House takes up sex­ual abuse within its walls

The Washington Post - - POWER POST - joe.david­son@wash­ JOE DAVID­SON

Rep. Bar­bara Com­stock’s calm, de­lib­er­ate tone and the stately Long­worth House Of­fice Build­ing hear­ing room where she spoke be­lied the deprav­ity of the story she told.

The North­ern Vir­ginia Repub­li­can said a sit­ting male mem­ber of Congress had a young fe­male staffer de­liver ma­te­ri­als to his home.

He greeted his em­ployee clad in a towel.

“He in­vited her in,” Com­stock said. “At that point, he de­cided to ex­pose him­self.”

Com­stock doesn’t know her col­league’s name but trusts the per­son who gave her the in­for­ma­tion.

This story demon­strated, more than any­thing else said at the House Ad­min­is­tra­tion Com­mit­tee hear­ing Tues­day, the crit­i­cal need for Congress to take up what the hear­ing’s ti­tle dic­tates: “Pre­vent­ing Sex­ual Ha­rass­ment in the Con­gres­sional Work­place.”

Al­though Com­stock’s story would have been stronger with the con­gress­man’s name, the mes­sage re­mains ur­gent. While the iden­tity of any one ha­rasser is im­por­tant, the na­tion be­lat­edly is re­al­iz­ing that sex­ual mis­con­duct — ha­rass­ment, abuse, rape — is a per­va­sive part of our cul­ture — es­pe­cially male cul­ture.

The warped sense of male li­cense is so in­grained, ex­cused and ac­cepted that a con­fessed sex­ual abuser, Don­ald Trump, was elected pres­i­dent (see the “Ac­cess Hol­ly­wood” tape, which Trump dis­missed as locker-room talk) and a con­gress­man thought greet­ing a staffer in a towel was okay. Ac­knowl­edg­ing the men and boys who also have been vic­tim­ized and the false ac­cu­sa­tions that are ac­cepted as fact doesn’t de­tract from the over­whelm­ing re­al­ity of women who suf­fer male abuse in si­lence while men who com­mit crimes on women can joke about it.

Many of us, if not most of us, know some­one who has been sex­u­ally ha­rassed or abused.

Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.) said his fe­male chief of staff, “who has spent most of her ca­reer on Capi­tol Hill, said she does not know a sin­gle woman in her age group who has not ex­pe­ri­enced in­ap­pro­pri­ate con­duct in the work­place.”

But many of us don’t know we know some­one, be­cause our cul­ture en­cour­ages si­lence for the abused while bravado is ac­cept­able for the abuser.

Be­lat­edly, so­ci­ety, in­clud­ing Congress, is com­ing to re­al­ize that this abuse of power must stop.

The hear­ing was called to ex­am­ine the mech­a­nism Congress uses to deal with sex­ual mis­con­duct. The mech­a­nism is old and rusty and needs an over­haul.

“The present sys­tem pro­tects the ha­rasser and pro­vides lit­tle ben­e­fit to the vic­tim,” Rep. Jackie Speier, a Cal­i­for­nia Demo­crat who was vic­tim­ized as a con­gres­sional staffer, said af­ter the hear­ing. “The cur­rent process might have been ef­fec­tive in the Dark Ages. . . . We are way be­hind the times in terms of pro­vid­ing ef­fec­tive pro­tec­tion to the vic­tims.”

Speier ap­peared as a hear­ing wit­ness be­fore join­ing other mem­bers on the dais.

“Since I started #MeTooCongress by shar­ing my own story, my of­fice has been in­un­dated with calls from cur­rent and for­mer Hill staffers sub­jected to in­ex­cus­able be­hav­ior and sex­ual as­sault,” she tes­ti­fied. “From com­ments like ‘Are you go­ing to be a good girl?’ to ha­rassers ex­pos­ing their gen­i­tals to vic­tims hav­ing their pri­vate parts grabbed on the House floor, women and men have trusted me with their sto­ries. All they asked in re­turn was that we fix our abu­sive sys­tem and hold the per­pe­tra­tors ac­count­able.”

She out­lined three steps: in­sti­tute manda­tory sex­u­al­ha­rass­ment pre­ven­tion and re­sponse train­ing for mem­bers of Congress and their staffs, as called for in leg­is­la­tion she spon­sored; con­duct sur­veys ev­ery two years to un­der­stand the ex­tent of the prob­lem and the ef­fec­tive­ness of new poli­cies; and “re­form the bro­ken dis­pute res­o­lu­tion process.”

A res­o­lu­tion she in­tro­duced is ap­pro­pri­ately named CEASE, for Con­gres­sional Ed­u­ca­tion About Sex­ual Ha­rass­ment Erad­i­ca­tion.

Af­ter the hear­ing, Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) said, “Go­ing for­ward, the House will adopt a pol­icy of manda­tory an­ti­ha­rass­ment and an­tidis­crim­i­na­tion train­ing for all mem­bers and staff.”

The bro­ken process was out­lined in a let­ter Speier pre­sented dur­ing the hear­ing from 1,500 for­mer con­gres­sional staffers, men and women, to House and Se­nate lead­ers.

It com­plained about the dis­pute res­o­lu­tion process at the con­gres­sional Of­fice of Com­pli­ance, say­ing it “may ac­tu­ally dis­cour­age vic­tims from fil­ing a griev­ance be­cause of the ex­ces­sive wait­ing pe­riod it im­poses on vic­tims. The OOC re­quires an in­di­vid­ual to wait at least 90 days from the al­leged in­ci­dent be­fore the fil­ing of a sex­ual ha­rass­ment com­plaint. ”

The sign­ers cited a July 2016 CQ/Roll Call con­gres­sional staff sur­vey in which 40 per­cent of the women who re­sponded said “sex­ual ha­rass­ment is a prob­lem on Capi­tol Hill” and 1 in 6 had been a sex­ual-ha­rass­ment tar­get.

Mak­ing the prey of a sex­ual preda­tor work in that of­fice for 90 days be­fore fil­ing a com­plaint “is un­ten­able,” Speier said.

Cit­ing Equal Em­ploy­ment Op­por­tu­nity Com­mis­sion data, Raskin said that be­tween 25 and 85 per­cent of women have suf­fered sex­ual ha­rass­ment in the work­place. That range is too great to be mean­ing­ful, but even 1 in 4 is in­fu­ri­at­ing.

“There is a tec­tonic shift tak­ing place,” Raskin said, “in women’s un­will­ing­ness to put up with what prior gen­er­a­tions of women were of­ten forced to ac­cept as busi­ness as usual.”

That’s true, but an even larger quake is needed among men who abuse women or are com­plicit in male su­prem­a­cist be­hav­ior.

That wasn’t men­tioned at the hear­ing, but that’s the real prob­lem.

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