Book Review: Defining Sexual Misconduct: Power, Media, and #MeToo

Several times each month, we are pleased to republish a recent book review from the Canadian Law Library Review (CLLR). CLLR is the official journal of the Canadian Association of Law Libraries (CALL/ACBD), and its reviews cover both practice-oriented and academic publications related to the law.

Defining Sexual Misconduct: Power, Media, and #MeToo. By Stacey Hannem & Christopher J. Schneider. Regina: University of Regina Press, 2022. xvi, 368 p. Includes table of contents, appendix, notes, bibliography, and index. ISBN 978-0-88977-870-2 (hardcover) $89.00; ISBN 978-0-88977-809-2 (softcover) $34.95.

Reviewed by Danielle Noonan
Law Library Co-op
Lederman Law Library, Queen’s University

Defining Sexual Misconduct: Power, Media, and #MeToo is an accessible text that offers insight into what influences are brought into establishing a definition of sexual misconduct.

Authors Stacey Hannem (Wilfrid Laurier University) and Christopher J. Schneider (Brandon University) explore the power media interactions have in shaping the way members of the public perceive and define crimes. Although they primarily offer American examples from the New York Times and Washington Post, the authors make several references to Canadian sources to help readers better understand sexual misconduct in a North American context.

The beginning of the book serves as a roadmap for what is to come in later chapters. Chapter 1 is a historical review of the history of sexual assault from the 1980s to 2016. The focus of the rest of the book is the development of sexual misconduct from 2016 onwards.

Chapter 2 explores the idea of a trial by media. A theme that emerges is the important distinction between media logic and criminal justice logic. The chapter discusses how both play a role in victim legitimacy and the backlash victims may face when first addressing their mistreatment through the media.

Chapters 3 and 4 offer examples of sexual misconduct in politics, including former president Bill Clinton’s time in office and a look at candidates’ encounters with sexual misconduct during the 2016 presidential campaign. The authors cite an article in The Atlantic Monthly that points out how many of the men brought down by sexual misconduct allegations “shared a similar history of progressive politics and presented themselves as allies to women’s causes” (p. 127). Chapter 4 looks at one of these men, film producer Harvey Weinstein, and covers the “Weinstein Effect” as a main topic.

Chapters 5 and 6 emphasize the media’s impact on how individuals interpret and define sexual misconduct. Victims can be heard saying, “I was debating if this was an awkward sexual experience or sexual assault” (p. 162). Other victim narratives and the #MeToo phenomenon is explored in Chapter 5. Chapter 6 focuses on the idea of a “grey zone” of sexual misconduct, reviewing the media accounts of sexual misconduct allegations against comedians Aziz Ansari and Louis C.K.

The final chapter offers a summary of the issues presented and further explores the pursuit of justice. Several of the examples throughout the text raise concerns about how, for some, the enactment of justice in media is “a confluence of rhetorical and contextual factors [that] contributed to ‘getting one’s due’” (p. 193). In the final pages, Hannem and Schneider consider the significance and need for Indigenous justice and explore restorative justice practices. The book closes with an appendix offering resources for sexual assault survivors in Canada and the United States.

As the title reveals, this book is “fundamentally about power” (p. 185): power to stand up, power to conform, and power to say enough is enough. The book’s case studies explore the reasons why women choose to disclose their stories of victimization to the media. The authors also acknowledge the gap in literature on racialized experiences with sexual misconduct, with the #MeToo movement focusing “largely on heteronormative concerns, especially related to white women’s experiences” (p. xv). Chapters 5 and 7 briefly explore what is being done about this divide.

While many publications about sexual misconduct are profession specific, Hannem and Schneider are the first to trace sexual misconduct within media developments. Two chapters have been published elsewhere: Chapter 3, “The Politicization of Sexual Misconduct,” was published in volume 23 of Sexuality and Culture (2019), and Chapter 4, “Stigma and the Weinstein Effect,” appeared in Building Sexual Misconduct Cases Against Powerful Men (Lexington Books, 2019).

In keeping with the focus of this book, Hannem and Schneider not only cite traditional print documents but also incorporate more non-academic sources, such as “internet news reports and social media posts” (p. 13). Although sources like tweets from within Canada may favour a specific North American region, the authors also relied on “a saturation sample … drawn by entering select terms into the LexisNexis and Factiva databases” (p. 13). The results were expanded through a shifting of search terms between “sexual misconduct” and “sexual assault.”

Defining Sexual Misconduct: Power, Media, and #MeToo has the potential to be a leading text for those wanting to learn more about the social construct of defining sexual misconduct. However, it may not yet serve as a formal legal treatise. I recommend this text for those in an academic setting wanting to offer students a more sociological view of sexual misconduct.

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