America is in the midst of a full-blown crisis brought on by a groundswell of sexual harassment claims and a social media fervor surrounding #MeToo.
As a result, many workplaces are revisiting or finally incorporating sexual harassment training, including Congress and many state Legislatures. I have added my name to a bipartisan letter calling for mandatory sexual harassment training that is making the rounds in the Idaho Statehouse.
In the face of this crisis, I am hopeful we will all reflect on this moment and see it as an opportunity to improve the systems that have limited opportunity to so many talented people, so many talented women, and create a new vision of equality in our nation.
While sexual harassment training is a welcome start to addressing the pervasive problem that women have faced for decades, we must incorporate this training into a larger system of policies to assess the conditions that foster this kind of behavior in workplaces and schools in the first place and make changes if a hostile environment exists. Consider the long-term effects of being told you don’t matter as much, your work isn’t valued as much, your experience doesn’t matter as much, and there is only one way to get ahead. This state of affairs limits opportunities, tamps down talent, and eventually tamps down your spirit.
Addressing the conditions surrounding sexual harassment must be job one. We must address the root causes of violence and work on ways to create a community where everyone matters and people cannot be taken advantage of based on power relations and exploitation.
Sexual harassment, like sexual assault, is about power and control. Everyone has the right to feel safe at work, in their home, at school and on the streets. Everyone has the right to learn or earn a living and provide for their families in an environment free from harassment and abuse. These fundamental principles must inform our understanding of how to tackle this problem. Justice should not be something that victims of sexual harassment and abuse have to fight for. Justice should be fighting for them.
I have worked with survivors of sexual violence for many years, and the most troubling attitudes I have confronted are victim-blaming statements that contribute to conditions where women aren’t believed and then properly served. Lack of belief and shaming prevents crime victims from reporting and keeps perpetrators safe to continue their abuse. As we have seen recently, there is safety in numbers; more women are reporting and sharing their stories.
Systematic disbelief also negatively impacts distribution of resources to victims and survivors. For example, working on legislation for the 2018 legislative session to support sexual assault survivors, I learned that Idaho is billing private insurance for sexual assault forensic exams. These exams are crime-fighting tools used to hold perpetrators accountable. Can you imagine if your homeowner’s insurance got billed for a fingerprinting kit used to investigate a home burglary? You would throw a fit.
So why are we charging victims of sexual assault to pay for something to catch the alleged perpetrator? A system of disbelief that has slowly been changing and now may drastically change in the face of numbers.
As we tackle these issues, we must ask some important questions: who is missing from the conversation and what do we do as we move forward. What are the experiences of workers in minimum wage jobs who are struggling to make ends meet? What about the waitresses, clerks and maids who feel they cannot -- or should not -- report incidents of abuse for fear of losing a badly-needed job?
We need to create space for people to come together to create equal opportunities and safe communities where everyone can thrive and be themselves. We must work together to change power dynamics and ensure that all people have equal access to the American Dream. We must include everyone in the conversation, including parents as they raise their children to respect individual autonomy and physical boundaries.
Even in the face of pain so many people have experienced as they risk sharing their stories, I remain hopeful. Women are raising their voices and getting more involved in politics and public policy. They are seeking support after many years of trauma and pain. People are coming together and finally breaking the silence and insisting on justice and fairness.
We must promote talent and ability wherever we find it - not hold it back. Incorporating sexual harassment training into our workplaces is one more step in publicly denouncing sexism and violence toward women. It sets the stage to talk about the value of all human beings and to examine the attitudes and behaviors that tilt the playing field against those who feel they can’t put their best foot forward. Let’s reflect and move forward mindfully and creatively to forge a better future for everyone.
Rep. Melissa Wintrow is in her second term in the Idaho House of Representatives. She represents District 19 in Boise.