#ThemToo: Sexual Harassment in Washington DC

sexual harassment
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If it weren’t for sexual harassment in Washington, DC, I wouldn’t exist.

My mother’s boss sexually assaulted her; nine months later I came along. She gave me up, gave up her career and her friends, and she moved back to Missouri after working two decades in the nation’s capital.

My birth mother, and birth father, worked in the JFK administration, where apparently women being treated as sexual objects was de rigeur. The Civil Rights Movement was just starting to build momentum, but women’s right to have dignity and sovereignty of their own bodies had a long way to go. Oh, did I say “had” a long way to go? We’re so not there.

In Washington, DC, sexual harassment is and always has been prevalent. Thanks to the exposure of Harvey Weinstein’s decades-old abuses, stories have come to light about the ubiquity of sexual harassment in not just Hollywood but our nations’ capital. In 2003 Briony Whitehouse (great name, btw) was a 19-year-old intern who boarded an elevator in the Russell Senate Office Building only to be groped by a Republican Senator the whole ride until the doors re-opened. To this day Briony hasn’t named the Senator, in fear of his retaliation. We only know this story because it was one of thousands shared in social media’s recent #MeToo campaign. Accounts have ‘starred’ Hollywood moguls, celebrities, even U.S Presidents.

Of course Briony didn’t  “report” this. (I don’t know about you, but I’ve never “reported” any of the of sexual harassers or incidents I’ve encountered in 30 years in the workplace. Have you?) Washington DC is dominated by powerful men who can make or break careers. They also make laws and install systems designed to protect their bad (and btw unlawful) behavior. Had Ms. Whitehouse tried to pursue a complaint, according to the Washington Post:

“She would have discovered a process unlike other parts of the federal government or much of the private sector. Her complaint likely would have been thrown out because interns have limited harassment protections under the unique employment law that Congress applies to itself.

Congress makes its own rules about the handling of sexual complaints against members and staff, passing laws exempting it from practices that apply to other employers.”

In addition, if accusers decide to file lawsuits, Congress made a special law to protect its members too free with their hands…and members.  Accusers first have to undergo months of counseling and mediation; there’s even a special congressional office in place just to try to resolve the cases and keep them out of court.  When a settlement does happen (and they’re much smaller than those in the private sector)  the members don’t even have to pay; they’ve set up a special U.S. Treasury Fund for the sole purpose of paying off  harassment victims. (And still, with all this in place, from 1997 to 2014 there still managed to be 235 awards and settlements. Yes, well over a dozen a year.)

Speaking up about harassment, sexual advances or inappropriate behavior invariably ends up punishing the victim again. As Debra Katz, a DC employment attorney put it, “There is a sense that going forward with an allegation like this would be completely the end of any career working for anybody on the Hill — and it undoubtedly would be.”

A 1993 survey showed that one-third of female congressional employees responding said they were sexually harassed by members, supervisors, lobbyists or fellow aides . Obviously, sexual harassment is rampant among the very people whom we pay to make our laws and protect our citizens. And these people know it and seem to be OK with it.  Congress has set-up special protections for itself and has resisted anti-harassment training for staff members.  As one former Senate staffer told the Washington Post, “The worst part was my other male colleagues would excuse it.”

THIS is what infuriates me most. Over half a century has gone by and virtually nothing has changed since my birth mother was assaulted and traumatized, her life path changed forever.  Just as we saw with Harvey Weinstein and at Fox News, sexism, abuses of power and assault continue because people allow it to continue.  (And men, if you don’t think being grabbed or groped is assault, then picture a world where your boss, Andre the Giant, gets to manhandle your genitals and slip you the tongue anytime he wants.)

I’m glad that women in DC and across America are speaking out, but for real change to occur we need men to step in and take responsibility for their behavior and the abuses of their colleagues. We ALL need to stop tolerating the sexist and unjust culture that permeates our society.  If the people we pay to make our laws and protect our citizens don’t take seriously women’s rights and their own sense of decency, we need to get rid of them and bring in people who will.

We need leaders, not gropers. Boys will be boys…and then those boys will be chastised, unemployed, and if warranted, imprisoned.  

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