Examine the culture, not the women, when talking about harassment in politics

Lauren Horsch
Lauren Horsch

It was bound to happen here, how could it not?

State legislatures across the nation have been rocked by sexual harassment scandals. The allegations against Rep. Duane Hall, D-Wake, had been swirling around for awhile, but it took one of the women moving to a different state for them to finally surface.

I’ve spoken to dozens of women who have experienced sexual harassment at the General Assembly. It ranges from unwanted touching — like a hug that strays a little too far below the back — to unwanted kisses on the forehead, cheek or the lips. There are also the constant comments about women’s looks and attire.

The environment has gotten better over the years thanks to changes in ethics laws that put an end to lobbyists taking lawmakers out for dinner or drinks while working on a bill.

Unfortunately, those changes don’t mean women are safe.

Staffers have their own means of making sure they don’t end up in a compromising situation. Many women don’t take the elevators in case they’d end up alone with someone who could harass or assault them.

We need to ask ourselves why women who work in politics are afraid to speak out about harassment at the General Assembly. Why they feel as though even if they come forward, nothing will happen.

It’s unfortunately simple — they become the issue. As soon as a woman comes forward with a story, her life is picked apart. Piece by piece her past comes up.

Instead of shaming the women, we should be looking at the men and the culture that raised them to think they have a right to touch women without consent.

Male lawmakers often use the power dynamics to harass female lobbyists, because they know the women need something from them, so they’ll take what they want. The men in the General Assembly are there to create laws to help protect North Carolinians, but some use it as an opportunity to prey upon women.

For female lobbyists, there is no easy way to report harassment, unless it rises to the level of pressing charges. Filing an ethics complaint can’t be done anonymously, so many cases of harassment go unreported because women don’t want to publicly testify in front of lawmakers they have to work with closely. And those ethics investigation aren’t public record, so even if someone were to file a complaint, we wouldn’t know the outcome unless it is leaked.

Staff members can also file an ethics complaint. If they decide to go through the proper HR reporting guidelines, it could take over 100 days — and multiple meetings with their supervisor (who could be the one harassing them) — to come to a conclusion.

Since the beginning of the #MeToo movement state legislatures across the nation have updated their policies. In the South Carolina House new policies have been put in place to make it easier for victims to come forward.

In the New York State Assembly, an independent counsel and neutral investigator has been used to investigate sexual harassment. This removes politics from the process, until the very end when the counsel can report to a bipartisan ethics committee about his or her findings.

The General Assembly is making strides to protect the women and men who work in the building. Just last week, a new mandatory workplace harassment training was announced.

That might not be enough though. Some lawmakers have called for the establishment of an independent investigation process that would have the responsibility to investigate harassment claims – out of the hands of the men who perpetrate it. That would be a clear step in the right direction.

Lauren Horsch, a former reporter for The Herald-Sun, is a reporter for the Insider State Government News Service. Follow her at NCInsider.com or @LaurenHorsch. Write to her atlhorsch@ncinsider.com.