A dam of silence has been breached at the state Capitol in Olympia. With a wave of voices rising to speak up and speak out against sexual harassment, an important move toward civility and social justice is cresting that will benefit those who work in state government and, indeed, citizens throughout the state.
Several stories in recent weeks have illustrated a culture of offensive behavior and egregious cover-ups at high levels of state government. Among those is a revelation that former state Rep. Jim Jacks, a Democrat from Vancouver, resigned in the middle of the 2011 legislative session not solely because he was battling alcoholism — as he had claimed — but also because he had been accused of sexual harassment. Last week, House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, revealed that Jacks’ actions at the time were “serious enough to warrant his resignation.”
This is not meant as an attempt to bury Jacks by dredging up the past. Instead, it is to place Washington’s statehouse firmly in the midst of important national discussions regarding sexual harassment and, in some cases, sexual assault by people in positions of power. It also is to highlight the lengths to which cover-ups routinely protect offenders at the expense of victims, creating a situation in which a dam of silence is accepted and normalized.
Buoyed in part by allegations about movie mogul Harvey Weinstein and a culture of abuse and secrecy in Hollywood, the issue of harassment has garnered much attention in recent weeks. More than 75 people have accused Weinstein of harassment or sexual assault, and dozens of others have come forward to lob complaints about other high-profile Hollywood personalities. This follows accusations and revelations of financial settlements that ultimately led to the ousters of Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly at Fox News.
The entire issue has provided, in short, a bit of national cleansing, with victims becoming emboldened to speak out and offenders seeing their protective dams beginning to crumble.
On Monday, more than 170 women — including lobbyists and lawmakers — signed a letter calling for a culture change regarding sexual harassment at the Capitol. “At some point in our lives, every one of us has experienced, witnessed, and counseled others through unwanted advances or a range of dehumanizing behavior,” the letter reads, in part.
The key word there is “dehumanizing.” In cultures such as those found in a state capitol or Hollywood or a TV network, there is an inherent power structure that invites abuse and emboldens abusers. And for those who would dismiss the claims of victims as little more than thin-skinned grumbling, we ask a question: How would you feel if your wife, your daughter, your mother were treated in such a fashion? How would you feel if somebody in a position of power groped them or — as former state Rep. Brendan Williams is accused of doing — shoved his tongue down their throat?
Olympia is not the national hub of sexual misconduct, but it is a good place to begin cleaning up offensive behavior. Making lewd suggestions is not merely “locker-room talk”; groping a colleague is not acceptable in any situation. The Legislature must move decisively to provide training for lawmakers and staff members, to ensure that complaints can be filed easily and will be taken seriously, and to guard against secretive settlements that protect abusers.
The tide, we hope, is turning in how the nation addresses sexual harassment.