House takes up sexual abuse within its walls
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.