Sexual harassment occurs in too many workplaces, and capitols seem a prime breeding ground because of the inherent power imbalance. Victims of sexual harassment — whether lawmakers, lobbyists or legislative employees — often are reluctant to speak out for fear of losing their political influence or their jobs.
It took courage for two state senators — Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, and another unnamed woman — to report what they considered sexual harassment by a colleague, Sen. Jeff Kruse, R-Roseburg.
Kruse has denied the allegations, which are under investigation by legislative officials. What we do know, from a letter by Senate President Peter Courtney stripping Kruse of his committee assignments, is that legislative officials in 2016 instructed Kruse “not to touch women at work. Period.”
One hundred and thirty women have signed a letter casting light on the issue of harassment and sexism, urging lawmakers and others at the Capitol to “create a culture where it is expected that people (both men and women) will speak up when it is happening in front of them, and ensure that it is safe to report it when it happens in private.”
Women who signed the letter include existing and former Democratic and Republican lawmakers, legislative staffers and lobbyists.
Some Oregonians may argue that changing generational standards make it difficult for people, men especially, to know how to act. Not so. Harassment or intimidation in the workplace is never OK.
For anyone who is uncertain about what to do, here are tips: If you’re unsure whether a remark will be heard as sexist, demeaning or harassing, don’t speak it. If you wonder whether a hug is appropriate, ask the person. If you want to compliment someone’s shirt, do so nicely — without praising the person’s body or letting your eyes linger. Better yet, find praiseworthy aspects of a person that do not involve appearance.
Sexual harassment is never acceptable, never understandable, never tolerable, and certainly not at the Capitol. Of all people, lawmakers have a responsibility to know and heed the rules and laws they create.
The Legislature’s personnel rules clearly state that sexual harassment can constitute “unwelcome conduct in the form of a sexual advance, sexual comment, request for sexual favors, unwanted or offensive touching or physical contact of a sexual nature, unwanted closeness, impeding or blocking movement, sexual gesture, sexual innuendo, sexual joke, sexually charged language, intimate inquiry, persistent unwanted courting, sexist insult, gender stereotype, or other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature … .”
Before each legislative session, every legislator and every legislative employee — hundreds of people — must attend mandatory training on maintaining a harassment-free workplace and other policies. No one is exempt from that training.
Yet sexual harassment still occurs. And it’s still inexcusable.