While the outrage regarding a proposed dress code for legislative interns is obviously well-placed, the discussion neglects the fact that the victims of sexual harassment in Missouri’s state Capitol extend beyond the intern pool.
In a recent story by The Kansas City Star, staffers, legislators and lobbyists spoke up about their personal experiences with sexual harassment in Jefferson City.
None of the provisions offered up by legislators so far appear to address the underlying issue or put in place any new protections for those who aren’t interns. Focusing on the intern program shifts blame, brushes off responsibility and denies a larger culture where power and manipulation go unchecked until a poor soul risks her future to speak up. And even then, accountability is not guaranteed.
The recent Ashley Madison hack brought up some interesting discussions. Like the fact that with all the military email addresses in the hack of the adultery website, any number of members of the armed forces could face strict punishment. It seems strange if you think about it, though. We purport to hold those serving our country to such a high standard that even infidelity is a punishable offense, especially if it “was to the prejudice of good order and discipline in the armed forces or was of a nature to bring discredit upon the armed forces.”
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But our legislators aren’t held to that same standard of behavior. These are the people who are constantly attempting to define and legislate morality on the citizens (women especially) of Missouri, yet some of them obviously can’t even be trusted to behave morally themselves.
Compound this with the fact that most if not all of the allegations against lawmakers brought forward in recent years have involved elected officials who are married and/or hold some position of power over their victim. The hypocrisy is repulsive at best, dangerous and destructive at worst. When allegations surface they aren’t investigated by an independent body comprising officials without political ties. Legislators are permitted to hem and haw over whether or not to resign. Some choose to weather the storm and hope it will blow over before the next election cycle. Most eventually fall.
This is what happens when those who govern are tasked with governing themselves — and so far little has been proposed that would alleviate this issue. Meanwhile, allegations of sexual harassment in our state have made headlines across the country.
The lack of accountability affects the way people perceive politicians and reflects poorly on Missouri as a state. Male politicians, rather than being defensive of their own characters, should acknowledge the grievances of those who have been taken advantage of and hear our plea for justice.
Any backlash they have received is the result of the predatory behavior of their peers, not our criticisms of the dominant culture. Backing up the victims and standing firm against the perpetrators of these crimes, regardless of political affiliation, not only forces people in power to think twice about manipulative behaviors but shows those looking in from the outside that there is a better way to handle these situations than side-stepping and victim-blaming.
The rest of the country needs to know that Missouri is not a safe haven for those who seek to abuse their power and influence. We need our elected officials to decide now to stop ignoring this tradition of sexism and implement and enforce a stringent code of ethics that will hold those who “bring discredit upon” Missouri and make its government accountable.
Taylor Hirth, a former legislative intern in Missouri, is a project specialist at Smiles Change Lives and a women’s issues advocate. She lives in Independence.