A Hidden History of Sexual Harassment

By Caitlin Panarella

Amidst the waves of stories of sexual harassment in the last few weeks, the recent flood of accusations against those in government must be scrutinized.  From supervisors to Congressmen, sexual harassers still threaten women in every level of politics.  Though this fact is not new, it reveals the extent to which women still are deterred from partaking in the “public sphere” due to a danger that largely targets them.

According to the New York Times, “in more than 50 interviews, lawyers, lobbyists and former aides...[said]... that sexual harassment has long been an occupational hazard for those operating in Washington politics.”  In one account the Times reported on, a lawyer said that a former representative called her into his office and asked her to twirl.  Soon thereafter, he gave her a $1,250 bonus.  Literally objectified, the woman was appraised for and diminished to her sexual value while trying to do her job.

At the moment, Senator Al Franken and Senate candidate Roy Moore are two of the most high profile cases of politicians sexually harassing women, but others must not be ignored.  We must ask: How can we trust our lawmakers to protect us when we are not safe working for them?

History has the tendency of forgiving and forgetting the sexual violence and deviancy of men in power.  Sexual assault and abuse of power are important, of course, but aside from that he accomplished great things.  Somehow, a man’s use of his position of power to coerce or harass women is not a disqualifier; the more powerful a man is, the less his victims are afforded credibility.

Georgetown University recently held a symposium on the legacy of former president Bill Clinton, hosted by the McCourt School of Public Policy and its Institute of Politics and Public Service. The event celebrated his achievements and vision, and Clinton spoke to an audience filling Gaston Hall.  His sexual relationship with then 22-year-old Monica Lewinsky was not considered or mentioned.  It’s a mark on his record, to be sure, but “the Lewinsky scandal” is attached to her name, not his.   

There is this American ability to easily separate the man from the politician, and only deem the politician’s actions as relevant.  This ease is indicative of a larger refusal to take sexual crimes seriously, and to dismiss survivors because of everything else the man supposedly has to offer.  How can anyone forget Judge Aaron Persky’s statement when lightening the sentence of Stanford University rapist Brock Turner: “A prison sentence would have a severe impact on him.”

Sexual harassment is not an inconvenient truth anyone can whisk away anymore.  It cannot be treated as footnote in the otherwise venerable politician’s biography.  To do so sends a clear message to survivors- that there are more important things to remember.

With the slew of stories emerging about the sexual harassment part and parcel with the American political system, or any system of power for that matter, it is imperative to support women legislators.  If men continue to make up the majority of figures in positions of power, and women constitute the majority of those lower on the totem pole, our needs will continue to be ignored.   Women must not be dissuaded from partaking in politics for fear of objectification or harassment, as their voices are necessary for the protection of all women’s rights.