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#MeToo: Does the Government Have a Role to Play in Curbing Sexual Assault?

Join the 123,953 people who've taken action on Countable this week

by Countable | 3.8.18

What’s the #MeToo story?

In recent weeks, millions of women have taken to social media so share their experiences of sexual harassment and violence using the phrase "Me Too."

Following reports about decades of sexual harassment perpetrated by film mogul Harvey Weinstein, actor and activist Alyssa Milano took to twitter to raise awareness on the issue:

In response to Milano’s call to action, hundreds of celebrities, and millions of women, joined the #MeToo campaign, which has now gone viral both on and off the internet.

The "Me Too" movement was initially launched by Tarana Burke, an organizer and youth worker, in the mid-2000s. Burke, who’s a sexual assault survivor herself, told the L.A. Times that her hope is celebrities also share “their trajectory for healing."

"They cannot just let it be a hashtag," Burke said.

More than a hashtag

Weinstein has since been left by his wife, fired from his company, and expelled from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Allegations of sexual misconduct have also brought severe personal and professional repercussions for Bill Cosby, Bill O’Reilly, and Roger Ailes.

But as the Los Angeles Times reported, "Many famous men have faced grave allegations of misconduct toward the opposite sex — Trump, Woody Allen, Charlie Sheen, Mel Gibson, R. Kelly — only to escape relatively unscathed as the conversation moved on."

Sexual harassment is not limited to media figures and those in their orbit: in 2016, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission received nearly 7,000 complaints of sexual harassment—and the EEOC estimates that 75 percent of individuals who experience workplace harassment don’t report it.

Should the federal government respond? And given the claims against politicians, should they?

The federal government on – and accused of – sexual misconduct

Sex discrimination in the workplace has been illegal since 1964 with the passage of the Civil Rights Act; Title VII barred employment discrimination "because of sex."

Yet sexual harassment is still rampant, including within the system that created Title VII.

Former President Bill Clinton was accused of multiple allegations of sexual harassment. And President Donald Trump has bragged about sexual assault and his campaign has been subpoenaed over claims of sexual assault by a former Apprentice contestant.

And in the wake of the #MeToo campaign, several women have accused former President George H.W. Bush of sexual harassment. Jim McGrath, a spokesman for the president, admitted Bush occasionally "patted women’s rears" as part of a joke to put women at ease about his wheelchair.

The 41st president apologized in a statement issued by McGrath:

"To anyone he has offended, President Bush apologizes most sincerely."

A recent report by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee found that federal agencies are operating without a clear definition of sexual misconduct — and when it occurs, the punishment is inconsistent.

That was certainly the findings in a report by the Washington Post titled "How Congress plays by different rules on sexual harassment and misconduct."

Congress’ special sexual harassment rules

The Post article follows the story of a former D.C. intern who tweeted, as part of the #MeToo campaign, about her sexual harassment by a senator. If the intern had "chosen to pursue a complaint against the senator," the Post wrote, “she would have discovered a process unlike other parts of the federal government or much of the private sector.”

Congress has passed laws "exempting it from practices that apply to other employers." One of these, in place since 1995, says that accusers can only file lawsuits if they first “agree to go through months of counseling and mediation.” Even then, the Post writes, a “special congressional office is charged with trying to resolve the cases out of court.”

"When settlements do occur, members do not pay them from their own office funds, a requirement in other federal agencies. Instead, the confidential payments come out of a special U.S. Treasury fund."

Senators join #MeToo

In mid-October, four of the 21 current female senators appeared on NBC’s Meet the Press and added their voices to the #MeToo campaign: Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota.

McCaskill spoke of when she was a newly elected state legislator and was nervous about getting her first bill out of committee. She went to seek the advice of the speaker of the Missouri House of Representatives, who told the young McCaskill, "Well, did you bring your knee pads?"

Sen. Heitkamp told a story from her days as North Dakota’s attorney general. While she was attending an event about cracking down on domestic violence, a law enforcement officer shoved a finger in her face and said, "Men will always beat their wives and you can’t stop them."

Sen. Heitkamp said that moving forward, it’s imperative we shift from teaching woman how to avoid sexual assault to, instead, "be raising sons to say, 'I will never do this. I will behave differently.'"

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) recently told MSNBC, "I do believe that exposing these things can help improve the culture. The more you expose it and the more we can castigate people in society on these things to show that this is not acceptable behavior, I think that’s to the good."

But a cultural shift isn’t enough for some — including the House of Representatives.

According to the House’s report – "Examining Sexual Misconduct in the Federal Workplace and Lax Federal Responses" – the varying definitions of “sexual misconduct” can “make it difficult for the federal government to address this problem in a consistent and comprehensive manner.”

What can the government do?

One possibility that’s been discussed is expanding Title VII protections. Currently, the Civil Rights Act statute only applies to employees being harassed at work — independent contractors are not protected by Title VII. (This was confirmed in a ruling by the Ninth Circuit Court in Murray v. Principal Financial Group, Inc.)

Expanding Title VII protections is an idea supported by Elizabeth Owens Bille, general counsel of the Society for Human Resource Management. In an interview with Fortune, Bille cited the need for "strong, comprehensive anti-harassment and anti-retaliation policies and training" in the workplace.

In the same article, Janine Yancey, the CEO of Emtrain - which offers compliance training to corporations - recommended a public website "that moves beyond the type of hotlines that the employers control currently." On this website, workers could “anonymously report workplace incidents to a neutral third-party with subject matter expertise who could identify red flag issues and bring them to the employer for action.”

The EEOC took on the question of harassment in the workplace in June of last year. In the executive summary of their report, the co-chairs of the EEOC Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace write:

"Thirty years after the U.S. Supreme Court held in the landmark case of Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson that workplace harassment was an actionable form of discrimination prohibited by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, we conclude that we have come a far way since that day, but sadly and too often still have far to go."

The report listed pages of recommendations, including – as Fortune explained – the "counter-intuitive suggestion that managers be rewarded - at least initially - for an increase in sexual harassment complaints in their divisions since such an uptick would indicate that they were fostering environments in which employees trusted the system."

Earlier this month, the EEOC launched a "new harassment prevention training program focused on creating respectful workplaces."

What do you think?

Should Washington respond — and if so, how? Or does the federal government first need to examine its own culture of sexual assault and violence?

Do EEOC rules, regulations, and training programs adequately address the problem of sexual harassment in the workplace? Do Title VII rights need to be expanded to contract employees? Should the government even be involved in sexual misconduct claims, or is it a cultural matter to be taken up in the home? Should Congress have to follow the same employment law as everyone else?

Hit Take Action, tell your reps, then share your thoughts – and #MeToo stories – below.

— Josh Herman

Related Reading

(Photo Credit: Creative Commons)

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Leave a comment
(47)
  • Truly
    10/30/2017
    ···

    The federal government should always be held to the highest standards. The fact that it is now run by an admitted sexual assaulter and accused child rapist is a travesty. Politicians claiming to be the “moral majority” or “Christians” or in any way above reproach are blatantly ignoring these accusations. Purge them from the system so this country can be a safe place for all.

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  • Anne
    10/30/2017
    ···

    I believe that almost every woman has faced some form of sexual assault. We need to fight this at every level. I am confused that we are up in arms about Weinstein, and others and we believe these women who have bravely come forward, but the women who came forward to speak about Trump's sexual assaults have been disregarded, and not believed. It needs to change. Men need to come out on this issue to support women.

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  • Ticktock
    10/30/2017
    ···

    Yes. The first thing to doing is not have the President a sexual predator.

    Like (8)
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  • NoHedges
    10/31/2017
    ···

    🛑 So Countable, why isn’t Senator Gillibrand getting credit for any of this? She has been pushing for victim rights, conscious opioid addiction policies, and much more for months now. ❗️❗️But you all have failed to give her any credit or even mention her contributions. ❗️Even when she sponsored an excellent bill to help address all the opioid addictions you all failed to mention it even once in ANY of your posts about the opioid epidemic. What in the bloody hell is up! ☄️

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  • Kellianne
    10/30/2017
    ···

    How is this conversation even still happening in this era. Why legislation has not answered speaks volumes and whether it even should or not is the most absurd question of them all.

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  • Robert
    10/31/2017
    ···

    The first place to start here would be to pass the equal rights amendment. The government and the politicians need to show the country that women are equal. They can call it trickle down respect!

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  • Hillary
    10/31/2017
    ···

    Yes, the federal government has a duty to protect the safety of the public. We must expand title VII protections and preserve title IX protections for students as well. The devastation that DeVos has caused with this is insanity. College rape statistics are higher than national rates. Sexual assault and harassment cannot be ignored anymore. More than half the population has been targeted by the other half. Now it's more necessary than ever to push for that to stop.

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  • Themis
    10/31/2017
    ···

    Sexual harassment, discrimination and assault are a complex problem that has grown so rooted in our culture that a significant portion of the population doesn’t even recognize that there is a problem. It will take lifetimes of people doing the right thing to reverse the damage that has been done. The work has begun, and we are at a critical moment in this movement. We all must act. Citizens and their representatives in government must stand up and be recognized. No more can we excuse bad behavior as simple eccentricity or “locker room talk”. End the cycle now by stepping up to say “no more” I will not be part of the problem. I will not stand by as others are treated badly. I will not be complicit. I will not use my position to hurt, demean or coerce others. If you have behaved badly in the past, admit it and say what you are doing to make it right. Listen to those who tell their stories of pain and humiliation. They need and deserve our praise and unconditional support.

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  • Andrew
    10/30/2017
    ···

    Accusations without evidence are just inflammatory. Trump never admitted to sexually assaulting women he just stated that in Hollywood women will let you do anything to be famous. You can’t say sex and gender meaningless unless you want to score political points

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  • Olivia
    10/31/2017
    ···

    The only that bothers me is in most cases, is not reported to Police right away. I don’t agree with that, because if they don’t report it, they are leaving that predator to strike again, and maybe next one is a child, and possibly even murder. They should report it immediately, because a Police could find evidence right there and then arrest the person, before he hurts, or even murders someone. These persons coming in years later have no evidence, and could be kicked out of court. So please don’t be afraid, remember you just saved someone.

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  • Timothy
    10/31/2017
    ···

    Sexual harassment claims have been misused by too many women for @metoo to be taken seriously. It’s too easy for someone to make such a claim without providing evidence.

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  • Rodney
    10/30/2017
    ···

    Yes the government must have a role in fighting this appalling problem. It is a state law issue, however, so every state should aggressively fight this problem and should share what works and what doesn’t with other states.

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  • Michael
    10/30/2017
    ···

    Millions of women?? And how many are false? How many are real? Do they understand men have been sexually harassed/abused as well? This isn’t a woman thing, this is a human thing. Honestly, any person who would do this to another human is disgusting and down right evil. I believe the government needs to enforce the laws in place already, and maybe add some stronger penalties.

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  • Darcy
    10/31/2017
    ···

    Under a different administration I would say, yes. But we're living in a very different time right now, and I fear our policy makers would not bring justice to this cause.

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  • Marian
    10/31/2017
    ···

    I was ready to say “no, government has no role” and then I read that independent contractors have no one to complain to. The EEOC need not take their case. I think that needs to be fixed. Especially as capitalism forces us all to become independent contractors. We should have some arbitration process available before we sue. The R’s don’t like unnecessary lawsuits. They should approve allowing independent contractors to make complaints about a harasser to the EEOC.

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  • Rosemary
    10/31/2017
    ···

    This is not an issue fir government to solve. It is a social issue that needs to be addressed by society. Hold everyone responsible for their actions, don’t put anyone outside the rules, and learn respect and boundaries.

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  • Kyle
    10/30/2017
    ···

    Short of taking away the accused’s right to due process; what else can the government do? There’s already so many laws now addressing this issue.

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  • Leon
    10/31/2017
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    I think there are laws - they need to be applied.

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  • Jerry
    10/31/2017
    ···

    How can anyone even suggest that government get more involved? As long as they are passing special rules for themselves, they have put themselves above the rest of us. Much like the gods of Olympus. That double standard is not something that is conducive to good legislation.

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  • Kathleen
    11/04/2017
    ···

    These problems belong to the states. That is why we have police, investigations etc. people want to dump everything on the government, I don’t think they realize their States are they for protection. Also don’t wait10 yrs to say something and expect a good outcome

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