Matt Damon said there’s a sexual violence ‘spectrum.’ So have women. So why the outcry?

Let’s break down that Matt Damon interview on sexual violence.

Damon was slammed by plenty of people, including #MeToo champion Alyssa Milano and ex-girlfriend and former Good Will Hunting co-star Minnie Driver. The wide-ranging interview was picked apart by feminists who derided his “mansplaining” and by women and men who saw him minimizing certain kinds of predation. But the focal point of collective anger — reflected on social media and in headlines afterward — fixated on Damon’s interpretation of the word “spectrum.”

“I do believe that there’s a spectrum of behavior, right?” Damon said in his sit-down with Peter Travers. “And we’re going to have to figure — you know, there’s a difference between, you know, patting someone on the butt and rape or child molestation, right? Both of those behaviors need to be confronted and eradicated without question, but they shouldn’t be conflated, right?”

He later said:

“And on this end of the continuum where you have rape and child molestation or whatever, you know, that’s prison. Right? And that’s what needs to happen. OK? And then we can talk about rehabilitation and everything else. That’s criminal behavior, and it needs to be dealt with that way. The other stuff is just kind of shameful and gross.”

Twitter erupted. In a series of tweets, Milano explained to the actor that sexual violence is “systemic” and that she has “been a victim of each component of the sexual assault spectrum of which you speak. They all hurt.” An incensed Driver told her ex, “You don’t get to be hierarchical with abuse.” The “just” Damon used to diminish some predatory behavior didn’t fly.

Sexual harassment, misconduct, assault and violence is a systemic disease. The tumor is being cut out right now with no anesthesia. Please send flowers. #MeToo

More: Alyssa Milano, Minnie Driver shut down Matt Damon’s sexual harassment comments

Damon’s use of the word “spectrum” isn’t the problem, experts say. It’s how he distorts the concept in a way that belittles the women he professes to support.

Here’s where they say Damon went wrong: 

Academics and educators frequently use a “spectrum” or “continuum” framework to explain sexual violence, according to Laura Palumbo of the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. 

“The goal … is to help people understand the relationships between a range of behaviors,” she said.

At one end of the spectrum is the kind of predatory behavior seen with Harvey Weinstein, who is accused of raping, brutalizing and harassing women for decades. At the other end could be a sexually demeaning comment from a male boss. All behaviors along the continuum are harmful, and none should be tolerated, Palumbo said. 

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“If people don’t understand the relationship between a rape joke or an inappropriate comment or unwanted touching … then we aren’t able to challenge the overarching culture,” she said.

Though each of those examples is different, they are connected in that the power dynamics that allow for them and the excuses people make for them — such as “she led him on” or “she just wants money and attention” — are the same. Indicating that any of these behaviors or our reactions to them are normal is what many are talking about when they say “rape culture.”

Most of us, like Damon, publicly condemn rape, but many of us have convinced ourselves that sexist jokes and unwanted flirtations are par for the course. They’re not.

Damon makes a distinction between Weinstein and Al Franken and Louis C.K., seeming to suggest that the former is criminal while the latter are merely “gross.” Franken resigned after more than half a dozen women accused him of sexual misconduct ranging from harassment to assault, and C.K. was accused of masturbating in front of several women.

In doing so, Damon effectively minimizes certain kinds of predatory behavior. 

“There are different crimes that carry different weights that carry different sentences that carry different punishments,” said Nicole Service, volunteer coordinator at the Rape Crisis Center in Myrtle Beach, S.C. “Obviously, if you break into someone’s house, tie them up and rape them, that’s going to be a different charge than if you were cat calling someone on the street. They’re not the same thing. So when you want to think of [the spectrum] in that way, I don’t really think it’s a problem. But it becomes a problem when we start to minimize and act like things that aren’t ‘serious’ are not that bad, because they are.” 

While sexual harassment might not have the immediate, dreadful, traumatizing aftermath of rape, make no mistake, it is a form of sexual violence that in the end can derail a victim’s life just as surely as rape.

The amount of trauma someone feels isn’t determined solely by where the violent act they experienced sits on a spectrum. 

“What might be traumatic for me might be something that isn’t even a blip on your radar,” Service said. “Trauma is very specific to the person who suffers it — their life’s circumstances, their own resiliency, and things that have happened to them in the past.”

Palumbo said some of the debate over whether to use the term “spectrum” at all might be because the concept’s intent is getting lost.

“When the spectrum is interpreted as suggesting that there is a scale of severity or a scale of impact of behaviors, it’s a misinterpretation,” she said. “The goal is not to say that these experiences are all equivalent or …. to try and arbitrarily decide what forms are more harmful. It’s more about us articulating that all harm is unacceptable.” 

No, it’s not the same as rape, but “everyday” grabbing or street harassment exist on a continuum, as an overarching structure of oppression, letting women know they are unsafe and unwelcome in public spaces. None of it is minor because all of it is connected.

Damon seemed to both defend and empathize with C.K., whose apology for masturbating in front of several women Damon found “arresting.” (Many women found it “self-indulgent.”)

“I don’t know Louis C.K. I’ve never met him. I’m a fan of his, but I don’t imagine he’s going to do those things again. You know what I mean? I imagine the price that he’s paid at this point is so beyond anything that he — I just think that we have to kind of start delineating between what these behaviors are.”

Some women felt Damon was appropriating the idea of the spectrum to turn perpetrators into victims, implying that men who appear contrite may be candidates for absolution if their behaviors aren’t on the “rape and child molestation” end.

We’ve been saying sexual violence is a spectrum for forever. Only now that we’re getting (some) support for everything along that spectrum they’re trying to sell our own language back to us to downplay anything other than rape. Co-optation at its finest.https://t.co/UJgu6bCSiw

“Louis C.K. is not so funny that we have to allow him in the world of comedy otherwise there’s going to be this black hole,” Service said. “For every one man who has made it to that point, there are 100 well-qualified, smart, passionate driven women who have been run out of politics or run out of the entertainment business or run out of comedy because of the inherent misogyny and harassment and sexism. … So we don’t need to put up with the predator on any level of the spectrum.”

Damon’s comments on the sexual violence “spectrum” weren’t the only problematic part of his interview. Service said Damon’s insistence that he could spot a sexual predator in his close circle is a dangerous fallacy.

“I know the real story if it’s my friend,” Damon said.

This is one of the fundamental reasons we have so much trouble eradicating sexual violence, Service said.

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“No one wants to believe someone they like and someone they respect is a sexual predator,” Service said. “We can’t say, well, there’s sexual predators in the world, but I don’t know any. Of course you do. No one disputes that one in five women are sexually assaulted, so it stands to reason that you’re going to know someone who is sexually assaulting them.”

“Ten years ago, you made a claim against me and I had a big movie coming out, OK? I have $100 million or I have a movie that is personally important to me coming out, and close to the release of that film, you say, ‘Matt Damon grabbed my butt and stuck his tongue down my throat.’ We would then go to mediation and organize a settlement. I’d go, ‘I don’t want this out there.’ … The lawyers would get together, and they do this cost-benefit analysis, and they’d go, ‘Oh, this is what it’s worth.’ And I look at the number and go, ‘OK, I’ll pay it, but you can never talk about this again. You’re f—— lying about this, but never talk about this again.'”

“Now … with social media, these stories get — it’s like they get gasoline poured on them. So the moment a claim is made, if you make that same claim today to me, I would be scorched earth. I’d go, ‘I don’t care if it costs $10 million to fight this in court with you for 10 years, you are not taking my name from me.'”

Damon could have said false reports of sexual assault are rare —  2% to 7%, according to studies cited by the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. Instead he launched into a detailed scenario of how he would defend himself, which Service said perpetuates a pernicious myth that women use rape accusations to exploit powerful men.

“When you permeate the culture with this idea that everybody who makes an accusation is out to get something, it really harms women who don’t have anything behind them other than their truth,” Service said.

Damon said all sexual violence is unacceptable. But what women decoded from his fuller comments was that some forms of violence are unacceptable, while other forms are the cost of being human.

“What people are taking away from Damon’s remarks is the fact that someone who has not been a target of these behaviors is not representative of the groups most impacted by these behaviors, is playing the role of defining terms and giving labels to this issue, which I think for many individuals feels like a significant overstep,” Palumbo said.

We are not outraged because someone grabbed our asses in a picture. We are outraged because we were made to feel this was normal. We are outraged because we have been gaslighted. We are outraged because we were silenced for so long.

The takeaway from the Damon interview shouldn’t be that men should stay silent. Men should speak up every day — when they hear a sexist joke at work, when they see a friend being harassed, when they witness what could be the start of a sexual assault. And if they decide to give an interview on a rape culture that makes all of these behaviors possible, they should make sure they’ve first listened to the women who have spent their lives surviving it.

More: The men who kept Harvey Weinstein’s secrets safe are all around us

“I do think it is unfortunate that people will say, ‘See, he tried, and everyone got mad at him and so I’m just not going to say anything,'” Service said. “Maybe before you give an interview on that topic educate yourself a little bit. That’s all. I work at a rape crisis center. I wouldn’t go out and give an interview about the process of movie-making. I don’t know anything about it.”

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If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, you can reach the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673) or visit online.rainn.org.

Alia Dastagir writes about gender for USA TODAY. Follow her on Twitter @alia_e.