices of white, middle-class, cisgender, able-bodied women. Although feminism was meant to confront the patriarchal narrative, by refusing an intersectional approach, it reinforced the marginalization of those whose voices were never included. No social justice or anti-violence movement will be successful without recognizing systemic social inequalities and reframing the narrative to advance equity for all people.


Oppression is how a dominant group of people, joined by a common identity or set of identities, benefits from unequal treatment, manifested in the systematic abuse, exploitation, and injustice directed toward a subordinate group. Oppression is rooted in the historical and continued application of arbitrary value judgments applied to the subordinate group, carried out by those individuals or groups claiming entitlement to power.  The most unyielding obstacles to equality come from institutions created by individuals in power. Without the element of power, one may exercise prejudice, but not oppression. Understanding how oppression manifests in each of these spheres is integral to challenging the system as a whole. Forms of oppression such as racism, ableism, homophobia, and misogyny contextualize acts of gender-based violence, requiring the need for intersectionality.


A perpetrator is someone who has committed an act along the spectrum of violence. Other terms used in administrative, legal, and social settings might include rapist, defendant, accused, abuser, offender, respondent, or, less commonly, stalker, harasser, etc. Survivors have the right to use the language they feel most comfortable with. Because “perpetrator” has negative social connotations, a survivor might prefer the term “person who caused harm” or “someone engaging in harmful behaviors.” These terms still recognize the severity of the acts committed, but perhaps allow for those who have caused harm to own their actions and hold themselves accountable without identifying as “perpetrator”. Challenging the terms “perpetrator” or “rapist” or “abuser” is not meant to undermine the experience, but rather to underscore the lack of language available to conceptualize the incident and its effects that occurred as opposed to the character of the person.

Power-based Violence

Power-based Violence is behavior involving power, control, and coercion used to harm someone else. The term is sometimes used in place of the term “gender-based violence”, but referring to this violence as “power-based” acknowledges that all genders can experience and perpetrate this kind of violence. It is important to understand that the gender dynamics that facilitate violence are, in essence, power dynamics. Implicating power as the root of violence reflects that power underlies gender inequity and discrimination and that gender intersects with other forms of identity and status to form unique matrices of oppression. In addition to gender, power may also be leveraged using socioeconomic status, immigration status, race, ability, class, and professional and educational hierarchies.


Rape is a legal term that is defined in Massachusetts by three elements: penetration of any orifice by any object, force or threat of force, and against the will of the victim. Consent cannot legally be given if a person is incapacitated, underage, mentally challenged, unconscious, or asleep. It is distinguished from sexual assault only in that it requires penetration.

Rape Culture

Rape Culture is the set of deeply entrenched societal attitudes and beliefs that normalize sexual violence. It is demonstrated through media, language, and policy, promoting sexual objectification and coercion, lack of agency over one’s body, and dismissal of feminine-presenting or gender nonconforming individuals as not “fully human.” Rape culture is ubiquitous in representing violence as “sexy”, “alluring” and “hot” - it’s in everything from the magazines we read, the movies we watch, the music we love, to the language we use to talk about sex, and the laws that govern bodies and behavior. Rape culture privileges perceived virginity and sexual purity, reinforcing the idea that violence happens to those who present, live, and act outside of traditional norms. Someone who has experienced sexual violence whose identity is on the margins of mainstream culture is more likely to face additional barriers to disclosing, reporting, seeking treatment, and justice. Rape culture relies on other systems of oppression to perpetuate victim blaming and gender inequity, including hegemonic masculinity and patriarchy.

Sexual Assault

Sexual Assault is a legal term referring to any unwanted sexual contact, such as fondling, groping, or penetration of any orifice by any body part or object.  Sexual Assault is not related to sexual pleasure or gratification, but instead is about the desire (conscious or otherwise) for power and control over another person.

Sexual Harassment

Sexual Harassment is any expression or behavior that can be interpreted to be of a sexual nature and is unwelcome by the recipient. Examples include unwelcome sexual advances or flirting, inappropriate sexual jokes or derogatory language regarding someone’s physical appearance, perceived or actual gender identity or sexual orientation, and acts of sexual assault. In many instances, someone who has experienced harassment may have a difficult time recognizing it because rape culture has normalized sexual objectification to feel commonplace.  It is also complicated by different cultural understandings of gender, sex, and relationships.  The bottom line is, if something makes you uncomfortable, it is worth talking about.

Sexual Objectification

Sexual Objectification is the practice of treating a person as an object to be consumed, placing their worth on their body and appearance. It is a tool of the patriarchy, normalized by rape culture, disproportionately impacting women. Sexual objectification may result in insidious trauma as a result of repeatedly denying an individual their personhood.  This happens when a person is commodified through their body parts (legs, butt, breasts) and determined to be valuable based on their perceived achievement of cultural standards of beauty.  We see many examples of sexual objectification in advertising.  Commercials or print ads that use scantily clad women or a part of their body to sell a product or service - completely unrelated to that body part - such as a burger, vehicle, or alcoholic beverage, are relying on the sexual objectification of women’s bodies to make their product appear sexy.  These images are used to measure the worth and desirability of all women based on how closely they resemble what is represented in media.

Sexual Violence

Sexual Violence is an umbrella term encompassing sexual harassment, stalking, interpersonal violence (commonly referred to as domestic or dating violence), sexual assault and rape.  It is not meant to be used interchangeably with these terms, but rather to signify the connection between acts on the spectrum of violence.

Social-Ecological Model

The Social-Ecological Model (SEM) is a public health strategy for effecting behavior change that requires engagement at the individual, relationship, community, and societal levels. Every level of the SEM shapes the attitudes and behaviors of an individual. For a program to successfully  address each level of influence, messages must be consistent and reinforced at each level.  Practically, this means that media, laws, and interpersonal relationships (be it acquaintance, friendship, or romantic) all share responsibility for impacting our attitudes and behaviors.  You might call out a friend for sexist comments, but if their attitudes have been shaped by family values and reinforced by mainstream media or legislation, that feedback will be seen as inconsistent and is less likely to be impactful. However, if the same person who is called out by their friends is also exposed to media that dispels sexist notions such as body shaming, and is beholden to legislation promoting gender equity, they are more likely to perceive that feedback as positive and beneficial. The messages people receive and internalize directly affect their attitudes and behavior; therefore, OSAPR is committed to working across the social-ecological model to promote gender equity at every sphere of influence.


Stalking is repeated harassment or threatening behavior toward another person. Stalking behaviors may include persistent patterns of sending someone or leaving unwanted items or presents, following or waiting for someone, damaging or threatening to damage property, defaming someone's character, or harassing someone by posting personal information and/or spreading rumors. To an outsider, the stalker's behavior might appear friendly and unthreatening, for example, showering someone with gifts or flattering messages. But, these acts are intrusive and frightening if they are unwelcome. Frequently, harassing behavior escalates into threatening behavior. These threats may be direct or indirect, explicit or implied by the stalker’s conduct.  Like intimate partner violence, stalking behavior is based in power and control. Trusting your instinct can be very beneficial, and help is available if you believe you are being stalked. 


Survivor refers to anyone who has been harmed as a result of gender-based violence and has survived the incident(s). Since language has the ability to help or hinder the healing process, using “survivor” is a hopeful attempt to bring to center the agency and resiliency of those who have experienced a trauma. It is most often used by other survivors, advocates, counselors, and activists who walk with someone as they navigate the after effect of trauma.

OSAPR understands that every person who has been impacted by gender-based violence may not identify with the terms 'survivor' or 'victim.' We make neither assumptions about people’s experiences or identities nor judgments about how someone holds those things or where they are in the ebb and flow of the healing process. Above all, we respect how folks choose to talk about and name their experiences - if at all.

"I don’t know what to call myself these days. Victim/survivor feels inadequate. I want new language. I want new structures and systems and institutions that affirm and support vulnerability, instability, and anger." - Dana Bolger, “Hurry Up and Heal”: Pain, Productivity, and the Inadequacy of ‘Victim’ vs. ‘Survivor’, December 10, 2014.

Transformative Justice

Transformative Justice is a model seeking to alleviate harm as an alternative to the criminal justice system.  It attempts to account for the experiences of both victim and perpetrator, as well as the communities where harm occurred.  It is a response that understands violence as symptomatic of structural injustice while holding individuals accountable and helping communities heal. Transformative justice differs from restorative justice in its aim to educate all parties as to why harm occurred.  The model hopes that through education, communities and individuals are motivated to recognize wrong-doing and holistically work toward restitution and nonviolence.


Trauma can be described as a normal response to an emotionally harmful incident or series of incidents experienced by a person or community.  Most frequently we associate trauma with a specific event, but it is equally important to consider the emotional impact of systemic oppression on the lives of individuals and communities.  It is not the incident itself but the experience of circumstances that determines trauma.  What one person experiences as traumatic may have relatively low or no impact on someone else. Natural coping mechanisms are overwhelmed during and after the experience(s) and as a result, trauma induces short-term ramifications such as heightened fear, anxiety, or shock. Additionally, trauma may have lasting adverse effects on complete health and wellness resulting, for an individual, in possible social isolation, physical pain, depression, or a change in sexual behavior; for communities it may result in a distrust of outsiders or authorities, cyclical violence, or poverty.


Trauma-informed refers to provision of service centered on the understanding that trauma may be the result of many things, not all of which are obvious or visible, and can happen to anyone.  It is a holistic approach that considers the historical and cultural context of how trauma occurs, and attempts to address the needs and wishes of the individual with this understanding. This type of service delivery is offered in partnership with the person seeking care.  A trauma-informed approach can be implemented by therapists, doctors, educators, and employers, so long as there is a commitment to collaboration, transparency, empathy, and compassion. You might recognize trauma-informed care from your doctor if they ask you for your consent before initiating any physical exam that involves touching. For example, a gynecologist may let their patient insert their own speculum, something that gives the patient more control over the experience and builds trust with the provider.  A therapist may collaborate on a treatment plan with goals identified by you, as opposed to goals they identify as the expert on your behalf.  Trauma-informed policies are written with an understanding that oppression has long been codified at the individual, institutional, and societal levels, and intentional steps must be taken not just to demonstrate equality under the law, but also to correct for historical and continued inequity.

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Unwelcome Conduct*

*From the definition in our University Policy

Conduct is unwelcome if a person (1) did not request or invite it and (2) regarded the unrequested or uninvited conduct as undesirable or offensive. That a person welcomes some sexual contact does not necessarily mean that person welcomes other sexual contact. Similarly, that a person willingly participates in conduct on one occasion does not necessarily mean that the same conduct is welcome on a subsequent occasion.

Whether conduct is unwelcome is determined based on the totality of the circumstances, including various objective and subjective factors. The following types of information may be 3 helpful in making that determination: statements by any witnesses to the alleged incident; information about the relative credibility of the parties and witnesses; the detail and consistency of each person’s account; the absence of corroborating information where it should logically exist; information that the Respondent has been found to have harassed others; information that the Complainant has been found to have made false allegations against others; information about the Complainant’s reaction or behavior after the alleged incident; and information about any actions the parties took immediately following the incident, including reporting the matter to others.

In addition, when a person is so impaired or incapacitated as to be incapable of requesting or inviting the conduct, conduct of a sexual nature is deemed unwelcome, provided that the Respondent knew or reasonably should have known of the person’s impairment or incapacity. The person may be impaired or incapacitated as a result of drugs or alcohol or for some other reason, such as sleep or unconsciousness. A Respondent’s impairment at the time of the incident as a result of drugs or alcohol does not, however, diminish the Respondent’s responsibility for sexual or gender-based harassment under this Policy.


Victim is a legal term which may be used intentionally to emphasize that sexual violence is a crime with a spectrum of damaging and enduring effects whether or not the act(s) are reported to or adjudicated in the campus administrative, the criminal justice, or the civil systems. Additionally, it is used to signify people who have experienced abuse who are no longer alive.
At times, the term victim may also be used to underscore that violence and trauma do not occur in vacuums but in the context of societies and cultures where they are experienced. Ideally, it removes the focus from the individual and their response to a traumatic event and situates it onto the societal contexts where biased systems, structures, and ideologies reproduce oppressions and further compound trauma.

OSAPR understands that every person who has been impacted by gender-based violence may not identify with the terms 'survivor' or 'victim.' We make neither assumptions about people’s experiences or identities nor judgments about how someone holds those things or where they are in the ebb and flow of the healing process. Above all, we respect how folks choose to talk about and name their experiences - if at all.