As sexual harassment scandals roil every industry from Capitol Hill to Hollywood, there are many factors for why we are where we are.
Power. Sexual harassment is about power. Those who have the most power—whether famous TV anchors, rich Hollywood moguls, judges, Members of Congress or the president of the United States—must decide how to exert that power; for corruption or for good. Many believe that their power and fame put them above any rules, including around sexual harassment.
Accomplices. Those around the powerful men who harass play a critical role in aiding and abetting. There is no scenario in which staffers, friends or colleagues did not see or know about the kinds of harassment being reported. But men and women stood by, turned a blind eye, laughed along or even facilitated the behavior. This is partly because the norms of our culture are deeply embedded. When women are told that sexual harassment is “part of the job” or when assistants of both sexes enable harassing behavior, they have bought into the culture that says such behavior is not just permissible, it is a desirable expression of power.
Distrust. No one ever wants to believe that someone they like and respect would abuse his power to harm and harass. We believe those we think we know. There’s also sometimes a striking inability to hold two truths simultaneously, but the truth is that good men can also do terrible things. Civil rights icons, famous journalists, big time movie producers may all have credits to their name that we can recognize and be grateful for, but their record of good works cannot excuse their harassment of women. On top of that, sexism colors everything. Women just aren’t generally believed. Period.
The gray area. Even more complicated is that sexual harassment is extremely difficult to prove in any court of law. Often, it involves two people in a room with no witnesses. We have to recognize that our efforts to stop harassment will require us to become more comfortable in those gray areas. Women will come forward and men will deny. The question is: What is society’s response? To truly change norms and cultures, society must start believing women from the get-go.
The game. Our culture has tolerated, condoned and promoted a sexualized portrait of women that plays into the idea that sexual harassment is acceptable and even a part of “the game” in power situations. When bosses, leaders and powerful men and women ignore or deny the accounts of harassment victims, they reinforce the idea that harassers are playing the game as they should, and that the rest of us should fall in line. This behavior signals that victims’ voices don’t matter and allows predatory behavior to thrive.
“If we fail to act boldly, consistently and expeditiously... that watershed can turn into a trickle that hurts women even more than it helps.”
It has been said that we are at a watershed moment where, finally, the country seems to be waking up and realizing we need to have a zero tolerance policy toward sexual harassment. We may be at that moment. But if we fail to act boldly, consistently and expeditiously ― including toward those who we have seen as heroes and champions in their own right ― that watershed can turn into a trickle that hurts women even more than it helps. Once again, women will be sent the message that you can’t bring down powerful men, no matter how many women come forward.
The most trying moments ― and the ones that require the most courage from us ― are the ones that are hard. Not Roy Moore, but someone who has been a civil rights icon like Rep. John Conyers or progressive champion Sen. Al Franken. If, in the cases of those we like, we stop thinking that women should be believed, we stand to repeat exactly the behavior that led to Harvey Weinstein’s disgusting and repetitive abuse of women. The cases coming forward now are, unfortunately, the tip of the iceberg. We should get used to the idea that we are going to be tested and that the calls we will have to make will be difficult.
We cannot pick and choose. Republicans cannot simply disavow Roy Moore and then turn a blind eye to Donald Trump. Democrats cannot lambaste Trump and Moore, and then turn a blind eye to our own who face credible charges against them. In fact, we lose all moral authority to call out the abominable behavior of Moore and Trump if we refuse to call it out on our own side.
This does not mean we should not look practically at each case, as not every one is exactly the same. The preponderance of stories matters. How many women have come forward to tell the same story? Who or what ― whether it is friends they told or general knowledge to avoid someone at the mall, alone in an elevator or on some quiet “creep” list ― backs up those accounts? What other elements exist, such as lawsuits or settlements, that show something definitely happened? The response to accusations is also critically important. A strong defense and denial that something happened runs into the very tricky quicksand of victim blaming and the same old power dynamics that lead us to believe powerful men over their victims. Finally, to say “We should believe women” but to then do nothing to act for immediate accountability, or to counter everything women have said, is insulting and more of the same.
Democrats are missing an enormous opportunity to provide leadership for the tidal wave of women, silenced for too long, but now courageously speaking out. Referring an investigation to the House Committee on Ethics is the system we have currently, but it is deeply flawed. At present, the committee rules stipulate that the committee can only investigate alleged incidents that occurred in the last three terms of a Member’s tenure. Anything that happens before it virtually cannot be investigated. Additionally, the committee may not be appropriately staffed to look at the actual claim of harassment itself and make a determination. These grueling investigations can also drag on sometimes for more than a year.
We passed legislation for mandatory training for all congressional offices this week in Congress ― and that is important ― but it is far from sufficient. We need to pass legislation that takes down barriers for reporting, brings transparency to sexual harassment settlements made by members of Congress, changes the way those settlements are paid out, and ensures there is a quick and fair process to address harassment charges.
In the end, though, the real court is the court of public opinion. Those in leadership and those of us with any degree of power have a chance to influence the ways in which our society deals with these cases. As a Democratic party, we should embrace this challenge and honor the courage of the women who are coming forward ― even when the accused is beloved to us, even when it is difficult ― by speaking out quickly and boldly, not hiding behind committees and not holding ourselves to a lower standard than other workplaces.
It must also be more than the women who speak out, take the toughest stands and demand real consequences. In this moment, it is particularly men who should bear the burden of leading. If you care about safety in the workplace for women, if you pride yourself on being a feminist, if you believe in common human decency, then step up. We need your leadership now more than ever. Don’t leave your women colleagues to fight this battle on our own ― it’s just not right.
As elected leaders, we should be holding ourselves to a higher standard and acting on our morals, no matter how difficult the circumstance may seem. For justice to be done in cases with sufficient evidence, a simple denial is not enough. We should call on those who have a credible pattern of abusing power to relinquish that power. We must listen to women and stand up for their rights. And when we claim to believe these women who speak out, making that claim is not enough. It is imperative that we act on our convictions and move swiftly to protect the powerless, not the powerful.