Congress has joined several industries with the dubious honor of being rife with sexual misconduct (sexual assault, inappropriate advances, harassment, et al.) and, as with the tech industry and the entertainment industry, women (and men) are coming out of the woodwork to lay bare what’s happened to them. Some of the accusations are surprising – et tu, Al Franken? George Takei? Some of them are not. Many of the responses are typical retorts of, “Not my guy!” Some are just depressing – Alabama’s governor, Kay Ivey, is voting for Roy Moore because being a Republican is the most important thing to her and she can look past the allegations of sexual impropriety against him.
The NY Times has a recent podcast discussing this recent spate of scandals, and it’s worth a listen. Unsurprisingly, none of this is news – harassment in Congress has been going on for decades, and everyone remembers the impeachment proceedings against then-President Bill Clinton and the Lewinsky scandal that came out of that. What IS new is that people feel emboldened to lay bare these problems and bring them to the forefront, yet we still see the same retorts of, “But it was so long ago,” and “How do we even know this is true?” Well, we’ll never be able to have an honest discussion about sexual assault or sexual harassment if we suppress victims when they make their accusations. “But what if they’re lying?” But what if they aren’t?
As described in the New York Times, the system in place to handle harassment claims in Congress is convoluted and serves to deter victims from coming forward.
“In more than 50 interviews, lawyers, lobbyists and former aides told The New York Times that sexual harassment has long been an occupational hazard for those operating in Washington politics, and victims on Capitol Hill are forced to go through far more burdensome avenues to seek redress than their counterparts in the private sector.
“Under federal law, complainants must undergo a confidential process, where co-workers who might be able to provide corroborating evidence are excluded. They often must wait about three months before submitting an official complaint, yet must file one no later than 180 days after the episode. Once filed, victims must submit to up to 30 days of mandatory counseling and complete another 30 days of mediation.”
If you do manage to get your complaint in, good luck getting it taken seriously or even resolved.
So far, 2017 has been the year that everyone finally realized that there are no hallowed halls, and all of our heroes are problematic. Everyone’s closet has a skeleton in it. So what do we do about it? I think Al Franken’s call to have an ethics investigation into himself was a good start, but it doesn’t hide the fact that what he did was wrong. (As with most investigations in Congress, it’s likely to go nowhere, and is mostly for show.) Mitch McConnell likewise calling for Roy Moore to be immediately investigated on election is also a good start. But we have to do more and expect more – we can’t sit back and say, “Well, all these things happened a long time ago so it’s not a problem and we can ignore it.” We have to make a stand and say, “We don’t do that here. We don’t allow those things to happen.”
Even if you don’t believe every accusation, it’s just good practice to stand against sexual assault or harassment of any sort, and to have a system in place to investigate accusations (to either prove them true and punish the accused, or to show them as false and punish the accuser). Ignoring them or claiming any accusation is false only enables and emboldens predators.