#MeToo Swept The Nation. Now It’s Time To Turn The Movement Into Law.

In the private sector, sexual harassment is finally starting to have consequences. It’s time for the political world to catch up.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., attends a news conference, Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2017, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., attends a news conference, Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2017, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

On December 12, the President of the United States — who has been accused of sexual assault and harassment by multiple women — attacked Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) in a sexually suggestive tweet.

As with most of the President’s social media fights, the tweet managed to create the exact opposite effect likely intended, catapulting both Gillibrand and the many accusations against Donald Trump back into the spotlight.

Senator Gillibrand has been one of the leading voices in the campaign to bring the #MeToo movement to the political sphere. For years, her focus has been on what would be considered “women’s issues” — from pushing for federal paid family leave to shining light on sexual assaults in the military.

Now, as our country faces a social reckoning regarding the plague of sexual misconduct in all industries, the insidious nature of harassment in the political world is coming under sharp scrutiny.

In early November, four current and former female lawmakers came forward to the Associated Press to speak of their personal stories of harassment while working on the Hill. They spoke of sexually explicit and objectifying comments, unwanted propositions, and physical groping on the House floor. While these remarks seemed to come as a shock to some of their male colleagues, women everywhere took a collective, unsurprised sigh.

If 2016 taught us anything, it’s that no matter how successful you are in your given career field, if you are a woman, some men will still treat you like a second-class citizen.

While the fields of journalism, film, art, etc. have issued rapid responses regarding the men accused of such conduct, in the political realm it’s been a bit more…murky. At this point, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn), Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz), and Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich) have resigned or retired from their positions after allegations against them arose. Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-TX), is currently under investigation by the House Ethics Committee for sexual harassment claims, as well as allegations of improper use of official resources and lying to the committee. He has announced he will retire as a result of the scandal.

However, each one of these events has brought to light how poorly sexual harassment is handled in Congress. The systems in place lack transparency and provide little support or recourse for victims who are brave enough to come forward. These faults, combined with the misuse of power dynamics so prevalent in the political world, can create a culture of harassment and misogyny that will take more than just #MeToo to restructure it. It will take a rebuilding of the political industry — a system that has been designed to protect power at the potential expense of victims.

Luckily, women like Senator Gillibrand and Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) — who has recently announced plans for her own bill to restructure how Congress deals with sexual misconduct — are trying to change all this.

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A Broken System

“Congress should never be above the law or play by their own set of rules. The current process has little accountability and even less sensitivity to victims of sexual harassment.” — Senator Gillibrand

When the Harvey Weinstein news broke, it unleashed a wave of unprecedented backlash. With the rush of brave women (and some men) coming forward about the abuse they’ve suffered at the hands of bosses, colleagues, and mentors, there has also been the expected, victim-blaming pushback. Why didn’t she come forward earlier? Why did she wait so long? Why didn’t they handle it within internal work channels?

Of course, these questions simplify and minimize the complexities of workplace sexual harassment, and disregard the institutionalized misogyny that so often disenfranchises women (especially women of color, who have to contend with systemic racism on top of said misogyny) in the workplace.

When it comes to Congress, the lack of transparency and victim-support systems compound the difficulties of coming forward about harassment. Currently, the system — like those in other industries which deal with the consolidation of power — is stacked against survivors of harassment and abuse.

As current rules stand, before submitting an official complaint, victims are required to undergo mediation and counseling. This means that they can be forced to work for months with their alleged abuser before even being allowed to file a complaint.

Let’s deconstruct how poorly designed this system is. For starters, victims have 180 days to bring the issue to the US Congress Office of Compliance, the office that handles complaints on Capitol Hill. They then are subject to a month of mandatory counseling — to be clear, the victim is subject to this counseling, not the perpetrator. They then have 15 days to decide if they want to move on to mediation, which is the only way to continue proceedings.

Mediation is a complicated subject when its used as a tactic for dealing with situations of abuse. It can suggest that there is some blame that does not lie wholly on the abuser’s shoulder. Survivor Grace Watkins explained, in an op-ed for TIME Magazine’s Motto:

“Even worse, mediation perpetuates the myth that sexual assault is simply a misunderstanding between two people, rather than what is really is: a violent abuse of power. Mediation fetishizes compromise, which for survivors often means premature forgiveness of serious harm. It relies on the societal expectation that “good girls forgive.”

The concept of “restorative justice” — which is the category mediation falls under in this conversation — can be beneficial in some situations. However, using it as the first and foremost tactic to handle harassment allegations (before one is even allowed to file an official complaint) prioritizes bureaucracy over protection of victims.

After this mediation period, if no settlement has been reached, there is a 30 day “cooling off” period before a lawsuit can be filed. It’s important to note that settlements and the lawyers brought in to oversee them are often paid for with taxpayer money.

(Oh yeah, if you thought it couldn’t get worse, Congress was using your money to settle these scandals. Between 2008 and 2012, the House spent $115,000 in at least three claims of sexual harassment and retaliation).

Senator Gillibrand has been a vocal opponent of the current reporting system in Congress, stating that “it is literally designed to protect perpetrators and to make sure people really don’t come forward.”

She is sponsoring and leading the charge for a bill that would eliminate the aforementioned months-long waiting period, as well as disallowing lawmakers from using the public’s money to settle harassment and abuse cases.

Dozens of Democrats have signed on to support Gillibrand’s bill, but her latest iteration of the proposal — which includes making harassment settlements public, unless the victim decides otherwise — has even drawn support across the aisle. As of mid-December, eight GOP Senators have stated their support of the overhaul.

And yes, eight seems like a small number for a bill that is so obviously needed in our current climate. However, given that the support came from a party who just ran a Senate candidate accused of abusing multiple women and who support a President also accused of assaulting multiple women — this seems like a step in the right direction.

The top Democrat on the Rules Committee, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, is supporting these efforts in her own way. She was recently responsible for the quick passage of a mandatory harassment training plan and has formed a bipartisan group tasked with figuring out how to streamline the process by which one files a complaint.

And Rep. Speier has brought this fight to the House, aiming to restructure the procedure that the Office of Congressional Ethics uses to handle complaints of abuse. It’s clear from the action of these lawmakers to the voluminous support from the public, that the #MeToo movement is here to stay.

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The Damage Is Done

If you’ve made it this far and are still wondering why it’s important to restructure this system to prioritize protecting victims rather than potential abusers, let’s break it down.

More often than not, victims are abused by people who have power over them — be it emotional, physical, or as a result of one’s career hierarchy. As a result, the decision to come forward can require putting one’s safety (again, emotional, physical, or financial) at risk. The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found that “75% of employees who spoke out against workplace mistreatment faced some form of retaliation.”

All one has to do is turn on a TV or go on Twitter to see the backlash directed against those who come forward about sexual harassment and abuse. Victim-blaming is a rampant, insidious element of our culture, spurned by the institutionalized misogyny that permeates our society. And this isn’t even mentioning the trauma that can be brought on or triggered by abuse and/or harassment.

When there is no recourse for survivors of sexual misconduct, they are forced to decide whether to come forward and risk their jobs or stay silent in order to protect their livelihood. When we discuss gender-based income inequality or the disenfranchisement of women in the workforce, we must note the effects that sexual harassment has on women’s career paths.

A 2007 study identified sexual harassment “as one of the most damaging and ubiquitous barriers to career success and satisfaction for women.”

New York Magazine’s The Cut spoke to women in a myriad of industries and found a similar, disheartening discovery. Across the board, women have left jobs and changed career paths as a result of the harassment they’ve faced. As a country, there’s no telling how much talent we’ve lost out on because brilliant women have been pushed out of their desired industries. What politicians, writers, engineers, have left their fields after being faced with inappropriate conduct and no recourse to protect themselves?

In regards to Congress, the convoluted system that victims must go through if they hope to see any justice brought to perpetrators of harassment or abuse further underscores the imbalance of priorities when it comes to instances of sexual misconduct.

The forced arbitration required by current Congressional rules doesn’t preserve the accused’s right to be considered innocent until proven guilty. And it surely doesn’t protect the victim. It simply accomplishes the continued imbalance of power dynamics that exist in every instance of harassment or abuse case.

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Beyond Capitol Hill

Of course, when we discuss the prevalence of sexual harassment and misogyny in politics, we can’t ignore the big, orange elephant in the room. The President of the United States has been accused of sexual misconduct by at least thirteen women — if we don’t include accusations made on social media, withdrawn lawsuits, or the claims that he walked in on beauty contestants while they were nude.

Many of these women have provided witnesses or other forms of corroboration. And then, of course, there is the infamous 2005 Access Hollywood tape, where the current leader of the free world brags about grabbing women by their genitals.

The election of Donald Trump can be analyzed a thousand different ways, but in regards to this conversation, it highlights how much power sexual abusers can hold in their careers, as well as the sexism that permeates the majority of industries in this country.

A man can be under-qualified, unprepared, racist, and accused of multiple counts of sexual misconduct and still be elected president over a woman.

Our country needs a reckoning down to its very bones, and the last few months have shown us what the tip of the iceberg looks like. Now comes the time for the hard, boring work unearthing the rest — which comes in the form of discourse and legislation that protects victims, rather than abusers.

#MeToo has been gaining momentum since Tarana Burke founded it ten years ago. And now that it’s boiled over, there’s no going back.

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News // Politics / Sexual Assault / Women